The Ultimate Guide to REITs
Industry Overview, Tax Advantages, Valuation and Key Profit Metrics
What is a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT)?
Real estate investment trusts (“REITS”) are companies that own real estate portfolios across a range of property sectors such as offices, retail, apartments, hospitals and hotels. REITs invest in the properties themselves, generating income through the collection of rent.
In This Article
- Size of the REIT industry
- REITs vs Real Estate
- What are the largest REITs?
- Tax advantage of REITs
- What are REIT dividends?
- Requirements to qualify as a REIT
- REIT Characteristics
- Equity vs. mortgage REITs
- Internal vs external management
- How to analyze REITs: Key REIT Terms and Metrics
- Net operating income (NOI)
- Funds from operations (FFO)
- Adjusted FFO
- Capitalization (“cap”) rates
- Cap rate definition and formula
- REIT Modeling in Excel
- REIT Valuation
- Other Real Estate Companies
Size of the REIT industry
REITs can invest in all property types, although most specialize in specific property types. There are around 160 US public REITs with a combined market cap of $1 trillion (Globally, there are 300 REITs with a market cap of $3 trillion).
Most REITs are publicly traded, which enable investors to gain access to a diversified collection of income-producing real estate similar to investing in mutual funds. Unlike regular companies that can hold on to their profits, REITs must distribute at least 90% of their profits every year back to shareholders in the form of dividends.
As a result of the dividend requirement, the dividend yield on REIT stocks is above 4% – significantly higher than the 1.6% dividend yield for the S&P 500 overall.
In addition to facilitating diversification and high dividend yield, the other major benefit of REITs over other forms of real estate investment are the tax advantages.
REITs vs Real Estate
REITs are a tax-efficient, diversified alternative to direct real estate ownership and investment. Rather than having to buy and maintain actual physical real estate properties, investors can simply own REIT shares, which are backed by physical assets managed by the REIT.
|Liquidity (Easy to buy and sell)||Advantage|
|Low capital intensity (Doesn’t require a lot of capital to invest upfront)||Advantage|
|Diversification (Easy to invest in multiple property types across geographies)||Advantage|
|Control (Influence on management and strategy)||Advantage|
Risk, Returns and Leverage
Contrasting REIT vs Real Estate returns is a little more complicated. REITs have generated 10% in annualized return over the long run (including the last 10 years). Meanwhile real estate assets have grown at 2-3% annually, seemingly giving an advantage to REITs. However, this is not an apples-to-apples comparison. A huge accelerator of returns is leverage: The average debt / total value for Equity REITs is 37.0% as of 2020 (Source: NAREIT).
Meanwhile, direct real estate investment can range widely, but at the high end investors can secure debt upwards of 80% of the total property value, which all else equal amplifies returns (and risk) significantly.
What are the largest REITs?
Below is a list of the top 20 largest public REITs in the world, by market cap:
|AMT||American Tower Corp.||10,7318|
|CCI||Crown Castle International Corp.||69,955|
|SPG||Simon Property Group, Inc.||42,863|
|DLR||Digital Realty Trust, Inc.||38,576|
|AVB||AvalonBay Communities, Inc.||20,999|
|O||Realty Income Corp.||20,919|
|ARE||Alexandria Real Estate Equities, Inc.||20,071|
|HCP||Healthpeak Properties, Inc.||17,708|
|EXR||Extra Space Storage, Inc.||14,546|
|SUI||Sun Communities, Inc.||14,341|
|DRE||Duke Realty Corp.||13,703|
|ESS||Essex Property Trust, Inc.||13,529|
|MAA||Mid-America Apartment Communities, Inc.||13,172|
|BXP||Boston Properties, Inc.||12,528|
Tax advantage of REITs
Entities qualifying for REIT status under the tax code receive preferential tax treatment: The income generated by REITs is not taxed on the corporate level, and is instead taxed only on the individual shareholder level. Specifically, REIT profits pass through – untaxed – to shareholders via dividends.
This is a tax advantage over C-corporations, which are taxed twice – first, on the corporate level, and then a second time on the individual level via a tax on dividends.
In order to qualify for this tax status, REITs must comply with certain requirements, the biggest one being that REITs are required to distribute nearly all profits (at least 90%) as dividends
What are REIT dividends?
REIT dividends are cash distributions to REIT shareholders. REITs distribute almost all of their profits as dividends.
REIT dividends are typically “non-qualified” dividends, meaning they are taxed at ordinary income tax rates (up to 29.6%1), as opposed to the lower capital gains (up to 20%) on the shareholder level. That doesn’t sound so great but remember that the is the only tax the investor pays because REITs entirely avoid a corporate-level tax.
In contrast, in a C-corp, there is a corporate-level tax (up to 21%), followed by a second tax on any dividends distributed to shareholders (albeit at the lower capital gains rate of 20% because C-corp dividends are typically “qualified dividends”).
Illustration of tax advantage of REIT over C-corp
This simple illustration shows the basic difference between the single pass-through taxation of a REIT and the double taxation of a C-corp. Note however that this is a simplification – REIT tax rules can get complex and notably tax breaks for depreciation can further increase the tax advantages of REITs
Requirements to qualify as a REIT
|Dividends||At least 90% of taxable income must be distributed as a dividend
|At least 75%of gross income must come from
At least 95% of gross income must come from
|Assets||At least 75% of assets must be
Real estate, mortgages, equity in other REITs, cash and government securities
Equity vs. mortgage REITs
Most REITs directly own the real estate and are called equity REITs. However, a few REITs simply own mortgages (Mortgage REITs) and collect income (interest income) from the mortgages.
90% of total
|Equity REITs acquire, develop, and then operate its own properties, unlike other real estate companies which tend to resell once developed|
10% of total
|Purchase debt (real estate loans and mortgage backed securities)|
Internal vs external management
REITs can be internally or externally managed
How to analyze REITs: Key REIT Terms and Metrics
When valuing REITs, investors look at both traditional profit metrics such as EBITDA, as well as real estate and REIT specific metrics, including:
- Net operating income (NOI)
- Funds from operations (FFO)
- Adjusted funds from operations (AFFO)
- Cap rates
Net operating income (NOI)
NOI is the most important profit measure in real estate. It strives to isolate to core operating profits of real estate assets, so as to avoid muddying the waters with non operating items such as corporate overhead and major non cash items like depreciation. Its like EBITDA but with even more add backs to really focus on pure operating income generated by the properties.
Net operating income: Definition and formula
NOI captures profitability before any depreciation, interest, taxes, corporate level SG&A expenses, capital expenditures, or financing payments
Funds from operations (FFO)
While NOI is a useful profit measure for analyzing real estate down to the property level, FFO is a real estate specific metric for cash generated from operations. FFO is an attempt to reconcile accounting (GAAP) net income to a consistent measure of profit specifically tailored for analysis of REITs. In fact, most REITs provide FFO reconciliations in their filings.
Funds from operations (FFO): Formula and Definition
Though often misunderstood, FFO is not designed to be a measure of cash flow because it excludes working capital, capital expenditures and other cash flow adjustments
Over time, analysts and REITs themselves have begun using slightly altered versions of FFO, generally called “adjusted FFO” or AFFO. The reason for this is that FFO included things like nonrecurring items and notably omitted key outflows like capital expenditures.
Adjusted FFO and cash available for distribution: Formula and definition
While there remains some inconsistency across how these are calculated, the most common calculation is:
Adjusted funds from operations = FFO + nonrecurring expenses – capital expenditures.
Adjusted funds from operations is also known as Cash available for distribution or “CAD”.
Capitalization (“cap”) rates
The cap rate, along with NOI are arguably the most important metrics in real estate. Unlike NOI or FFO, however so far, the cap rate is not actually a measure of profit, but rather a yield measure. It measures the a real estate property’s operating profit as a % of the property’s value. If you’re familiar with EV/ EBITDA multiples, the closest thing to a cap rate is is an inverse EBITDA multiple.
Cap rates are the primary shorthand by which different real estate properties are compared by investors. For example a property with a 10% cap rate provides a better yield than a comparable property with a 7% cap rate.
Cap rate definition and formula
Cap Rate Example
A property with asking price of $1m and NOI of $125k will have a $125k / $1 m = 12.5% cap rate
As we’ve noted, cap rates are simply the inverse of a traditional valuation multiple like EV/EBITDA.
What factors influence the cap rate?
Just as with traditional multiples, there are many variables that can distort the comparison of properties using this metric, including:
- Timing of NOI (LTM or forward)
- Growth rates
- Returns on capital
- Cost of capital of properties (or REITs) being compared
However, in real estate, it is much easier to find comparable properties (with therefore similar growth, returns and cost of capital profiles), which mutes the problems described above
REIT Modeling in Excel
A REIT model will first forecast the financial statements and then apply the valuation methodologies discussed above to arrive at an investment thesis.
The key challenges in modeling REITs include modeling individual (same store properties, acquisitions, developments, and dispositions) using the appropriate drivers and occupancy rate assumptions: Obviously mature properties with stable occupancy rates will have a different forecast profile than properties under development.
A second challenge is working with a real company’s financial statements. This requires digging into a REIT’s financial statements and insuring consistent and logical modeling of REIT-specific metrics and ratios like funds from operations (FFO) and adjusted funds from operations (AFFO / CAD).
In our REIT modeling course, we lay out the steps for building a complete set of REIT financial models, using a video based step by step approach.
Analysts primarily value REITs using 4 approaches
- Net asset value (“NAV”)
- Discounted cash flow (“DCF”)
- Dividend discount model (“DDM”)
- Multiples and cap rates
The most common of these approaches is the NAV and DDM due to the unique features of REITs. We have written a guide to REIT valuation in a separate post – please click on the link below to access.
Other Real Estate Companies
There are other types of companies in real estate, most notably real estate private equity firms, as well as Real Estate Investment Management firms and REOCs, all with different characteristics and considerations.
The biggest differences between REITs and these other real estate companies is that REITs are publicly traded and report earnings quarterly.
From a strategy perspective, REITs tend to have a much lower risk tolerance than private real estate investment firms which result in REITs’ portfolios consisting of primarily core assets (meaning more stable, lower cap rates), an aversion to redevelopment and development, and much less acquisition and disposition activity. Asset management roles are featured prevalently at most REITs.
1 The top marginal tax rate on ordinary income is 37% but REITs get a 20% deduction, dropping the rate down to 29.6%
Understand a REIT’s unique drivers and challenges and learn to build a REIT financial model from scratch.
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