Yes, owning some very tangible assets that are no doubt needed in the future is great (who doesn’t need shelter?). However, in today’s market renting and investing the difference will usually net you greater returns. Dividends on your holdings are also taxed much more favorably than rental income. If you want to own “pieces” of real estate assets without worrying about a property manager or sketchy tenants than REIT’s are a great option. REIT’s also usually offer higher yields than current rental yields (8-10% vs 4-6% after expenses).
Being a landlord is hard work, and until it offers better yields than owning REIT’s, it’s very hard to find a reason to own and rent a property out instead. Buying and selling real estate also costs a lot as I’m sure you all know. A ~10$ commission getting in and out of your REIT investment is miles better than the ~6 percent of the house value you lose on realtor commissions.
The whole REIT vs actual real estate problem comes in when you look at your ability to leverage your money. It’s much easier and incurs lower interest to take out a mortgage on a first house than going and trading REIT’s on margin. My takeaway is to re-evaluate the market every time you plan to take on an investment. Once you own a house and build some equity, you now have better options to put other people’s money at work through HELOC.
Although a little unrelated to REIT’s and Real Estate, I wanted to share my favorite book on investing, which has taught me just about all I know about value investing. The Intelligent Investor from Benjamin Graham. You can pick it up here: The Intelligent Investor: The Definitive Book on Value Investing