REIT (which is pronounced “reet” and stands for Real Estate Investment Trust) is a company which makes investments in and owns income-generating real estate properties. Investors buy shares of the REIT and the REIT uses that money to make investments. The REIT then typically earns income from rent payments or interest on real estate debt.
REITs were invented in the United States in 1960 to give average individuals a way to invest in diversified pools of income-producing commercial real estate. REITs gave investors access to real estate in similar way that stocks provide an opportunity to participate in the profits of an operating company. Purchasing shares in a REIT allows investors to earn money from the income produced by properties without having to own the property themselves.
REITs are unique because they have to follow a specific set of operating requirements in order to meet REIT qualifications. For example, REITs are required to derive at least 75% of their gross income from real estate-related sources and invest at least 75% of their total assets in real estate. In addition, REITs must distribute no less than 90% of their taxable income every year to their shareholders by paying dividends.
If a REIT meets the qualifications, they are not required to pay taxes at the company level. Only the individual investors pay income taxes for the dividends they receive.
Why does this matter? Because it means there is no double taxation on the income stream produced by the property (as if it were owned by a traditionally publicly traded company) which means that the investor is able to keep a larger portion of that income stream and earn higher returns.
There are many types of REITs. They are categorized by the way investors can access them (traded, non-traded, public, private), the way they invest in an asset (equity, debt), the type of assets they own (apartments, data centers, self storage, etc.), and their overall investment strategy (core, value add, opportunistic).