REITs are just like mutual funds, but instead of using the money collected from investors to buy stocks and bonds, they invest in property. After more than a decade of discussions, this unique form of mutual fund is finally taking shape in India. Last month, the Union Budget removed an important hurdle by giving pass-through taxation status to REITs.
The problem with real estate as an investment is that it either occupies no place or a lot of it in a portfolio. Whether you invest in a residential property or commercial space in a metro or tier I city, the minimum investment is normally upwards of Rs 30-40 lakh. Sebi's guidelines for REITs have pegged the minimum investment at Rs 2 lakh, which will allow retail investors to participate in the real estate market. In the secondary market, the minimum holding could be even lower at Rs 1 lakh. "REITs allow even middle income individuals to invest in real estate. Without this, they can't participate in real estate because of the huge entry barrier," says Keki Mistry, vice-chairman and CEO, HDFC. The low ticket size means that investors can diversify their portfolios by including real estate without investing huge amounts in the asset class.
REITs also generate a regular flow of income which could move up in tandem with inflation. This explains why REITs are a hit in most developed markets. "Around 40% of the global alternative investment assets is through REITs," says Anshu Kapoor, head of Global Wealth Management, Edelweiss.
How attractive is the investment?
While Sebi has given the go-ahead to REITs, right now they can invest only in commercial real estate. This narrows the scope considerably because most of the action in the sector is in residential real estate. Even in commercial projects, 80% of the investment must be in rent-earning projects. The balance 20% can be in other assets, including projects under construction (restricted to 10% of the total REIT assets), listed or unlisted debt of real estate companies, equity shares of real estate companies having 75% income from realty activities, government securities and money market instruments.
Bottom of the cycle
Still, there are several factors that investors need to keep in mind. As of now, the commercial real estate market is in doldrums. "In several pockets, the price of commercial real estate is around 30% cheaper compared to residential real estate," says Kapoor. Though there is an escalation clause in most commercial real estate projects, it is a users' market and, therefore, they are able to renegotiate the rents downwards.
This was the biggest bone of contention for REITs. The recent budget offered some relief when the finance minister announced that REITs will be a pass-through vehicle. In the earlier structure, both the trust as well as the investors had to pay tax. Now, the trust will not pay tax on income. Only the investor will be taxed when he gets the income or sells the units. However, experts warn that this passthrough benefit is not applicable to all types of incomes from the REIT (see table) "The pass-through benefit is only for interest income earned by the REIT from its special purpose vehicle (SPV). As of now, there is no pass-through for rent or other income received by the REIT from property directly held by it," says Sriram Govind, core member of the international tax team, Nishith Desai Associates. He says the REIT has to pay corporate tax on such income earned by the SPV. Similarly, the REIT will also have to pay capital gains tax on sale of shares of the SPV. There is also no relaxation on the dividend distribution tax on payouts by the SPV to the REIT," says Govind. Though the dividend received from the SPV is tax-free for the REIT as well as the investor, the SPV would have already paid corporate tax and dividend distribution tax on such income. Factor this tax into the calculation of returns from REITs.
However, you need to hold the REIT units for at least three years to qualify for longterm capital gains. In addition, the investor has to pay tax on part of the income received during the period. "The listed pass-through vehicles are at a tax disadvantage," says Feroze Azeez, director, Investment Products, Anand Rathi Private Wealth Management.
Interestingly, REITs offer a better deal to NRIs on the tax front. The withholding tax for them is only 5% compared to 10% for resident Indians. And the amount received may be tax-free for them, at least in most countries, while the Indian investors have to pay tax based on their slab rates. If the NRI has to pay tax on the income in the country of residence, he can claim this 5% as a rebate.
What are the risks?
The biggest risk can come in the form of developers keeping their prime rent-earning properties and dumping their not-so-good assets on REITs. Though there will be professional valuers, the real estate market is notorious for its opacity. It is still a builder's market and the investors don't have any access to the valuation process. Though the introduction of REITs is expected to improve the situation, the lack of transparency and the black money component in the real estate deals is another possible risk. Finally, there may be stable regular income, but the capital appreciation or depreciation depends on the market price of commercial real estate and, therefore, will be volatile.
Sebi's guidelines for REITs is only the first step. There are bound to be teething problems when the market starts functioning. However, this has paved the way for a more vibrant market for real estate. If you want to invest in real estate but don't have deep pockets, you can consider REITs as the vehicle that can take you there.