Five ways to make real estate pay off now

If you've got cash money, now could be the time to, very selectively, put some of it into real estate.

I do a lot of editorial grunt work for the National Association of Realtors. One of the benefits is being privy to practically everything that anybody and everybody writes about the business.

Sure, real estate professionals aren't unbiased resources, and sometimes they're wrong. But they are right often enough that at least listening when they talk about real estate investment opportunities can pay off.

No guarantees, but here are five places and situations that savvy professional observers of the real estate market see as potential moneymakers.

1. Think Gen Y. They will be 30% of homeowners by 2015. Having property to sell that appeals to them as they move into this phase of life looks like it could be a big opportunity. Researchers at real estate consultancy Robert Charles Lesser say high-tech convenience, walkability, green building standards and diversity mean a lot to Gen Y. Their favorite neighborhood amenities are a good library, a recycling center, a fitness center and a village center that includes at least a couple of restaurant or cafes.

2. First-floor bedrooms rule. All age groups like them for themselves or as a way to keep young or old family members close by. Builders and real estate sales people say homes that have first-floor bedrooms are mostly still selling, even in tough markets.

3. Strip shopping centers work for cash-strapped shoppers. Real estate investment trusts (REITs) investing in centers anchored by supermarkets earned investors 4.56% this year through Sept. 30, according to the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts, a trade group. By comparison, REITs invested in enclosed regional malls lost their investors 11.38%.

4. Gimme shelter -- in an apartment. People have to live somewhere. Markets that Axiometrics Inc., an apartment research firm, considers the best are Boston; Birmingham, Ala.; Durham, N.C.; San Diego, Calif.; and Washington DC.

5. Consider Florida now. To paraphrase Mark Twain, they aren't making waterfront land anymore, especially in places where the sun shines all year 'round. Florida's median sales price for existing homes in September was $175,100 compared to $224,700 a year ago, a 22% decrease, the Florida Association of Realtors reports. Mortgage insurer PMI Inc. calculates a 95% likelihood that Florida home prices will fall still further in the next six months before starting to climb. But timing the market is difficult and waiting can mean that the best deals disappear.
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