As you weigh your options, consider the following points in your analysis.
Risk versus expected returns. Whether putting cash into the market or purchasing real estate, you need to assess the risk versus the expected returns. Traditional equity investments are much easier to analyze in this way. You have historical data, and although past performance is not indicative of future results, you have a bit more control over how much risk you're exposed to when deciding what amount to invest, the asset allocation and so on. Investing in single stocks versus an index fund is a calculated risk some are willing to take in search of higher expected returns.
The risks when buying real estate can be much harder to quantify. While there is data available, such as comparable home prices in the area and average rents, unpredictable changes in the market can be costly. When investing in the equity market, your risk of loss is limited to your initial investment. This isn't the case with real estate – you could wind up owing the bank more than the value of your property if the market experiences a downturn, or even due to changes that negatively impact a neighborhood.
For landlords, vacancy and repairs can eat into profits. Once you calculate your expected mortgage, operating costs, taxes and maintenance, how much can you expect to earn in net rental income? The answer for every investor will be different, but for some, the anticipated return will not be worth the risk and effort involved in owning real estate.
Required capital. Virtually anyone can invest in traditional equity assets. Some shares can be very inexpensive and you can often determine the volume as well. The same cannot be said for real estate. To purchase a property, you need to either come up with a down payment yourself, or enlist partners to invest with you. Typically, you need to put down 20 percent for a traditional mortgage, and although various programs can help you to put down a smaller percentage, there are fewer options for investment properties.
The initial cash outlay is what deters many would-be real estate investors, as you could easily spend upwards of $100,000 on a down payment and initial repairs. Furthermore, real estate requires additional capital to maintain the property, often not at the owner's behest. With stocks, you can make a one-time investment or purchase additional shares later, at your discretion.
Taxes. Another aspect to consider when deciding to invest in real estate or the stock market is taxes. If you own property, you will be required to pay property taxes every quarter, based on the assessed value as determined by the city or country. This is included in your mortgage payment. Whether you want to flip the property or hold onto it as a landlord, you will also have to pay tax on the sale or rental proceeds.
There are certain tax benefits unique to owning real estate as a landlord, however. The interest expense on your mortgage is tax deductible, along with operating expenses, property taxes, insurance and depreciation. Exactly how much you can deduct will likely depend on the rental income. In most situations, under the passive activity loss rules, you cannot write off deductions that are more than the rental income, which would generate a loss. Working with a CPA can be very helpful, particularly when investment properties or multiple residences are involved.
Stocks have tax consequences as well; first, you are required to pay a capital gains tax on any profits you made from selling stock. Furthermore, even without a sale, you are also required to pay a tax on any dividends you receive.