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Reckless bets on real estate can cause trouble - the 2008 market crash comes to mind. But many financial advisers say some real estate in an investment or retirement portfolio is a good idea.

NPR's Uri Berliner has been trying to figure out what to do with $5,000 he has in a savings account that is losing value to inflation. And today, in our series Dollar for Dollar, he discovers that what qualifies as real estate goes far beyond what he imagined.

URI BERLINER, BYLINE: Here's one way to tell real estate prices are rising.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE VANILLA ICE PROJECT")

ROB VAN WINKLE: You know me as Vanilla Ice. ...When I'm not touring around the world, I'm here in Palm Beach, making money in real estate. ... I flip houses.

BERLINER: The house-flipping show has made a comeback. Buy, remodel, sell, repeat. We've been there before, and it didn't end happily. And yet, prices fell so hard during the crash - 50 percent or more, in some parts of the country - that a rebound just makes sense.

Josh Dorkin runs a real estate investment website called Bigger Pockets. I ask him what kind of real estate bet I can make for, say, a thousand dollars. His advice: Be careful.

JOSH DORKIN: You know, we're kind of in a bubble...

(LAUGHTER)

DORKIN: ...once again. We've got these historically low interest rates. We've got the big money funds coming into the market. If you're savvy and know what you're doing, there's always going to be an opportunity.

BERLINER: Dorkin runs me through my options.

DORKIN: You could go and flip a house. Of course, you'd need to go out and take out a high-risk loan - more likely than not, to do that - and of course, doing that is really kind of like running a job in itself.

BERLINER: Scratch that.

DORKIN: Other options include crowdsourcing or syndication.

BERLINER: Too complicated.

DORKIN: And I think the final option is really to go out and buy shares of a REIT - real estate investment trust.

BERLINER: REITs are sold like stocks. They're held by many individuals and institutional investors. You might have a REIT in your retirement fund. REITs are trusts that own and develop property, and earn rental income. Most of it gets passed on to investors. Brad Thomas is the editor of the Intelligent REIT Investor.

BRAD THOMAS: They are forced by law, which is a law created in 1960 - that law provides that real estate investment trusts - it has to meet certain tests. And if they do, they have to pay out 90 percent of their taxable income in the form of dividends.

BERLINER: Those dividends are a regular stream of income, and they're what make REITs attractive to investors. In a rising real estate market, they're what clinch it for me. I put down $514 on a REIT index fund. It's basically a smorgasbord of many different REITs. It contains what you might expect - REITs that own apartment buildings and shopping centers.But Brad Thomas says the range of REITs today goes far beyond that.

THOMAS: From billboards to prisons to cell towers, campus housing; even solar is on the horizon, potentially.

BERLINER: With that in mind, I decide to check out some of my holdings.

(SOUNDBITE OF RATTLING NOISE)

BERLINER: I'm inside a 5-by-5 foot, self-storage unit in Bethesda, Md. When the housing market picks up, people move more often. They need someplace to stash their stuff for a while - couches, microwaves, cribs; you name it. They want more space, and they rent it from companies like Public Storage, a real estate investment trust. And that's not the only investment in storage I've made.

DONOUGH ROCHE: You'll notice there's a biometric meter on this as well. So for us to get access to this room, I need to use my card and my fingerprint.

BERLINER: That's Donough Roche of Digital Realty, a REIT that owns and operates 122 data centers around the world. Digital Realty is part of the fund I bought. So I've got a tiny, little stake in all those data centers.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHITE NOISE)

BERLINER: We're in one of them in Ashburn, Va., near Dulles Airport. Data centers are like unfurnished apartments for digital information - secure and climate-controlled, plenty of reliable power. And with more companies using the cloud, demand for these digital apartments is growing.

ROCHE: So what we're looking at, in the cloud, is rows and rows of large, 7-foot-tall cabinets stacked, with server computers in them - lots of flashing lights, a lot of information coming in and out of those machines.

BERLINER: When I started out looking to invest in real estate, I never thought I would wind up owning a little piece of the cloud, or a stake in storage units - or a bit of my former workplace. But it turns out that one of the many holdings in the fund I bought is a REIT called Boston Properties. Boston Properties, I discover on their website, now owns the site where until recently, NPR had its headquarters. We moved out almost two months ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

BERLINER: Now, they're tearing the old NPR down; and a new building, with law offices, will go up in its place. Bulldozers are doing fast work. There's lots of debris around. Larry Smoot is the superintendent on the job. And he comes up to me with a serious piece of real estate right in his hands.

LARRY SMOOT: This came off of the Massachusetts side of the face of the building that we're taking down, so it's marble off the face of the building.

BERLINER: Nice guy - he just hands it to me. I didn't even have to tell him I was an investor.

Uri Berliner, NPR News.

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