Real estate has long been considered an extremely valuable part of any long-term investment portfolio. Of course, as with any investment, fluctuating markets, supply and demand and changing demographics all affect the marketplace to varying degrees. That’s why, when you’re expanding beyond your primary residence, you need to think ahead, have a goal in mind and work with an experienced real estate professional. Simply put, start with the end in mind. Why are you doing this?

A world of possibility

Real estate investment today offers far more possibilities and options than ever before. You don’t always need a huge amount of money for a down payment, and you can use rental income to pay off the mortgage. You might purchase your retirement home and then rent it out for a decade or two until it’s paid for itself. You could buy a duplex and live in one half while renting out the other. A single condo in a college town is a good idea, or you could always scoop up a small place nearby and put it on AirBnB.

At the end of the day, real estate investment is still one of the best ways for you to achieve financial independence.

It all depends on whether your focus is short- or long-term cash flow, appreciation or some combination thereof. In any of these scenarios, you’ll have appreciation and depreciation at the same time. That said, you also have to anticipate the responsibilities and inconveniences you will surely encounter, in which case a carefully chosen property manager can be an excellent investment of its own.

You must also consider the rapidly changing demographics of our society. Family sizes are shrinking, people are waiting longer to get married and divorce always mixes things up. That means more single-person households. Millenials and the X Generation are leaning more toward smaller homes and condos than their baby boom predecessors. So, that five- or six-bedroom house might not be the best choice after all.

The more you know

Whatever your goals and plans are, remember that education minimizes risk. You need to have a clear, realistic strategy in mind and you need to know what your threshold for risk is.  Due diligence is essential in order to fully understand the upsides and downsides of any investment and the external factors that can impact its success.

To help you become a more informed investor and increase your industry knowledge, there are many resources out there. The National Association of Realtors offers investment courses, and their research division is a valuable tool for gathering data and understanding different markets in different areas of the country. On a local level, the Real Estate Investors Network offers low-cost or free advice and opportunities for networking with other investors and professionals. These networks exist across the nation, so there is surely one near you.

Of course, not all real estate agents are experts in real estate investment. Buying or selling a primary home is not the same thing as investing in property for growth, cash flow and profit. In fact, it is not uncommon for real estate agents to neglect their own investment portfolios because they are so consumed by caring for and tending to the needs of their clients. Find someone who knows about investing.

It's go time

At the end of the day, real estate investment is still one of the best ways for you to achieve financial independence. So, why not set aside a little time to think outside the box?  With a clear idea of where you want to go and an experienced real estate professional by your side, you can crunch some numbers and come up with a solid strategy to get the results you want. After all, there’s no time like the present.