Investors have traditionally flocked to real estate investment trusts (REITs) for dividends, but over the past few years they’ve been getting a lot more: capital growth.

According to the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts (NAREIT), an industry trade group based in Washington DC, its composite equity REIT index has enjoyed compounding returns of 5.04 percent over the past 10 years. On top of these performance gains, REIT investors collected another 6.99 percent in the form of dividend income. Over the same time period, the S&P 500 posted average gains of 4.67 percent.

REITs are publicly traded companies that invest in real estate.

Highly regarded individuals in the investment community like David Swensen continue to advocate real estate too.

In his book “Unconventional Success: A Fundamental Approach to Personal Investment,” he recommends a 20 percent allocation to real estate in a diversified investment portfolio. Swenson manages Yale University’s endowment, which recorded a 28 percent gain last year.

Through late September, the SPDR DJ Wilshire REIT ETF (RWR) posted year-to-date gains of 1.27 percent. Other broad-market real estate ETFs have been posting similar performance gains, despite declines in global stock indexes.

Most of the broad-market REIT ETFs have exposure to all the important real estate segments, including apartments, health-care facilities, offices, retail centers and industrial properties. Homebuilding stocks are not included.

Among diversified REIT ETFs, the iShares Cohen & Steers Realty Majors (ICF) is the most concentrated, with only 30 holdings. In contrast, the SPDR DJ Wilshire REIT ETF holds around 87 stocks, and the Vanguard REIT ETF (VNQ) has 98.

Both RWR and VNQ may be excellent choices for investors wanting to obtain broad and low-cost exposure to real estate.

REITs can play an important role in stabilizing and diversifying an investment portfolio in any kind of market, experts say.

According to ETFguide’s database, the annual investment costs for U.S. REIT ETFs range from 0.12 to 0.39 percent, substantially lower compared to actively managed real estate mutual funds.