Some people might assume that with the overall real estate market down, investors in single family rental homes are fewer and fewer in number.

Nothing could be further from the truth: New research by the National Association of Realtors found that investors accounted for more than one out of five of all home purchases last year -- 21 percent.

That's down from the 28 percent record set at the height of the boom in 2005. But it's still a surprisingly large chunk of the total market -- roughly 1.35 million units last year, primarily aimed at the surging rental sector.

Unlike 2005, however, speculators are not pushing up pricing and looking to flip their properties quickly. The median price for an investor unit was $150,000 last year, according to the study, down from $183,500 in 2005.

About half of the investors said they expected to hold onto their properties for anywhere from three to 11 years. Another 18 percent said their holding period probably would run from one to three years, and 20 percent weren't sure.

But only 10 percent said they planned to sell in less than a year.

Who was out scouting around for investment units last year? Well, they weren't fly-by-nighters with low incomes, that's for sure. While the median household income for all home buyers in 2007 was $71,700, investors' median income was about $93,000.

Young investors -- under 35 -- were very active as well. They accounted for nearly 40 percent of all investor sales last year. African-Americans and Asian-Americans were far more active in the investment sector than they were in primary, owner-occupant home purchases.

African-Americans were 8 percent of primary home buyers but 13 percent of investment purchasers. Asians and Pacific Islanders accounted for 5 percent of all owner-occupant home purchasers, but were double that -- 10 percent -- among investor purchasers.

Investors tend to be optimistic about the future direction of the real estate market. Fifty-seven percent told researchers that they are very or somewhat likely to buy additional investment property in the coming 24 months, compared with just 44 percent of primary and vacation property buyers.

Eighty percent of all investor buyers said this is "a good time to purchase real estate" compared with 59 percent of primary home buyers.

Do you get the sense here that maybe investors know something about spotting deals -- low prices in areas that are bound to bounce back, low mortgage rates, plus income tax benefits -- that the rest of us don't know as well?

We think the answer is yes.

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