Despite some shifts in the housing market that make it more difficult to earn money investing in residential real estate, a large majority of people in that field plan to buy as many or more properties in the next 12 months to rent out or sell for profit.

That’s one of the findings of a study released last month that attempted to measure the impact people involved in income or speculative real estate are having on the housing market .

View Photo Gallery: Northern Virginia real estate investor Justin Pierce transforms neglected houses into remarkable homes.

The survey — sponsored by, the nation’s leading social Web site for real estate investors, and Memphis Invest, one of the largest providers of single-family rentals — shows that 65 percent of investors plan to buy a lot more homes during the next 12 months.

Still, from my experience in the Washington area, business conditions are changing with rising home prices, stiffening competition and shrinking margins. Anyone seeking to get into real estate investing should proceed with caution and not expect to earn the same money that has been made in the past few years.

The report points out that investors played a fairly substantial role in the housing recovery. The housing crisis pushed nearly 4 million foreclosures onto the open market, devastating home values. This and the coinciding financial crisis squashed homebuyers’ confidence and their ability to buy. At that time, real estate investors began buying up the foreclosures when few other people could enter the market. They bought up so many properties that they established single-family rentals as a $100 billion business. In fact, the report says that single-family rentals now outnumber apartment units.

They are also renovating the homes they buy and spending an average of $7,500 per home. That totals more than $9.2 billion every year in construction-related spending, according to the report. This is critical business for an industry that was hit hard by the recession.

In 2008, Congress approved the Neighborhood Stabilization Program to provide funds to municipalities and not-for-profit organizations to repair damage to foreclosed homes. Up to this point, they have spent a total of $7 billion of tax payer money.

Real estate investors are doing more than this every year with their own money or money that they borrow. Surprisingly, the report finds that only one in four real estate investors are cash buyers. In fact, slightly more than half make down payments and finance the rest of the purchase amount. If you read my last post, you’ll see just how much most real estate investors pay for financing.

This strikes at one of the prevailing myths about real estate investors. Very few have cash for their projects. I can also tell you that most real estate investors are more afraid of you, the retail buyer, than you are of them. Real estate investors have to pay higher interest rates than owner occupants and they have many more additional costs. Back in 2006, real estate investors would come in and buy properties at market value and then gamble that they would make their profit within a year on appreciation alone. I can tell you that most all of those investors are out of business now or they’ve learned very painful lessons.

Some 3 percent of American adults or 7 million people are active real estate investors, according to the report. These people are actively looking to buy more property and about half of them make more than five purchases each year. This is a diverse group of people. About 76 percent are under the age 55. They are more likely to live in the South or West of the country and about two-thirds of them make less than $75,000 per year.

Even more interesting, the report tells us that this group of active investors does not plan to slow down despite rising home prices and increased competition. About 65 percent of the active investors plan to buy as many or more properties in the next 12 months as they did in the past 12 months. This is big news considering that fact that real estate investors accounted for as much as 25.3 percent of all home purchases as of May 2012. This indicates that investors have confidence that the housing recovery will continue and their robust activity will help ensure it.

Keep in mind that this is a national survey. The Washington area doesn’t exactly fall in line with national trends. But real estate investors are very optimistic creatures. When the report says 65 percent of investors plan to buy more property in the next 12 months, I believe it. But the key word is plan. I’ve never met an investor who plans to do less this year than last year.

The real estate market in this area has been on a steady climb for a while. New waves of foreclosures have provided targets and opportunities for investors over the past few years. But as illustrated by data from RealEstate Business Intelligence and MRIS, inventories are down and prices are up. Prices in some areas are up to 90 percent of where they were at the peak. Investors will be pressured to pay way more than they’d like for fixer upper homes and many of them will get in trouble if they’re not careful. Nothing throws cold water on investors like a bad deal.

I would expect investor activity to stay fairly strong in this area but I think demand for rentals will slow a bit as home prices increase. I also think rehabbers and home flippers will face stiff competition and less opportunity. I’m already seeing that in my business. I’m getting tighter on my budgets and spending more time and money to find viable projects. If interest rates stay low and prices continue to rise, investors will likely move to land development, commercial real estate or possibly other markets. At some point, we might also see investors become sellers as we did in the late 1990s and beyond as they liquidated holdings they’d accumulated in the down market 20 years ago.

This market should continue to be strong but I would advise investors to begin reassessing their business models. I would also recommend extreme caution to those looking to begin a real estate investing career. You are probably not going to make money in the next few years in the same manner it was made in the last few years.

Read more about Pierce’s experiences as a real estate investor

Justin Pierce is a real estate investor in Northern Virginia. In his occasional column, he will write about investing in real estate.