Why Real Estate Is One Asset That Builds Generational Wealth


Cornelius Vanderbilt is often quoted as saying, “Any fool can make a fortune; it takes a man of brains to hold onto it.” His insight — and advice — is something that if followed by him and his heirs would potentially change the outcome of a now-vanished Vanderbilt fortune. It’s possible that the Vanderbilt fortune could have remained alongside that of John D. Rockefeller, whose heirs hold onto an estimated net worth of $11 billion as of 2016.

What was the difference between the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers?

The Vanderbilts squandered their fortune on depleting assets — wealth-diminishing assets with limited life — while Rockefeller parlayed his wealth into productive assets, evidenced by the family trust’s considerable real estate holdings.  

Known for their lavish parties and their free-wheeling spending on everything but productive assets, Vanderbilt’s wealth — estimated at $100 million ($200 billion in today’s dollars) at his death — was gone in 50 years. Vanderbilt had built generational wealth through his business holdings, but he didn’t take the necessary measures to ensure the lasting legacy of that wealth. Rockefeller, on the other hand, put the financial decision-making over his fortune in the hands of trust administrators designed to maintain the family’s wealth — much of it through cash flowing real estate (even owning the World Trade Center and Rockefeller Center at one point).

For more average Americans, the numbers may be different, but the outcomes are similar. Many aging Americans are not prepared for retirement. In a 2019 report from the Insured Retirement Institute, 45% of baby boomers had zero savings, and many planned to work well into their retirement years. Added to that, lack of financial preparation (along with other economic factors) has impacted the next generation, as boomerang kids — adults who move back home with their parents — pose a threat to baby boomers’ retirement.

How to avoid the fate of the Vanderbilts and the millions of Americans ill-prepared for retirement? Parlay more savings into productive assets that build wealth than into wasting assets that deplete resources. You can earn a million dollars a year, but if you spend it on depreciating assets, there’s little or nothing left to invest in assets that produce wealth. This potentially puts you on a path similar to Vanderbilt’s, where even retirement income can be jeopardized alongside generational wealth.

An important crossroad you’ll arrive at and a junction where you will have to make the critical decision is when income is high enough for you to experience a surplus — after financial commitments are met. Deciding what to do with the surplus will set you on a course to improved financial freedom or panic as retirement approaches. 

One avenue for any surplus is the productive asset of real estate. It’s a path many of the Rockefellers of the world have created for themselves to help build and maintain generational wealth. To understand the attraction to this particular asset, here are a few of its multifaceted advantages.


Although cash flowing real estate can be acquired directly, the wealthy outsource day-to-day operations and other managerial duties to third parties. For investors who prefer to invest in real estate through passive vehicles like private real estate funds or real estate private equity, almost all decision-making is left to the managers of these firms — no expert knowledge required.  

Passive real estate investments don’t require a full-time commitment and leave the headaches to someone else. The passive nature of real estate also allows investors to leverage their capital across multiple assets to generate multiple streams of income instead of sinking all of their assets into a single asset.


Because real estate is illiquid, it’s insulated from mob mentality and broader market volatility because it cannot be easily disposed of. Investors in passive investment vehicles typically lock up their capital for long periods of typically at least five years. Illiquidity protects investors from themselves and prevents them from making snap decisions in a fleeting moment of panic they might regret later.

Easily Transferable

Real estate is easily transferable to succeeding generations. The wealthy set up trusts to hold their real estate assets, and upon the death of the grantor, ownership automatically transfers through the trust. Real estate conveyances at death are much less complicated than conveyances of business disagreements that may arise in roles, compensation, contributions, distributions, etc.

Sustainability and Predictability

Real estate is a proven commodity. There may be down years, but in the long term, real estate constantly appreciates and cash flowing real estate generates consistent income. Trends come and go in other industries and sectors, but real estate continues to be consistent.  

Real estate isn’t the only asset capable of creating generational wealth that grows over time, but it is often found in the portfolios of those recognizable names like Rockefeller.

Although real estate values can fluctuate from time to time, over the long haul, real estate has consistently appreciated over time from inflation and its intrinsic value. Investing in the class can help you generate wealth for not only yourself but for future generations.

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