NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Real estate is making a comeback, but for investors, the key will be looking for opportunities beyond the traditionally popular markets. And there's one real estate investment in particular that needs to be on your radar.

The "smart money" is moving to secondary markets in 2014, according to Emerging Trends in Real Estate 2014, co-published by PwC U.S. and the Urban Land Institute. Instead of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, think Houston, Dallas/Fort Worth and San Jose.

Such secondary real estate markets can provide investment returns that are now harder to find in the more conventional markets where the best assets have become increasingly expensive, according to real estate pros.

"The anticipated interest in secondary markets is indicative of how the U.S. real estate recovery is expanding beyond the traditional investment hubs," says ULI Chief Executive Officer Patrick L. Phillips. "Access to greater amounts of both debt and equity financing, combined with a sustained improvement in the underlying economic fundamentals, means that the opportunities and returns offered in smaller markets are potentially very appealing."

Real estate investors are particularly upbeat in their view for the coming year. Only one factor looms to curb their enthusiasm: interest rate hikes -- when and how much.

"Real optimism has emerged as a key theme in the real estate market for 2014 as trends are progressing significantly through the economic and real estate recovery cycles," says Mitch Roschelle, a partner at the U.S. real estate advisory practice leader, PwC. "The steady economic recovery and job creation has created 'tailwinds' that have propelled the commercial real estate market forward, and momentum of this recovery seems powerful enough to weather spikes in interest rates that may be inevitable."

The report forecasts a modest increase in interest rates for the short term, but not enough to cause "a major disruption to the recovery." Experts believe rate hikes by the Federal Reserve Board that would increase borrowing costs could be offset by greater demand and higher rents. However, the report cautions that faster-than-anticipated rate increases could undermine the recovery.

Where to put your money

Key markets favored by investors include:

  • Miami is benefiting from South American investment and its homebuilding prospects are particularly favored by survey respondents.
  • Seattle is another top city with global connections, a high rate of educational attainment and growth in the technology industry, making it a hub for international investment.
  • San Francisco is the top-ranked market for the second year in a row, driven by a thriving economy which is projected to add jobs at a rate of 2% next year. According to survey respondents, San Francisco, while expensive, is still a solid "buy" for all property types.
  • Houston is a market growing in favor due to its investment and homebuilding prospects. Housing, non-residential construction, and a revival in exploration industries could be the key economic drivers.
  • San Jose is attractive to investors due to its technology industry. Respondents believe that the job and income growth generated by the sector will support rising real estate demand.
  • New York is facing a growing concern that pricing is once again becoming too high. Rental apartments and hotels are the property sectors that respondents feel offer the best opportunities in 2014.
  • Dallas/Fort Worth has strong homebuilding prospects that boosted the market's prospects in this year's survey.

How to invest

Far and away, the biggest tip for real estate investors can be summed up in one word: warehousing. Industrial investments are most-favored by real estate insiders, with warehousing garnering a 64% "buy" recommendation from investors surveyed.

As retailers and manufacturers continue to shorten their supply chains, and with the ongoing growth in e-commerce, the need for vast fulfillment centers close to major cities is growing. Research and development industrial, self-storage and data centers are also expected to show further improvement.

In addition, investors are looking for potential new development activity in central business district office space and limited service hotels, both of which haven't seen new construction in several years.

Generation Y's preference for city living, compact developments and their expectancy to move more in the next five years than the overall adult population is also driving real estate investment capital.

--Written by Hal M. Bundrick for MainStreet