Unlike other investments where the risks may have no boundaries, options trading offers a defined risk to buyers. An option buyer absolutely cannot lose more than the price of the option, the premium. Because the right to buy or sell the underlying security at a specific price expires on a given date, the option will expire worthless if the conditions for profitable exercise or sale of the option contract are not met by the expiration date. An uncovered option seller (sometimes referred to as the uncovered writer of an option), on the other hand, may face unlimited risk.
Covered calls can make you money when the stock price increases or stays pretty constant over the time of the option contract. However, you could lose money with this kind of trade if the stock price falls too much (but can actually still make money if it only falls a little bit). But by using this strategy, you are actually protecting your investment from decreases in share price while giving yourself the opportunity to make money while the stock price is flat.
What if, instead of a home, your asset was a stock or index investment? Similarly, if an investor wants insurance on his/her S&P 500 index portfolio, they can purchase put options. An investor may fear that a bear market is near and may be unwilling to lose more than 10% of their long position in the S&P 500 index. If the S&P 500 is currently trading at $2500, he/she can purchase a put option giving the right to sell the index at $2250, for example, at any point in the next two years.
As shown above, a long options trade has unlimited profit potential, and limited risk, but a short options trade has limited profit potential and unlimited risk. However, this is not a complete risk analysis, and in reality, short options trades have no more risk than individual stock trades (and actually have less risk than buy and hold stock trades).
When buying or selling options, the investor or trader has the right to exercise that option at any point up until the expiration date - so simply buying or selling an option doesn't mean you actually have to exercise it at the buy/sell point. Because of this system, options are considered derivative securities - which means their price is derived from something else (in this case, from the value of assets like the market, securities or other underlying instruments). For this reason, options are often considered less risky than stocks (if used correctly).