Regardless of investment value – homeowners do better than renters

million dollar homes

Many years ago, buying your first home used to be a rite of passage that usually coincided with starting a family. Your first home was not just a place to live; but was considered an investment that was expected to grow and provide a “nest egg” for your later years.

Several generations later, a lot has changed. We view investments differently, and have become amateur number crunchers trying to get the most of our money. But what was once considered a sound long term investment has now been deemed as poor judgment.

Of course to real estate investors, housing is a commodity; they take risks to reap rewards. Short term real estate investors (“flippers”) are often viewed as opportunists, buying homes at a discount and selling at retail value. The flipper’s goal is to have a quick turnaround between the time of acquisition and resale (flip), avoiding as much carrying cost as possible. The risk for the flipper is very high, especially in fickle markets; but the payoff can be very rewarding. It is not unusual for a flipper to lose money on a project because of delays, unexpected costs, and/or poor timing.

Long term real estate investors acquire homes to be used as rental properties, banking on the properties’ appreciation when it comes time to sell. Although the financial reward for this investor is long term, the risk is considered to be leveraged over time as well. However, unexpected costs and loss of rent can make such an investor rethink their plan and cut their losses.

For the rest of us, however; housing may not be such a great investment after all, according to many financial pundits. One such pundit, Morgan Housel (of Motley Fool fame), wrote about his meeting with Robert Shiller (of Case-Shiller fame) to give some telling insight about home values (Why your home is not a good investment; usatoday.com; May 10, 2014). Shiller told Housel that the housing market is “a provider of housing services” and “not a good provider of capital gains.”

According to Shiller, home prices from 1890 to 1990 (adjusted for real inflation) are “virtually unchanged.” Housel further added that home prices between 1890 and 2012, adjusted for real inflation, “went nowhere;” and decreased 10% from 1890 to 1980, when adjusted for real inflation. Shiller even suggested that “real” home prices could decrease over the next 30 years, due to a number of factors including obsolescence and advances in construction techniques.

With all the stats and figures, are those who touted the investment value of long term home ownership – wrong? Not necessarily. The consensus is that home ownership offers stability as well as many other benefits including: a place to live, a place to raise a family, and belonging to a community. These intangibles may be responsible for the research conclusions by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, that indicated there is an association between home ownership and growing wealth; where home owners fared better than renters (Herbert, McCue, and Sanchez-Moyano; Is Homeownership Still an Effective Means of Building Wealth for Low-income and Minority Households? Was it Ever? Joint Center for Housing Studies Harvard University, September 2013).

Is buying a home a bad investment? Housel pointed out that even Robert Shiller owns a home, and (at the time of the interview) indicated he would buy a home if he were in the market.

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Copyright © Dan Krell

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