The Housing Weath Debate

Date: Dec. 26th, 2008

The Housing Wealth Debate

by Lawrence Yun, Chief Economist, NAR Research

Lawrence Yun

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article raising questions about people's optimistic "outlook" on generating wealth from their homes. The Journal characterized that view as wishful thinking. While not intending to cast aspersions on the analytical acumen of that well-respected publication, I do have a different take on that issue. My attempt in this corresponding article is to lay out the same information the newspaper published - albeit in a different light.

Owning a Home Still a Good Long-Term Investment

The Journal article claims that those hoping for a quick rebound in home prices are likely to be disappointed. Yes, some economists predict home prices won't bottom out before the second half of 2009, and some don't see a bottom until 2011 or 2012. But market timing for home prices is even more difficult than trying to time rises in stock prices. Unlike stocks, real estate is local. In fact, the latest government data show only four states - Arizona, California, Florida, and Nevada - registering home price declines of double digits. This government data has narrow coverage on homes with subprime loans, so the data should be viewed as price trends in neighborhoods with little subprime loan exposure. That makes sense, as less than 10 percent of homes have subprime loans. Interestingly, these four states are the very ones showing recent notable sales increases as buyers have taken advantage of the lower prices. Anecdotal reports of multiple bids suggest prices may be bottoming out in these areas.

Home Prices

Experts say you should generally expect house prices to rise just a bit more than inflation and roughly in line with household income. OK - let's look at how that works in real life. If home prices rise (on average) at an inflation-adjusted rate of 2.5%-3% a year, then nominal home prices can be expected to increase about 4.5%-6% a year. In other words, if a household buys a $200,000 home today, then that home will be worth $310,000 in 10 years, $505,000 in 20 years, and $823,000 in 30 years, assuming a 5% home price growth. Given that most homeowners have 30-year mortgages, all the debt will have been paid off at the 30-year mark. At that point, the $823,000 is pure equity. If home price appreciation increases further - say at 6% - that home will be worth $1.08 million in 30 years. Given America's poor savings rate (that's a different issue altogether), any form of savings discipline such as a monthly mortgage payment helps Americans accumulate wealth.

Confidence in Rising Home Value

Even by the paper's own sources of data used to support its claims, owning a home is often still a better long-term investment than stocks. The Journal cites a poll of 2,000 adults conducted by real estate data provider that found 61% believed the value of their home would either remain level or rise over the next six months. Another survey of more than 1,000 homeowners, sponsored by real-estate-services firm Realogy Corp., found that 91% thought that owning a home was the best long-term investment they could make. And an online survey of 5,000 people commissioned by Citigroup found that just 32% believed it was a good time to invest in stocks - but 51% said it was a good time to buy a home. Well, who am I to argue with housing consumers!

Fundamentals Impacting Home Prices

Yes, as The Journal says, in the long term, house prices are driven by fundamentals that are hard to predict. Those fundamental drivers include immigration, birth rates, the size and nature of households, and incomes. The trick is to figure out where job and income growth will be strongest and where those households want to live.

Again I cite our mantra: All real estate is local. In fact, it can be really local. I remember a story in my local neighborhood paper several years ago about two homes that looked exactly alike. Both homes fetched roughly the same price at one point. But at the time of the Journal's recent story, one home was worth more than double the other - not because of any physical differences in the homes, but because of neighborhood characteristics.

Investors and the Academic Debate

Few homeowners have the time to follow academic debates about the details of home price measurements (see page 7) or the plethora of analyses on home prices published in economic or real estate academic journals, trade publications, or even The Wall Street Journal. But for those who choose to purchase properties as an investment only - that is, they're not actually living in the property - The Journal's story about a couple who, for lack of a better term, became "property managers" is telling. For nearly four decades, a married couple invested in rental properties in and near Stevens Point, WI. They thought real estate was a good way "to get rich slowly." Despite the housing downturn, they have gradually (emphasis added) built their net worth from zero to around $2.5 million through their rental properties. Yes, there were challenges -- they have dealt with countless plumbing emergencies, evicted deadbeats and even once had to clean up after a suicide in one of their properties.

Well, I salute that couple. Property management is not for everyone. But some people are willing to face its challenges for the financial rewards - and ignore silly academic debates. Witness
the couple's ' accumulation of $2.5 million.

Final Thoughts

Buying a home is a serious decision with serious responsibilities. It should be done with care and be based on good information. Consumers should always be wary of any "how to profit from it" slogans but at the same time should not be discouraged by doom-sayers. Yes, those households who bought during the buying frenzy and at the peak a few years back have lost a lot - if they are trying to cash in NOW. But that does not mean that the new crop of buyers will face the same fate. Generally, homeowners do accumulate wealth over the long-term. If one of your clients is a consumer who is financially and emotionally ready, current conditions certainly favor buyers over sellers. The time will surely come again when sellers have the edge. Trying to market-time a purchase may result in remorse from buying "too high" or "selling too late." Those home buyers willing to stay in the market for the long term will likely feel good and reap the benefits from their long-term investment.