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Is Buying a Home Stupid?

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James Altucher's recent blog post "Why I Am Never Going to Own a Home Again" is very much a personal account (note the "I" in the title). And frankly, I agree with him on a few of his major points. But I also think he manages to botch the investment thesis for owning a home.

In the wake of the housing meltdown it's not all that surprising to hear talk about never wanting to own a home -- or own one again, as with Altucher. With a front seat in one of the country's ground zeroes in Las Vegas, I've seen more than my fair share of real estate nightmares. However, I don't think buying a home needs to be completely sworn off any more than buying stocks needed to be completely sworn off in the wake of the dot-com crash.

The "real" returns
In his post, Altucher highlights the fact that as an investment, housing hasn't had a particularly impressive history of returns. He points to data -- I'm assuming from Robert Shiller -- that shows that housing prices have risen, on average, 0.4% between 1890 and 2004.

If we stretch that timeline out to 2010, it actually looks worse -- more like 0.2%. But those are real returns, or the total nominal return less inflation. Now I'm not looking to get into an ideological debate over whether it makes more sense to talk about real or nominal returns, but the fact is that when people talk about investment returns they are almost always use nominal returns.

The average annual nominal return on housing has been 3% between 1890 and 2010. That still isn't great, but using the real return smacks a bit of an optical trick to prove a point.

What about returns plus leverage?
Altucher bemoans the fact that homeowners generally have to use a lot of leverage to buy their home. There are two sides to that coin, though. The fact is that there are few investment opportunities out there where small-timers can use as much leverage as they can with the purchase of a home. Granted, taking that to an extreme during the early years of the millennium is what got us into this mess, but there's a yawning gulf between a conventional 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage with 20% down and a five-year, interest-only, negative-amortization loan.

And looking back to the first point, while a 3% annual return may look meager, when you're leveraged 5-to-1, your returns are significantly magnified.

The other returns
Among the financial considerations, Altucher also doesn't mention the fact that a homeowner gets implied returns by nature of the fact that they're not paying rent. It's as if you've bought a home to rent out and you're the renter.

It's this point, though, that really gets to the crux of the issue. Just like any other asset, a home isn't a good purchase no matter what. Back in 2000, most investors threw valuations out the window and were willing to pay whatever for stocks like Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO  ) and Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) . Today, that view has broken down to some extent and investors are skeptical of stocks like Cisco and Microsoft despite forward earnings multiples of 10.5 and 9.7, respectively.

The financial case for buying a home has taken a beating because the case has been simply hasn't been there for quite a while. In an offline conversation, my fellow Fool Morgan Housel scoffed at the idea of giving up his rental arrangement and buying a home largely from a financial perspective. Of course, Morgan lives in Seattle, where home-price-to-rental rates are among the highest in the country, meaning that it's still financially advantageous to rent rather than buy. In fact, despite the housing-price free fall, the price-to-rent ratio for the 54 largest U.S. metro areas was still well above its longer-term average as of 2010.

In other areas though -- bedraggled Las Vegas, for instance -- the math has changed considerably. Price-to-rent has fallen to among the lowest in the country, and new homes from builders like KB Home (NYSE: KBH  ) , Lennar (NYSE: LEN  ) , and Beazer Homes (NYSE: BZH  ) are selling in the $100-per-square-foot range.

In short, it's not that buying a home is always a poor financial decision, but rather that buying a home at an inflated price is a poor financial decision.

I'm with ya, James
To be fair, Altucher notes at the very end of his post that he thinks "housing is a great investment right now" but that he doesn't like to talk about investing on the blog. But that's after he's already spent much of the post dismissing the financial considerations for buying a house.

I'm fully on board with Altucher on many of his non-financial points, though. A house is a very illiquid investment and will kill the diversification efforts for most individual investors. Owning a home also makes you highly immobile, and while that may not have been as big of a deal in the past, the nature of the 21st-century job market makes it more difficult to fully commit yourself to a geographical location. Not to mention the fact that many -- this Fool included -- simply don't want to be locked down. And of course there's always Altucher's piece de resistance:

I don't like [my cash] all tied up in one illiquid investment. I want to fill a bathtub with all the dollar bills I would've used as a downpayment on a house. I want to bathe in that bathtub. I'm going to do that later today in fact.

And that is a huge consideration for any fan of Uncle Scrooge.

Wondering why the economy isn't recovering faster? Morgan Housel wonders why anyone is still turning to Alan Greenspan for answers.

KB Home is a Motley Fool Big Short short-sale pick. Microsoft is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection. The Fool has created a bull call spread position on Cisco Systems. Motley Fool Alpha LLC has written calls on KB Home. Motley Fool Options has recommended a diagonal call position on Microsoft. The Fool owns shares of Microsoft. Motley Fool Alpha LLC owns shares of Cisco Systems. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.

Fool contributor Matt Koppenheffer owns shares of Microsoft but does not have a financial interest in any of the other companies mentioned. You can check out what Matt is keeping an eye on by visiting his CAPS portfolio, or you can follow Matt on Twitter @KoppTheFool or on his RSS feed. The Fool's disclosure policy prefers dividends over a sharp stick in the eye.


Read/Post Comments (34) | Recommend This Article (19)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

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  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2011, at 4:11 PM, campogates wrote:

    When calculating the return on a home, you can't ignore the fact that you are living in the home and therefore not having to pay the rent you would otherwise pay. That results in a significant dividend on the investment. As well you have tax benefits. With prices and interest where they are now, the case could never be made stronger for home ownership

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2011, at 4:31 PM, ETFsRule wrote:

    "And looking back to the first point, while a 3% annual return may look meager, when you're leveraged 5-to-1, your returns are significantly magnified."

    That's a very interesting point, I never thought of it that way. I was actually able to buy my home with no down payment at all (infinite leverage?) Thanks for giving me something to think about.

    campogates wrote:

    "When calculating the return on a home, you can't ignore the fact that you are living in the home and therefore not having to pay the rent you would otherwise pay."

    That was really the key for me. Even if your home returns 0%, it could still turn out to be a better investment than renting. You're accumulating equity the whole time, and after 30 years your monthly payments drop to zero.

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2011, at 4:42 PM, RightOnTheMark wrote:

    I agree with campogates except there is one major issue. Why buy a house when it's value will drop further? I would rather buy when values are moving higher. Right now, home values continue to drift lower. Prices will continue to drop as foreclosures and short sales continue to be a larger part of the supply. Demand continues to be restricted by overly tightened lending guidelines. The Labor Market will continue to struggle as there is nothing to help boost consumer demand for goods and services. Higher interest rates are on the horizon as well which will also adversely impact prices. The downward cycle has much more to go.

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2011, at 4:55 PM, mikecart1 wrote:

    I'm doing a speech tomorrow on why owning a home is the worst investment possible. I hope I get a standing ovation lol.

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2011, at 5:08 PM, AnokaMoka wrote:

    The lack of an expense is the same as revenue, all things being equal (which which they never are)...Business 101. Therefore, take the lack of rent as revenue from the property. Minus upkeep taxes etc, That becomes the equivalent to an equal amount of income.

    Many leave that out of the return on ownership.

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2011, at 5:08 PM, Borbality wrote:

    inflation hedge.

    Who is going to bet against inflation over the next 30 years?

    Most of the problems with housing would disappear if people considered it less of an investment and more of a place to live with the goal of paying it off.

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2011, at 6:13 PM, gowhitestripes wrote:

    RENTING

    - Your equity is what you save by having a lower rate per month in comparison to a home loan, not having to pay a realtor, not throwing $7,500 away on interest (on a 150k loan), not paying property taxes, upkeep costs, maintenance costs, not having risk of loss on home value, yard work costs, appliance costs, and on and on..

    HOUSES are not investments. You are NOT throwing your money away by RENTING. GET it straight. Realtors will say whatever they can to make money.

    Do I want a house? Yes. Is there an argument if you have roommates; if you have high rent; and/or the housing market is low... I guess.

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2011, at 6:14 PM, gowhitestripes wrote:

    I also forgot to include insurance costs (and in some cases condo fees)

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2011, at 6:19 PM, ryandebb123 wrote:

    Thank you. I am hoping that many more people feel the way you do over time (as i suspect they will) because I did not get out of the "landlord business" when (in retrospect) it made sense to do so, and now I have to wait it out. Rents are firming up and starting to rise here in Portland Oregon, and demand has picked up considerably. :)

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2011, at 6:20 PM, Turfscape wrote:

    The problem is not homeownership. The problem is people thinking their home is an investment. It's not. Real Estate is an investment. A house is a home. And therein lies its true value.

    Now, for me...I pay less in a monthly mortgage than I would in rent. But I wasn't pulled into the home-buying frenzy blindly. I paid the right price and got the right amount of house. With it: peace of mind...truly.

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2011, at 6:27 PM, ryandebb123 wrote:

    disclosure, I am a realtor (well, was...). I never, ever did a transaction just to make money. I did, at one time, believe that home ownership was not just a good investment, but that everyone should be a homeowner, because it made for better communities, and was good for families to stay put and stay together. After watching my clients suffer the downturn, and seeing which ones should not have strapped themselves with home ownership in the first place, I no longer believe that. It's part of the reason I am no longer in the business.

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2011, at 6:28 PM, ryandebb123 wrote:

    Turfscape, exactly.

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2011, at 6:30 PM, ryandebb123 wrote:

    Rightonthemark, I think you are. It's going to be a long slog.... Home-ownership does goose the economy, people love to spend money on their homes. My tenants don't even plant a flower - seems weird to me, but that's how it is.

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2011, at 6:54 PM, jefferylhenry wrote:

    Altucher likes to hear himself speak. A home is the most basic investment in life; a place to live where one can be safe and raise a family. Of course he doesn't understand the piece about raising a family. The real title of the article should have been "buying a house you cannot afford". Remember, you can't take it with you.

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2011, at 7:10 PM, 5mackDab wrote:

    "And looking back to the first point, while a 3% annual return may look meager, when you're leveraged 5-to-1, your returns are significantly magnified."

    This is something I always looked at as real estate was my first true investment even past owning my own home. I never fell victim to the crisis in the states and maybe I have been lucky so far, however nothing and I repeat NOTHING could give me the head start financially what real estate has done.

    I'm now looking to diversify somewhat away from real estate (more so because dealing with tenants is tiresome) but it remains the best way to grow wealth as far as I see it and is what gives me the disposable income to now invest in stocks.

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2011, at 7:15 PM, TMFKopp wrote:

    @gowhitestripes

    "HOUSES are not investments."

    Interestingly (since you were partially railing against realtors), this empowers realtors more than anything else.

    "Don't worry about the price!" They say, "It's not an investment it's a *home*. Say it with me, *hoooooome*. Price is no matter."

    When people divorce the financial reality of a house from the purchasing decision it opens the door for everyone to start paying absurd prices.

    Matt

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2011, at 7:17 PM, talotu wrote:

    If real returns are optical illusions to prove a point then what do you call leveraged nominal returns that don't include the cost of leverage?

    Lets assume houses return 3%, and the average mortgage interest payment is around 7%.

    Say you put $20,000 down on $100,000 house. In year 1 you pay 5600 in interest, and you get a return of 3000. According to your math this is a 15% return, (3000 appreciation on the $20,000), wheres I would call this a -13% return (net -2600 out of $20,000).

    Leveraging will only add to your returns if your return on capital is greater than your cost of capital. If your tax rate is less than 50%, owning a house with 20% down has a negative nominal return, you don't get any advantage from leverage until your tax rate is 57%

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2011, at 7:31 PM, TMFKopp wrote:

    @talotu

    If you're trying to take the full picture into account then you also need to consider the implied or real rent on the house. If you're living in it then you're getting "rent" in the sense that you're not paying it to a landlord. If you're actually renting the house out then you're getting real cash. Capital appreciation is not the only return.

    And fwiw your interest rate is a bit aggressive (http://www.bankrate.com/)

    Matt

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2011, at 7:42 PM, TheDumbMoney wrote:

    I think that any time anyone starts talking about "worst investment" or "best investment" in absolute terms, as if it's a forever-thing, one's BS meter should start going ding-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling!!! The only true way to describe a home is as a highly complicated and highly regulated (and yet also risky) and illiquid investment.

    I strongly disagree with those, though, who say it is not an investment at all. In fact, I would flip that around: I think one of the main reasons we got into so much trouble in 2005-2008 is because people did not apply proper investing principles to homes. People bought based on emotion, not just greed, but also sentimentality. Their failures (and the failures of the corporate machines that enabled and in some instances potentially hoodwinked them), and the ensuing crisis, do not mean 'homes are not investments'. All this simply means the people buying from 2005-2008 were typically not good investors/money allocators. Or, as for many, they were simply speculators, not investors. But when people say homes are 'not an investment,' that is not true, though it contains a kernel of wisdom. What they really mean to say is that people should not expect to make a million bucks by flipping a house. Thus what they really mean to say is that homes, normatively, should not be speculations.

    Homes are investments, and they often may be really bad ones! Calling a home an investment is not meant to imply any judgment call about whether it is a good or a bad investment. And whether it is a good or bad investment (as with all other investments) depends upon time, place, circumstances, and price, not on any absolutist general rule of what is "good" or "bad."

    P.S. Altucher also thinks college is a waste of time and money. Altucher likes absolute statements. Altucher likes to present only one side of an argument. Altucher has gotten TONS of hits off of his absolutist statements, which is of course his intent. I hereby dub Altucher the Glenn Beck of financial "journalism."

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2011, at 8:40 PM, vidar712 wrote:

    @ talotu

    Ok, now do the same steps 29 more times to cover the life of the loan.

    Did you pay more in interest than your house is now worth?

    Assuming interest only loan of 7% and home value appreciation of 3%, No.

    You would pay $168,000 in interest and your home would be worth $240,000. That is 360% return over 30 years (For a $20,000 investment).

    The 3% appreciation compounds, the 7% interest is constant. (Or, the interest is diminishing if it is not an interest only loan.)

    ...And for a base line.

    The return for paying cash for the house is:

    $240,000 house value (with a $100,000 investment): 240%.

    360% > 240%.

    Therefore, leverage magnified the house return over the life of the loan.

    (Based upon the assumptions and ignoring reality.)

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2011, at 10:27 PM, talotu wrote:

    @TMFKopp: As far as the interest rate, that was a historical number, not today's rates. I agree that the total evaluation is much more complicated, but that doesn't change the fact that it's pointless to look at leveraged returns without including the cost of leverage.

    @vidar

    Assuming an interest only loan, you pay 168,000 over 30 years, your house is worth $240,000, but you still owe $80,000 so you have $160,000 in equity, which means you are still down $8,000 on your $188,000 investment (you have to include all payments, not just the down payment) for a -4.25% return. Of course if you live in a state where you pay enough taxes to wipe out your standard deduction, then you start getting a tax benefit, with a marginal tax rate of 30% your investment costs are closer to 20,000 + .7 * 168,000 or 137,600. In this case you get a $22,400 gain on 137,600 which is 16% over the 30 years while using cash at the outset would give you a 240% return.

    Looking at a house purchase is no different that analyzing stocks, when the cost of capital is greater than the return on capital, it will be a large drag on your earnings.

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2011, at 10:50 PM, 5thand7th wrote:

    @vidar712

    don't you still owe 80K on the house, therefore if you sell for 240K, less what you owe = net 160K - but you've paid 168K in interest (albeit tax deductible) so say that after taxes you paid 120K in interest, therefore you net 160K-120K = 40K, which is a double in 30 years (2.4% annual return).

    Is that right? Sorry about the run-on calc.

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2011, at 10:51 PM, 5thand7th wrote:

    Sorry - as I was penning my comment, I didn't see talotu's.

  • Report this Comment On March 24, 2011, at 12:51 AM, marc5477 wrote:

    Homes are not an investment? Really?

    Lets see...

    Case 1: Buy a home for $200k. Put $40k down. Pay about $1000 a month for mortgage, tax, trash, and insurance. In 30 years you own the land and home. In the meantime you are at risk due to debt but you dont need to worry about inflation.

    Case 2: Rent a place for $1000 a month. In 30 years you have nothing and rent continues to increase.

    ...let me think about this for a second... LoL!

    I will say this. When the mortgage payment for a home exceeds the market value to rent the same property (+/-10%) then you should be hesitant (as it was during the bubble). If you couldnt hold your bladder and just had to go buy a house during that time, you knew full well you were taking a huge risk and/or you didnt care about the investment aspect because if you cared about value, you would would not have made a purchase during the bubble.

  • Report this Comment On March 24, 2011, at 1:04 AM, Darrencardinal wrote:

    campogates wrote:

    "When calculating the return on a home, you can't ignore the fact that you are living in the home and therefore not having to pay the rent you would otherwise pay. That results in a significant dividend on the investment. As well you have tax benefits. With prices and interest where they are now, the case could never be made stronger for home ownership."

    You are not paying rent, but you are of course paying a mortgage. And you are responsible for the maintenance and upkeep, which is not trivial. Rent, and the landlord does that stuff. He serves you.

    "As well you have tax benefits." Not really. You are responsible for the property taxes, and they are more than the mortgage deduction.

  • Report this Comment On March 24, 2011, at 5:13 AM, jesvlim wrote:

    Marc5477,

    Looking at your example, for renting, the renter would have paid a total of $1000x12x30 = 360k at the end of 30 years, and own nothing.

    The houseowner on the other hand, would have paid out a total of $40k + (1000x12x30) = 400k at the end of 30 years, and own the land and house outright.

    So who is better off?

  • Report this Comment On March 24, 2011, at 8:34 AM, ETFsRule wrote:

    "Marc5477,

    Looking at your example, for renting, the renter would have paid a total of $1000x12x30 = 360k at the end of 30 years, and own nothing.

    The houseowner on the other hand, would have paid out a total of $40k + (1000x12x30) = 400k at the end of 30 years, and own the land and house outright.

    So who is better off?"

    It's even more lopsided than that because rent will increase pretty much every year, whereas the mortgage payments stay the same. So the houseowner will pay a total of 400k, but the renter could pay much more than that.

    Assuming rent increases by 3% per year, then after 24 years his rent will be up to $2000/month.

  • Report this Comment On March 24, 2011, at 8:47 AM, catoismymotor wrote:

    I wrote a little something about the article in question.

    http://caps.fool.com/Blogs/why-i-am-never-going-to-own-a/561...

  • Report this Comment On March 24, 2011, at 9:15 AM, sdm1177 wrote:

    I see a number of comparisons are using 30 year mortgages - how about the 15 year situation? I originally had a 30 year that I refinanced after 8 years to 15 years at 4.875%. We will have had 23 years total of mortgage payments. Coincidentally, when the house is paid off (in 7 years and 3 months from now), we should be able to retire. My wife and I agreed that the cost of our retirement home will not exceed the proceeds' price of our current home (which should be about $300K). Therefore, we will live rent and mortgage free when we're retired.

    If we rented and took that $300K and invested it at a somewhat reduced risk RoR of 4%, we'd have $1K a month income - but we'd also have a rent payment. And that would go up every x years (let's say merely 2% average every 1 years). Starting at $1K in rent per month, after 20 years, we'd be paying almost $1,400 a month in RENT. The investment would still only be returning $1K per month so we'd eventually have a net monthly loss.

    Using the $300K to buy a house free and clear, we'd only have the maintenance costs to deal with - and that's what home buyer's warranties are for (or not). Seriously, it isn't like we have home repair / maintenance expenses every month of every year. As far as yard work - as much as I loathe it, it does get me out of the house, into the sunshine and moving.

    Insurance is negligable since we'd have insurance either way.

    Taxes are also negligable since we live in a state with very low property tax ($1,400 / year right now) and at retirement, we would even [eventually] get a senior discount.

  • Report this Comment On March 24, 2011, at 9:55 AM, pondee619 wrote:

    "James Altucher's recent blog post "Why I Am Never Going to Own a Home Again""

    "Altucher notes at the very end of his post that he thinks "housing is a great investment right now""

    Taking both sides of an argument ensures that you can't be wrong? I'm never going to buy a house again but it is a great investment now?

    "In short, it's not that buying a home is always a poor financial decision, but rather that buying a home at an inflated price is a poor financial decision." ObviousMan strikes again!

    " I want to fill a bathtub with all the dollar bills I would've used as a downpayment on a house" how many renters have that cash, that would have gone into a downpayment, available NOW to put into a bath tub to wallow around in?

    WHERE are rents less than a monthly mortgage payment for an equivlent property? You can't get half the living quarters (as a renter) , here in Northern NJ, for the cost of a mortgage on equal properties.

  • Report this Comment On March 24, 2011, at 10:57 AM, 5mackDab wrote:

    Obviously you have to look at the market in your area or wherever you plan on investing in a property to make the case for renting or owning. Where I live rents are way higher than mortgage payments even if interest rates climb fairly substantially.

  • Report this Comment On March 24, 2011, at 12:11 PM, BradTallTexan wrote:

    hmm.... try making a compost pile at your apartment. -can't. try even changing your car air filter at your apartment - most won't allow you to open the hood. -try planting a garden -can't.

    now, maybe I'm a greater fool- but I bought both my homes with no money down one on a fixed 15 year loan and one on a fixed 30 year loan (about 5 years after the first).

    Now, I have one paid off- and rented out -where they pay me now. -and the other one I live in- compost in the yard, and garden in the yard- and change my own car air filter any time I want to do so -and no HOA either.

    So, am I the larger fool now that YOU pay ME rent? and I keep a plumber and electrician on my speed dial?

  • Report this Comment On March 24, 2011, at 3:29 PM, DivingDan wrote:

    The bottom line is this. You have to live somewhere. Would you rather pay some one else or pay yourself? You can look at that 3% return but it doesn't factor in rent that you would have had to pay anyway.

  • Report this Comment On March 25, 2011, at 4:38 PM, Duke5343 wrote:

    Renting example- You rent for 25 years- on 25 plus 1 month you keep paying for rent up to say 50 years of renting

    Buy after 25 years and 1 month NO PAYMENT, live for next 50 years and put rent/morgage payment in retirement fund- sell home to ungrateful kids and move into retirement home with money saved on rent- NO RENT does not pay off

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