Here's a not-so-uncommon scenario these days: You bought your lovely home, be it a castle, bungalow or yurt, for $200,000 five years ago. Today, it's worth about $300,000. That's a tidy 50% total gain, or 8.5% on a compound annual basis. Right?

Not so fast -- you've probably oversimplified matters. For example, think about what you've put into the home over the years. Some of those purported profits probably went to businesses like Home Depot (NYSE:HD), Lowe's (NYSE:LOW), or home-building supplier USG (NYSE:USG). Let's say that you spent the following amounts:

  • New roof: $5,000
  • New windows: $3,000
  • Landscaping: $1,000 per year, or $5,000 total
  • Updating of bathroom: $10,000
  • Repairs: $2,000

Those items total $25,000. Subtract them from your initial "gain," and you're left with an increase of $75,000, or 37.5%, which is still significant. Annually, though, it amounts to 6.7%. Factor in expenses such as insurance and property taxes, and your gain (at least compared to options such as renting) shrinks even further.

Your expectations should be realistic, too. Don't expect your "investment" in a home to make you rich. It can help many people become wealthy, but it's not a surefire ticket to Easy Street. As Knight Kiplinger recently noted in Kiplinger magazine, whereas the average annual gain of the S&P 500 over the past 30 years has been 12%, the average annual gain for home values has been 6.2%. That's respectable, and has beaten inflation -- but not by much.

For most of us, our homes should be valuable because they give us shelter and comfort, and help us build valuable equity. But to make the most of your dollars for your future, it's hard to beat the stock market. Investing in a broad S&P 500-based index fund is easy and immediately plunks you in 500 of America's biggest companies. Over many decades, the S&P 500 has averaged annual gains of about 10%.

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If you're interested in home-buying and -selling issues, visit our Home Center, which features lots of money-saving tips on mortgages and other issues. You might also want to check out these articles, especially if you'll soon be buying a new home:

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of Home Depot, which is an Inside Value recommendation. She has recently heard that it's physically impossible for pigs to look up into the sky -- and she thinks that's sad. Try any one of our investing services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.