With the financial crisis nearly 10 years past, most investors are done with licking their wounds.
The stock market has long since recovered and has set record after record. The economy is generally sound, unemployment is down and inflation modest.
But what about homes? Americans were long told the home was a key investment, essential to building wealth and getting into the middle class, or staying there. But many were hit hard by the housing crash that left tens of millions owing more than their homes were worth.Is a home a good investment, or should we have learned a hard lesson?
“Homeownership is not an investment,” says Mark Avallone, president of Potomac Wealth Advisors in Rockville, Maryland. “It is a lifestyle choice for those wanting the freedom of owning your own home and land. People who assume a strong rate of return on their home purchase are living with a 1990s mentality. Sure, there will always be pockets of opportunities, but net increases in value are far from certain, especially when all the costs are included.”
Over time, homeownership has worked well, but only for those who were sensible, says Aaron Hendon, a Realtor with Christine & Co. in Vashon, Washington.
“Don’t speculate with the house you live in,” he says. “Buy within your means, buy where you want to live, buy slow, buy smart, and know that, over time, the housing market has been as stable of a vehicle for growth as any.”
On paper, the housing market has indeed recovered. The S&P Corelogic Shiller 20-city composite home price index, one of the most widely followed gauges, is back where it was in 2007 before the housing crash.
But that masks a lot of misery in between. It means the average home, though worth much more than at the market’s bottom, has not gained value in 10 years. People who lost homes to foreclosure are probably still suffering. Many who would have bought their first homes during that period were shut out by stiffer mortgage standards. Clearly, homes have not been good investments for everyone.
Anything that’s your biggest investment can also be your biggest money loser, and a home is not a guaranteed winner.
“It is delusional to believe prices have only one direction and that is up,” says Bruce Ailion, a Realtor with Re/Max in the Atlanta area.
“Fundamentally, real estate prices are directly tied to wages,” he says. “If wages are rising at 2 percent and housing at 6 percent, this is unsustainable, and there will be an adjustment.”
The family’s largest investment is not necessarily the best investment – the most profitable over time. Over long periods, home prices have gained about 4 percent a year while stocks have gone up close to 10 percent. Stocks have crashes too, of course, but it’s easier to get out of a stock or fund if things go wrong.
Robert R. Johnson, president of the American College of Financial Services in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, says homes appear to be stable investments only because you cannot get minute-to-minute price updates like with stocks, and that many homeowners focus on long-term price gains and ignore all the costs of ownership.
“Stocks don’t need a new furnace, a lawn mowed, or require annual property tax payments,” he says.
Here, then, are five key lessons experts say people should take from the past decade.
Leverage can hurt
Among the cases for homeownership is the opportunity to buy a rising asset with borrowed money. Make a 10 percent down payment and you double your equity with a 10 percent gain in the home’s price. But a 10 percent drop in value will wipe out your equity. Also, the 10 percent gain is whittled by mortgage interest, upkeep, taxes, insurance and other costs that you would not have, for example, with a mutual fund.
Don’t stretch to the limit
The internet is full of calculators for figuring the maximum mortgage and most expensive house you can get, but the housing crash was hardest on owners who had piled up maximum debt. So, if you need two incomes to qualify for a mortgage, how will you make your payments if one of you loses a job?
Prior to the crash, homeowners assumed they could sell if money got tight, and that was often possible as home prices had gone up steadily and there were plenty of buyers. But the crash showed that the escape hatch does not always work.
“Asking ‘What’s the most I can afford?’ is a good way to keep running in the rat race of middle-class overspending,” says G. Brian Davis, director of education at Spark Rental, an advisor to real estate investors. “Instead, they should ask themselves ‘What’s the least I can spend on housing and still be happy?”
If a home is seen as an investment as well as shelter, it’s smart to follow standard advice about the value of spreading your money among various types of assets. Experts suggest keeping home-ownership modest enough that you can still contribute to your 401(k) at work and have a few other holdings.
“Housing is the highest personal expense for most of us, so spending less on housing frees up money for investing elsewhere [such as] retirement,” Davis says.
“I believe that individuals wishing to accumulate wealth would be better served to consider committing funds to their retirement plans, and allocating those plans to [stocks] and to not be so eager to purchase homes,” Johnson says.
Plan to stick it out
Investors who stayed in the stock market through the crash recovered fairly quickly, and homeowners who bought before 2007 and were able to hold on have been made whole. On paper, it’s easy to make a case for a three- or four-year time horizon – long enough for appreciation to offset the real estate agent’s commission and other costs of buying and selling. But it’s common for home prices to stagnate for a few years even in a normal market. Because selling a home is expensive and time-consuming, and price gains are uneven, it’s best to see a home purchase as a commitment for 10 years or longer, many experts say.
“The key for anyone buying a home to understand is this is a long-term investment,” Ailion says. “You get rich slowly, not overnight.”
It’s easy to rationalize buying too much home because you believe it will produce bigger gains, or to buy a home in a weak market because it will be a home even if not a great investment. Instead, try not to muddle your thinking, and look at each issue distinctly.
Many experts recommend buying the cheapest home that serves your housing needs and looking for a sound neighborhood that does not depend on a single employer. Good schools are key to home values.
“When purchasing a home, people should buy the home they need and not the home that mortgage lenders say they qualify to buy,” Johnson says.