Housing Can’t Be Both Affordable and a Good Investment

The two pillars of American housing policy are fundamentally at odds.

"Promoting homeownership as an investment strategy is a risky proposition. No financial advisor would recommend going into debt in order to put such a massive part of your savings in any other single financial instrument—and one that, as we learned just a few years ago, carries a great deal of risk.

Even worse, that risk isn’t random: It falls most heavily on low-income, black, and Hispanic buyers, who are given worse mortgage terms, and whose neighborhoods are systematically more likely to see low or even falling home values, with devastating effects on the racial wealth gap.

But let’s put all that aside for a moment. What if housing were a low-risk, can’t-miss bet for growing your personal wealth? What would that world look like?

Well, in order for your home to offer you a real profit, its price would need to increase faster than the rate of inflation. Let’s pick something decent, but not too extreme—say, annual increases of 2.5 percent, taking inflation into account. So if you bought a home for $200,000 and sold it ten years later, you’d be looking at a healthy profit of just over $56,000.

Sound good? Well, what if I told you that such a city existed? What if I told you it was in a beautiful natural setting, with hills and views of the ocean? And a booming economy? And lots of organic produce?

Maybe you’ve guessed by now: The wonderland of ever-increasing housing prices is San Francisco. When researcher Eric Fischer went back to construct a database of rental prices there, he found that rents had been growing by about 2.5 percent, net of inflation, for about 60 years. And this Zillow data suggests that San Francisco owner-occupied home prices have been growing by just over 2.5 percent since 1980 as well.

Like I said, over ten years, that gives you a profit of just over 25 percent. But compound interest is an amazing thing, and the longer this consistent wealth-building goes on, the more out of hand housing prices get. In 1980, Zillow’s home price index for San Francisco home prices was about $310,000 (in 2015 dollars). By 2015, after 35 years of averaging 2.5 percent growth, home prices were over $750,000.

Now, if all you cared about were wealth building, this would be fantastic news. The system works! (Although actually even this rosy scenario is missing some wrinkles: San Francisco real estate prices did suffer enormously, if briefly, during the late-2000s crash, and if you bought in the mid-2000s and had to sell in, say, 2010, you would have taken a massive loss.) ...

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