Misleading claims by "Real Estate Gurus"
Many self-proclaimed real estate gurus espouse the idea that you cannot live an asset. By the same meaning, they would therefore declare your primary residence a liability. I believe that this type of thinking is misleading at best and incorrect more often that not.
The reasoning behind the claims that housing is a liability are centered on the argument that as long as you live in your home, it is unable to generate rate of return for you. With the failure to generate a rate of return, the industry "gurus" would likely inform you that your house is disqualified from being an asset.
Rate of returns in real estate involve more than just rental property income however. Just because you do not have positive monthly cash-flow in the form of rental income, does not mean that your primary residence cannot be an investment.
An asset is can technically be classified as anything that has the potential to produce positive economic value. Unless your house became worthless the second after you signed at closing, it cannot possibly be considered anything other than an asset. Whether your home is an appreciating or depreciating asset however, is an article for another day.
What kind of return on investment (ROI) can you expect from real estate in general?
According to data collected by Jorda et. al. (2019) from the time period of 1870 to 2015- over a century's worth of data- equities (stocks) beat real estate returns 8.46 to 6.10% respectively after being adjusted for inflation.
That 2.36% difference (8.46 vs. 6.10) in returns is actually attributed largely due to the inclusion of rental yields into the equation. The reality is, capital appreciation is much closer to 1% over the long term, according to Shiller (2000).
Many will argue that the measly 1% capital appreciation on homes is bringing down the real number associated with total real estate rental yields. They insist that rental yields are much higher than just 6.1%. The only problem is, there is insufficient data to support those claims. The reality is that rental real estate yields are very wide ranging and extremely difficult to predict ahead of time due to known long-term costs associated with the property.
Why are the costs of rental real estate relatively unknown and difficult to predict?
The expenses associated with owning this property are variable and largely unknown throughout the lifetime holding of any given property.
Consider just some of these unexpected expenses associated with ownership in real estate:
I digress, because we are talking home ownership as an investment, not rental real estate. To evaluate a home as an investment, we will need to know how much a house appreciates over time. This will allow us to measure it's monetary value as an investment.
How much does a typical home appreciate in value?
To find the best answer to this multi-factorial question, we can take a look at the Case-Shiller Home Price Index. This appears to be the best index associated with the national home price index. Keep in mind, the Case-Shiller index excludes new home construction (there is a separate index for that) and focused primarily on resale of existing homes within a given time period. This is good news because most of us in the FI community focus on used real estate for purchase and ownerhsip.
When digging through Shiller's website data (available on his website for free), I found historical data---measured with a 3 month moving average---since 1953 (I chose 1953 as a starting point because that appears to be the year they began updating the index on a monthly basis).
Now, the data is broken into real and nominal values. The difference is crucial. The real home price index is adjusted for inflation and is updated for "today's dollars". The nominal price index does not adjust for inflation.
What's the difference between real and nominal home value?
The real home price index from 1953-2019 increased by 54.16%
So why is there such a difference between real and nominal home prices?
Again, the nominal home price increase is much larger in the example above because it fails to account for the fact that the market value of $1 in 1953 is not the same as the market value of $1 in 2019. This is primarily due to inflation.
In other words, a single dollar went "much further" in 1953 than it does today. Plain and simple.
That is why the real home price index is a more useful tool in calculating the expected annual rate of return of housing. The index essentially equates yesterday's dollars with today's dollars by adjusting for inflation.
By evaluating the change in real home price index figures from 1953-2019, I calculated an annualized rate of return of 0.81% per year of capital appreciation of a typical home over that 67 year period
Admittedly, I will occasionally round up and use a full one percent per year figure in my articles since many market critics will recognize a full percentage point as an accurate figure.
Now that we have calculated the expected annual rate of appreciation of your home, let's dive into the discussion of seeing your home as an investment.
Plenty of confusion surrounding the word investment
Most people simply do not even understand the basics of what is considered an investment. An investment is something that you attain now with the prospects of benefit in the future.
Typically, this is referred to in terms of financial gain. However, this is entirely misleading due to the fact that there are many types of investments don't even generate a positive return.
Some examples of investments that fail to generate positive returns over the long-term:
These are all acknowledged as investments, yet they lose money. So sure, your house can still "lose money" if you sell it at the wrong time, but it's still worth something.
Technically speaking, an investment is simply something that you anticipate will be worth something in the future. You hope it will be worth something in the future that is of benefit to you. But remember, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Your definition of "benefit" is not a universal definition, it is unique to you only. Many would simply be happy knowing that their house will be worth something someday, regardless of how it compares to the original purchase price--especially if it's paid for.
But can your house make your rich like other investments?
Yes. At least indirectly it can improve your overall net worth.
One of the best write-ups I have seen on this conversation is found here, written by Michael Bluejay. This guys does a great job of analyzing the entire circumstances of a home ownership in a simple, one-page article. He breaks down the concept of "Rent we didn't have to pay" as line item in expenses.
Rather than reinventing the wheel, Bluejay discusses how the average person will have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent over a 30 year period---which is also the length of the average mortgage.
He breaks down the difference in value of two scenarios:
The math is extraordinary but the numbers are very practical and they do check out. See them for yourself here.
The punchline in Bluejay's article is that by renting you lose over $300,000 over a 30 year period, even if you invest the difference between renting and buying. He recognizes in his example that home ownership may appear to lose money as well, but that's if you forget to include "Rent you didn't have to pay". Basically, this is what he considers to be an objective measure of "having a place to live".
Paying rent over 30 years--at $1,200 per month--would cost you a total of $432,000. At the end of that 30 years you have nothing to show for the $432,000 spent in rent. What's even worse is that this calculation does not even account for the fact that your rent will most assuredly increase over the course of the next 30 years.
Even if renting costed you $300 less per month than buying---which is lunacy because in many desirable areas renting is actually just as expensive, or even more expensive, than buying---and you invested that difference over 30 years with an 8% return. You would have $407,819. You didn't even break even! Not to mention that you also don't have a place to live after 30 years of hard work. That's a terrible trade-off.
So yes, home ownership is considered an investment.
Why Your Primary Residence is the Best Real Estate Investment out there.
First and foremost, let's address the intangibles. Home ownership, subjectively, is:
You get the idea. A home is a chance to actually have a stake in something in the world. Your own plot of land (be careful though, it's not really yours until you pay off that mortgage).
Objectively, a home is a place to build equity. To realize appreciation, even if it is only 0.81% per year. Further, the faster you pay off your home, the less interest you will ultimately pay.
Many will argue that mortgages and home ownership will leave you paying nearly 2.5 times the original purchase price. I agree with that math if it takes you the full 30 years to pay off the house. That is why I recommend early and aggressive principal reductions---or buying your house in cash if you are in a position to do so.
Your home is definitely an investment. Although it does not return as much as other types of investments, it provides many intangibles (highlighted above) that are irreplaceable.
1. Shiller, Robert J. 2000. Irrational Exuberance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.