We tasted the promise of the American dream as we toured the townhouse in suburban Atlanta.
“If you want this house at all, make an offer before leaving today,” our Realtor advised. This is a popular neighborhood, and houses typically sell within days.
Yet my husband and I still rent.
This decision equates to throwing away money every month, or so people warn. But before spending our savings on a house, we did some calculations and reached a startling conclusion: Houses are a riskier investment than people claim.
“A lot of people have an exaggerated idea of likely future appreciation,” said Robert Shiller, professor of economics at Yale University. Shiller won the 2013 Nobel Prize in economic sciences and co-created the Case-Shiller Index of U.S. house prices.
His research of home prices from 1890 to 1990 shows that, adjusted for inflation, home prices increase by less than 1 percent a year. A housing bubble has come and gone since then, but the fact of home prices remain: “It’s going in a seesaw pattern,” Shiller said.
That means on average, home prices in the United States increase by the same rate as inflation.
“I was a past financial planner for people, and certainly I wouldn’t have clients and I wouldn’t feel good about providing investment opportunities that would only go up by inflation. That’s fairly trivial,” said Darren Hayunga, assistant professor of real estate at the University of Georgia and a certified financial planner. “I could almost put my money in government bonds and also make inflation.”
After my husband and I did our housing calculations, we doubted ourselves. Everyone – family, strangers, even the government with its mortgage interest tax deduction – pushes the idea that homeownership is a natural step. A reliable investment. The American dream.
How could so many people have this equation wrong?
“I think maybe we get a little skewed by some of the positive stories we might have heard at times,” Hayunga said. “It’s not bad at all to rent. It’s kind of become the great American dream to buy, but that great American dream comes with things,” such as paying interest, homeowners insurance, maintenance and sometimes homeowner association fees.
When you add that onto the fact that homes do not increase in value, owning may not be the best deal. So don’t buy a house purely as an investment. Consider why you need shelter. Perhaps you have a family or a love of DIY.
When making our decision, my husband and I focused on our preferences for easy moving and minimal time spent on home maintenance. Landlords cover maintenance, not to mention taxes, for you. So the clear choice for our lifestyle is renting while investing the money we would have used for a house. But everyone has a different decision to make.
It helped cement our choice when Shiller told of his recent efforts to fix a toilet in his 1924 home.
“[Renting] is much more convenient. You don’t have to worry,” Shiller said. “Everything’s idiosyncratic when you buy a house. This toilet is 80 years old, and they can’t necessarily fix it anymore. We have to throw it out and get a modern one, but we like this old toilet. So I have to fix it myself.”
If you’re interested, that home we toured is still on the market after more than three months. And it’s only from 2004.
Adina Solomon is a writer living in the Atlanta area.