Our national situation is what’s alarming, and housing is only a small part of it. Only a few points above 60% of Americans are saddled with a mortgage. That means a shade less than 40% aren’t. But ALL are citizens of a very financially-strapped land. Our national debt loads (deficits, entitlements, infrastructure decay), coupled with unwillingness to cut spending dramatically, are far, far more important.
We have been on a slow burn downward for going on four years since the financial reality check of August, 2008. At best, we have applied mighty expensive debt-enabled “stimulus” brakes to slow our decent. Without dramatic increases in employment, wages, and concomitantly dramatic decreases in consumer debt (since we still insist upon a 70% dependence in private spending for GDP) levels quickly, our prospects for a return to prosperity, let alone large-scale home ownership are nearly nil.
What about all of this do we not understand?
Rich Arzaga owns a luxury home in San Ramon, California, but he’s not betting on it as an investment.
The founder and CEO of Cornerstone Wealth Management, who bought the 5,000 sq. ft. property in 2005 for $1.8 million and has spent $500,000 improving it, considers the abode a wonderful place for his family. But ask him to rate his home — or any home, for that matter — as a financial investment, and Arzaga balks.
“It’s the American Dream to own a home, but whoever said that didn’t do the analysis on it,” says Arzaga, knowing he’s taking a contrarian stance to conventional wisdom.
Examining 250 properties around the U.S., and going through close to 40 client files to project the financial impact of owning real estate versus liquidating it, Arzaga, an adjunct professor inpersonal finance at the University of California at Berkeley, found that, “100 percent of the time it was better to rent, rather than own.”
That’s right: 100 percent.
The reason is simple. While a home is the main repository of wealth for many Americans, it comes with numerous hefty expenses. The carrying costs – what’s needed to hold and maintain the asset – range from property taxes and home insurance to emergency repairs and renovations. In a rental situation, the landlord covers those costs, leaving the occupant free to invest revenue in other areas.
“I don’t have the emotions a lot of people do surrounding real estate,” Arzaga says. “I have steely eyes for how investing in real estate works, and I’d better be a prudent investor for my clients.”
Owning a dream home, he says, creates a drain on other financial priorities, causing homeowners “not to meet their financial goals. They were going to fail.”
Some real estate experts thought there was some truth to Arzaga’s argument, albeit with several conditions.
“To state that owning a home is or isn’t a good investment is too simplistic,” says Jeffrey Rogers, president and COO of Integra Realty Resources. “It depends. In times of relatively higher rents, low home values, and low interest rates, it makes sense to own a home. But in a reverse market, it wouldn’t be economically feasible. Over time, those who purchase in down or flat markets with low interest rates come out ahead.”