What Makes a House Perfect?

Your parents signed a contract this week to buy a house, Vera. It’s in their targeted neighborhood and school district. Finding a suitable house was a long process. Inventory in that desirable area of Indianapolis hasn’t been high, but demand has been very strong. Often, houses sold within hours or a day or two. It was common for multiple bids to be received by sellers, triggering bidding wars. I think your parents were outbid on at least one occasion; perhaps more. But, finally, they landed one.

I haven’t seen the house yet, other than the photos on the realtor’s website. It looks nice. I think you’ll like it there. I’m pleased because it isn’t far from the Monon, which means we’ll be able to bike to your place.

As with almost all houses in this part of town, the house was built some time ago (i.e., it has some age, just like me). I’m sure there will be some things that need updating. Or perhaps some renovations will be in the works. Age has certain advantages when it comes to houses (construction quality usually was better back then), but certain disadvantages (certain materials weren’t available then). The bottom line is, the house probably will be very suitable and nice, but not perfect. That’s where you come into the picture.¬†You can help make it perfect.

A perfect house, you see, has nothing to do with the quality of construction or type of materials used. But it has everything to do with what’s inside.

Inside a perfect house you’ll find a loving family. One whose members nurture, challenge and support each other. Who are there for each other no matter what. Who are kind and forgiving. Who laugh and celebrate together. Who cry and grieve together. Who are honest with each other. Indeed, inside a perfect house you will find the world as it could be.

You are one lucky little girl. You have wonderful parents. And you have your health and a bright future.

You and your parents already have a perfect house. But you’ll be moving soon. It’s not far from where you currently live. You’ll be leaving your old house behind. But you’ll be taking with you all the things that make your old house perfect and will make your new house just as perfect.

I can’t wait to visit.

Treat Your House as a Home, Not an Investment

We live in a hot real estate market. Colorado and, in particular, what’s called the Front Range (roughly, the populated area on the east side of the Rockies extending from Cheyenne to Pueblo) are highly desirable areas. Each year thousands of people move here from other parts of the country. I was one of them in 2012. All else being equal, I can’t think of a better place to live.

Due to the increased demand for housing and relatively high site development costs (for instance, it cost $30,000 just to tap into the water line for a new house where we live), the housing supply is limited. In general, especially from Denver to Boulder to Fort Collins (our home turf), demand exceeds supply.

So you’d think that houses that are put on the market would sell quickly. And some do. But quite a few don’t.

Frequently, we walk around a golf course that’s just to the north of our neighborhood. One thing we’ve noticed over the three plus years we’ve lived here is the length of time it takes for some houses to sell in the neighborhoods adjacent to the golf course. Just now there are several houses that have been sitting on the market for months. The houses are nice, in a great location and some have fantastic views. So what gives?

My intuition has been confirmed by some local realtors I know. The problem is the owners: They’re simply unwilling to sell for the price prospective buyers are willing to pay.

On the surface, this seems crazy. Price is set by the market. If your property doesn’t sell because it’s priced too high, then drop the price. It will sell. Yet many sellers of houses are stubborn. They refuse to hear what the market is telling them.

This situation isn’t unique to the Front Range. When we lived in Virginia, I knew a guy who had been sitting on his former (then vacant) home for a couple of years or more. The house was worth $x, he thought, and he wasn’t going to sell it for less. It didn’t matter what the market had to say.

So what’s the root cause of this seemingly irrational behavior? It stems, I believe, from the mistaken belief that your home is an investment. And from our tendency to be guided by emotions and not reason. (See We Live In an Irrational World)

Now, it’s true that a few people have made lots of money selling their homes. But, on average, they don’t.

Most people break even at best (after factoring in inflation, maintenance, mortgage interest and taxes, or when comparing the cost to what they would have spent by renting); many people don’t even do that well. On average, treating your house as an investment is not a sound investment decision. Indeed, housing has yielded an average annual return of only 0.2% over the past 100 years.

There have been exceptions. If an area becomes hot (for example, because of a major employer moving into the area), or if a bubble forms in the housing market (which has happened from time to time and undoubtedly will happen again), then the value of a house can become inflated, thereby yielding a robust return on investment if you sell before the bubble bursts. Moreover, if you buy your house when the housing market has collapsed, then you eventually may well earn a robust return simply because you bought at the right time. But those are the exceptions.

Yet the exceptions appear to form the general rule. Hence, some people come to believe their homes are not only a place to live but also their principal investment vehicle. So, when it comes time to sell, they allow their homes to sit on the market, waiting for the bigger fool to come along. Sometimes that fool appears, but more often than not he doesn’t.

I suspect another reason for this stubbornness on the part of sellers is their dependency on this asset stemming from their lack of alternative investments. They want to make a killing because their financial well-being depends on it. Or perhaps they overpaid when they bought it and can’t bring themselves to take a loss when they sell it.

A sense of desperation leads to poor decisions. So does loss aversion. Take note, Vera: those principles extend far beyond housing decisions.

There are good reasons to own a house. But there are some flimsy ones, too.

If you choose to buy instead of rent, Vera, remember this: the prudent course of action is to treat your house as a home, not an investment.

More generally, it’s prudent to endeavor to be rational and not emotional when it comes to your finances. Perhaps without exception in the world of investments, emotions will lead you astray.