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Is Your Home A Good Investment?

  • MAY 27, 2009 - Wall Street Journal Online
Is Your Home A Good Investment?As assets, homes provide only modest annual returns in the long run.
There's the usual talk about what the latest Case-Shiller house price data mean for the next short term move in the real estate market. Has housing bottomed? If not, has the rate of decline slowed? And when will we see an upturn?

Human nature likes the short term. Which is why so little attention is paid to something that is probably more important, if less urgent: What the latest data show about the long-term of the real estate market.

And it's startling.

We have just been through the biggest boom in real estate in American history. The subsequent bust surely hasn't finished.

Bloomberg News

Dropping home prices are only one of the factors that keep the annual returns on homes low.

Yet look at the numbers. Since 1987, when the Case-Shiller index of 10 major cities begins, it's risen from an index value of 63 to 151. Annual return: Just 4.1% a year. During that period, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, consumer prices rose by 3% a year. Net result: Home prices produced a real return of just 1.15% a year over inflation over that time.

Critics may point out that the analysis is unfair -- after all, it starts counting near the peak of the 1980s housing boom. Fair enough. Look at the performance since, say, early 1994, when home prices were near a historic trough. Surely someone who bought then has made a bundle.

Not necessarily. Since then the ten-city index has risen from a value of 76 to 151. Annual return: 4.7%. Inflation over that period: 2.5%. That's still only a real return of 2.2% a year above inflation.

You can often do better on long-term inflation protected government bonds.

And real estate often costs 2% or more a year in property taxes, condo fees, maintenance, insurance and the like.

Conventional wisdom long held that home ownership was a route to wealth, and the imputed rent -- in other words, the right to live in your home -- was just part of the value you got from it. Under that widespread view, the recent housing bust was simply a temporary, though deep, pothole.

Yet for very many people, even over the past 15 or 20 years, the imputed rent may have been all, or nearly all, the real value they actually got from their home.

Yes, it's only recent data. And it's only ten cities. But there's some reason to suspect these numbers may, if anything, flatter real estate performance. After all, it's hard to look at the data and figure the bust is now over. And if they fall further, those long-term return figures will fall too.

Prices weren't just down 19% over the past year. They fell 2% just between February and March. And it's not the worst-hit markets that worry me the most -- Phoenix is down 53% from its peak, Miami 47%. That smells of capitulation. It's the other markets. New York and Boston are only down 20%. Denver's only down 14%.

Overall the ten- and 20-city Case-Shiller indices are merely back to mid-2003 levels. After the biggest boom and bust on record, history suggests things don't stop getting worse until they've gotten a lot worse than that.

Write to Brett Arends at