Once you're in the weeds of it, real estate decision-making can seem like a tricky minefield of layer upon layer of calculations, mortgage complexities and if-this-then-that dependencies, Plans B-J and lending hurdles.
But this belies the essential truth that the most important real estate decisions are, ultimately, quite simple. The most fundamental, impactful and often difficult of these to make is the decision on whether to rent or buy the place that you live in.
This decision has never been quite so tough as it is in today's post-recession market climate.
For the last eight decades or so, homeownership has been widely considered part of that game of life that is the American dream, the path of aspirations that once included: Go to college; get a great job; get married; have kids; and if you could afford it, buy a home.
Over the last generation or so, every step on that path has been questioned and deemed dubious in desirability by at least some significant number of Americans.
And the inherent value of homeownership has not escaped this social scrutiny -- in fact, the housing market recession sparked a vocal movement of "renters by choice," who deemed real estate ownership more a burden than a blessing, despite being well able to afford it.
On the other hand, the recession has also kept up the demand for (and prices of) rental housing, while slashing the values and prices of homes for sale, creating the strange and unusual dynamic of renting being as or more costly than owning a home, in a surprisingly large number of markets.
To help decision-makers sort through the overwhelming data and opinions on the topic and make the right personal decision, real estate writer Jane Hodges has just released her latest book, "Rent vs. Own: A Real Estate Reality Check for Navigating Booms, Busts and Bad Advice."
To fulfill her stated mission of cutting through the rhetoric and answering all the relevant questions that should factor into the rent-or-buy decision (including those you don't even know you need to ask), Hodges offers dozens of reality checks, success stories and cautionary tales (of renters and owners).
Here are three themes that emerge from Hodges' guidance when it comes to deciding whether to rent or own your home:
1. There's no one-size-fits-all answer to the rent vs. buy conundrum. There are pros and cons on every one of the many factors that must be balanced in making the decision.
For instance, Hodges advises that the exit strategy of moving out of a home you rent is low-risk, but also has low reward; conversely, the potential for reward is vastly greater when you buy a home -- but so is the risk level homeownership poses.
And your personal risk/reward preference is just the tip of the iceberg of considerations you'll need to factor in: things like your family's or lifestyle's space needs and how they map to your town's rental or sale listing inventory; your romantic, family and career plans; and the level of cash you have to (a) buy, (b) pay for the property over time, and (c) improve a home to your satisfaction are a few of the other critical elements that Hodges encourages readers to incorporate into their analysis.
2. Sustainable is the name of the game. Hodges devotes some serious page space to the concept of sustainability, but not the sort of sustainability that probably first comes to your mind! In addressing this new flavor of sustainability, Hodges encourages readers to limit themselves to housing obligations that they will be able to afford long into the future, by asking themselves a series of questions, like:
3. Read the real estate news very, very carefully. There is a fire hose of real estate information out there for the consumer who wants to educate himself, but Hodges cautions that much is biased or susceptible to inaccurate interpretation.
She then translates many of the recurring headlines and messages in the national real estate news, surfacing their underlying realities and deactivating their power to drive irrational guilt or overoptimism in the mind of a consumer.
She goes on to offer a decoder for the now-ubiquitous real estate data stories, helping readers understand how to draw conclusions that matter to them from data points like inventory and vacancy levels and price-to-rent ratios.
Hodges closes "Rent vs. Own" out with a smart, comprehensive compendium of all sorts of real estate resources upon which readers can draw, depending on their angles of personal interest -- from real estate memoirs to calculators to listings. If you're wrestling with the decision whether to rent or own your home, "Rent vs. Own" is a strong recommend.
Unfortunately, no book can make the decision for you, but "Rent vs. Own" applies order and sequence to a decision process that can easily grow chaotic and confusing, and is strong when it comes to surfacing relevant stories of consumers you can relate to, and issues and questions that might not otherwise occur to you until you're knee-deep in a serious situation.
Tara-Nicholle Nelson is author of "The Savvy Woman's Homebuying Handbook" and "Trillion Dollar Women: Use Your Power to Make Buying and Remodeling Decisions." Tara is also the Consumer Ambassador and Educator for real estate listings search site Trulia.com. Ask her a real estate question online or visit her website, www.rethinkrealestate.com.Read the rest of this entry »
Mortgage borrowers frequently make bad decisions, in part reflecting the complexities of mortgages and the mortgage process. But a major part of the problem is that the decision process used by many (if not most) borrowers is deficient, and the marketing approaches used by loan originators reinforce the deficiency.
In his insightful new book, "Thinking Fast and Slow," psychologist Daniel Kahneman posits that people behave as if they have two decision systems: A system 1 "operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort," while a system 2 "allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations."
System 1 is quick and effortless but often wrong, whereas system 2 requires effort but is wrong less often.
Politicians selling themselves usually appeal to the system 1 of voters, which is a weakness of democracy. Advertisers selling products or services usually appeal to the system 1 of consumers, which is a weakness of capitalism.
The immediate consequences of a course of action are usually accessible to system 1, while appreciation of long-run consequences is more likely to require the engagement of system 2. Because involvement of system 2 is work and is resisted, long-run consequences are often given insufficient weight in the decision process.
Home mortgages are a great example. The system 1 focus is the cash required to close the transaction and the initial monthly payment. Assessing the impact of a transaction on the borrower's wealth and payments in future years is complicated and requires the engagement of the borrower's system 2, which is resisted.
Borrowers who participate in the mortgage decision process solely through their system 1 are very likely to make bad decisions. In the past, I have written about borrowers who did really dumb things because they were "cash-dazzled" or "payment-myopic." These are system 1 pathologies.
Customary methods of marketing mortgages reinforce the tendency of borrowers to rely on their system 1. The key words used by loan originators, such as "savings," "lowest rate," "quick," "no-cost" and "guaranteed," appeal to system 1.
From the standpoint of loan originators, engaging the system 2 of borrowers to consider long-run consequences is risky because it may make the borrower uncertain, which can delay and possibly derail the deal.
After reading Kahneman's book, I realized that the articles, calculators and spreadsheets on my website are all designed to engage the system 2 of mortgage borrowers.
In recent years, I have also begun to realize that the impact of such aids was limited because they were not part of the loan process and therefore not immediately available to borrowers when they were making decisions.
For example, a major decision a borrower has to make is the type of mortgage: whether fixed-rate or adjustable; if fixed-rate, the term; and if adjustable, the initial rate period.
There are mortgage calculators that show the long-run as well as the short-run consequences of different choices, but the borrower has to enter the mortgage prices, which are critical to the decision. Borrowers in shopping mode must take time out to deploy a calculator, enter their best guess as to prices, and then return to their shopping; however, this is clumsy.
What was needed, I realized, was a way to integrate the calculator into the loan process so that it emerged at the exact point where the borrower had to make a decision, with the correct prices already entered. The long-run consequences of alternative decisions, using live prices, would then become immediately apparent, forcing the borrower's system 2 to respond.
Jack Guttentag is professor of finance emeritus at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Comments and questions can be left atwww.mtgprofessor.com. He has worked to create a loan network, launched in January, to help address some of the issues mentioned in this column.