McMansion values still slow to recover in one wealthy Chicago suburb

The values of McMansions may be proportionally down and evidence from one well-off Chicago suburb suggests they are selling at similar prices to 15 years ago:

In South Barrington, home to swathes of McMansions, the market has been slow to recover. There, large single family homes regularly hit the market at the same prices they sold for in the ’00s, indicating an enduring lack of demand in the northwestern suburb.

Despite the risk that these homes presented leading up to the recession, it would seem they’re a more sensible investment today — so long as buyers know what they’re getting into. Pound for pound, McMansions are a ton of house for the money. But they’re not speculative equity, and they’re not a retirement account.

It would be helpful to see more data across suburbs. Without such figures, it is hard to know if:

  1. Is this an issue related to Barrington and its location and amenities? The suburb is almost all white and Asian and has a median housing value of just over $800,000. Is there less demand for housing in this particular location?
  2. Is this a problem for all McMansions in the Chicago area? If people are indeed seeking more “surban” locations or Baby Boomers are all trying to unload their McMansions at once, there might be relatively few buyers for such homes in a region of over 9 million residents.
  3. Are the particular features of these homes limiting the value? This could be due to particular features of the homes or many are now up for updates that have not been done.

The issue may not be McMansions at all: perhaps it is the mindset common among Americans that houses should be investments that increase significantly in value.

American homeowners with $5.8 billion of tappable equity

A new statistic hints at the shift of homeownership from having a piece of private property to the home as an investment: Americans have nearly $6 billion in home equity.

Homeowners now have a collective $5.8 trillion in tappable equity, the highest volume ever recorded and 16 percent above the last home price peak in 2006. The average homeowner with a mortgage gained $14,700 in tappable equity over the past year and has $113,900 available to draw. This is the amount over and above 20 percent of the value of the average home…

More borrowers are doing cash-out refinances, even at a higher interest rate, because they are leery of the variable rates on HELOCs. But overall, just 1.17 percent of available equity was tapped in the first quarter of this year, the lowest amount in four years. Why? They may not know just how rich they are.

What good is an investment if the owner is not cashing in on it? Seriously though, suggesting that Americans are sitting on a pot of gold – their own homes – is an odd proposition. Should they all sell at once? Already, some have wondered what happens when large numbers of Baby Boomers want to be out of their homes. All get home equity lines or credit or cash out refinances? This could drum up more business for lenders but may not necessarily be good for the homeowners. Or, the as the article hints at, what if housing values drop after large numbers of people tap into their equity? We have seen what can happen there by looking back at the late 2000s with many foreclosures and underwater homes.

All together, all that equity may actually be fairly hard for everyone to benefit from.

Two new options for those aspiring to a mortgage: take on an investor or list on Airbnb

Axios highlights two businesses trying out some models that could help potential homeowners acquire a home:

James Riccitelli, CEO of Unison Home Ownership Investors, says in an interview with Axios that he is consistently surprised that nobody in the decades-long history of U.S. housing finance had thought of the company’s business model. Unison co-invests with prospective homebuyers—typically putting 10% down along with a bidder’s own 10%, helping them qualify for a standard 20%-down home loan. Depending on the lender Unison partners with, a homebuyer can end up putting as little as 5%:

  • Unison’s investors—who Riccitelli says are typically large pension funds with long investment time horizons—realize a profit only when the home is sold. The product is attractive to such investors because they need assets that match their liabilities, i.e. pension payments sometimes 30 or 40 years away.
  • Other than a few private equity funds that bought up cheap single family homes at the housing market’s bottom between 2010-2012, there are few ways for investors to own a diversified pool of residential real estate, a market that at $30 trillion is more valuable than the U.S. stock market
  • A homeowner can buy Unison out at any point after three years—as long it recoups its original investment. A homeowner can sell the home to another party at any point, however, even if it results in Unison taking a loss.
Loftium has an alternative strategy. It will will contribute $50,000 for a down payment, as long as the owner will continuously list an extra bedroom on Airbnb for one to three years and share most of the income with Loftium.

This strategy might be particularly appealing in booming markets like Seattle, where rent prices are rising even faster than home values themselves, and which are popular tourist destinations.

These present alternatives to the traditional mortgage market with one emphasizing long-term payoffs (and assuming that housing values continue to rise at investment-level rates) and the other trying to capitalize on rental opportunities in the next few years. It will be interesting to see if such options (1) become popular (and if so, how traditional lenders fight back) and (2) whether there are negative consequences to such alternatives (and reactions to them including regulation).

American homeownership was originally not about an investment

One writer suggests Americans have bought into the lie that houses are good investments:

Would it surprise you to know that if there are two equally expensive houses—one for rent, one to buy—the person who buys will pay 40 percent to 50 percent more each month? That’s what happens when you factor in property taxes, insurance, maintenance fees and assorted fees like repairs—which almost nobody does…

The truth is, most of what we’ve been raised to believe about owning a house simply isn’t true…

Run the numbers. Yale economist Robert Shiller found that from 1890 to 1990, the return on residential real estate was just about zero after inflation.


This trend toward seeing homes as a good return on investment is a recent development. Perhaps it hints at the commodification – and a need to see a potential return on investment – of everything.

But, if owning a home is not a great investment, why do Americans still privilege homeownership? Here are some historic reasons:

  1. Land is valuable. In the past, people needed land to some degree to survive. Think of all those tenant farmers in the Middle Ages who always had to pay someone else. Or think of sharecroppers in the United States. Land equaled food or the ability to run a business on your property. Additionally, having your own piece of property meant that you could get away from others as well as the government. It is that the home is your castle thing.
  2. Owning a home is a sign of material prosperity. When you are a homeowner, you have made it enough to be able to own and maintain your own property. In other words, you have the resources to waste it. This is the realization of the American Dream as George W. Bush once put it.
  3. Additionally, homeownership is a sign of dedication to your local community. Renters are assumed to be lower-income, transient, and not committed to civic organizations. Homeowners have a stake in their community because they (1) will be there for an extended time and (2) want to protect their property values (though this is also a more recent development).
  4. Combining #2 and #3, homeownership was assumed to keep people invested in capitalism as opposed to socialism. Again, if you own your own property, you want to see it do well rather than hand it over to an outside manager (the state or a landlord).

Housing policy that encourages both affordable housing and rising home values

This article points out a contradiction in housing policy: can we promote affordable housing while at the same time suggesting housing should be a good investment?

So how are these two conflicting ideas to be reconciled? Well, that’s the basic challenge of housing policy. Perhaps a start would be to acknowledge that there is, in fact, a tension here—that “protecting” or “promoting” property values is the same thing as “making housing more expensive.” It’s somewhat discouraging, for example, when community organizations claim that “affordability doesn’t mean housing values have to remain stagnant,” without acknowledging that if housing values aren’t stagnant—i.e., they’re growing—that means they’re also becoming less affordable.

But there is some hope. One thing that could help is robust production of housing that isn’t priced by the market, and therefore isn’t affected by rising market prices. That can be accomplished through public housing, privately-developed affordable housing with programs such as the low-income housing tax credit and housing vouchers. At the moment, few places produce non-market housing at anything close to a scale that would provide broad affordability, but there are encouraging examples: Portland, for instance, has created 2,300 units of affordable housing in its redeveloping Pearl District, adjacent to downtown, financed largely by taxes.

In many places, having a wide variety of housing types and sizes can also make room for people with a wide variety of incomes. My street in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago, for example, contains a handful of single-family homes, whose value at this point probably reaches into the six figures; expensive newer condo buildings; older multifamily buildings, some of which have large, luxuriously updated units, and others whose apartments are somewhat smaller, or have less up-to-date finishes; and a few single room occupancy buildings, with minimal accommodations. As a result, there is market-rate housing for everyone from upper-middle-class professionals to working-class immigrant families to low-income elderly adults. Of course, that sort of diversity is typical of a pre-zoning “illegal neighborhood”: A vanishingly small proportion of American neighborhoods allow that sort of mix to be created today, which is a large part of the problem. Making these kinds of neighborhoods more common might make America’s housing policy a little more cohesive and less contradictory.

In the explanation of why we have two contradictory positions, I think two key pieces are missed. One is the political dimension of these two goals for housing. Both have broad appeal – people want to be able to move to better neighborhoods even as they want higher housing values – and politicians continually push homeownership for the average American.  This has been a common theme going back to the 1920s (see an example from 1931). To put it bluntly, it helps secure votes. Second is the role of residents themselves who continue to want both outcomes. Policy, particularly at the federal level, is important here and a number of scholars have noted how decisions about mortgages and urban renewal privileged homeownership in the suburbs. Still, numerous residents practice NIMBY behavior, resisting change once they have their secure position within the home and neighborhood they want. Given the amount of money required to buy a home – it is the biggest single investment many people will make – this is understandable but it certainly doesn’t help others.

Both of the proposed solutions above are difficult to pull off. Using public money for public housing or affordable housing has been opposed since the early 1900s. Having mixed use and mixed income neighborhoods may be popular with some (New Urbanists, young people moving to the city) but it doesn’t get the same level of support from the broader public. To have housing for all or many would mean giving up some on the idea of housing as investment but those with more means – from the middle class on up – will not like this idea one bit.

Forbes offers 6 investing tips for buying suburban McMansions

A contributor to Forbes offers “6 Investing Tips For Buying That McMansion In The Suburbs Now.”

Buy like a landlord.

Check your price-rent ratio.

Look at inventory.

Consider an ARM.

Know when to buy new.

Consider realty stocks instead.

Renting McMansions has been suggested as a possible opportunity but I don’t know of anyone doing this on a large scale. The real estate dip in recent years boosted demand for rental units yet the construction of larger homes has been one of the healthier parts of the housing market.

If critics are right, how much demand would there be to rent McMansions in sprawling neighborhoods? Even this investor notes:

Both renters and buyers will pay a premium for close-in or “new urbanist” suburbs with short commutes to offices, high walkability and nearby stores and restaurants.

This doesn’t describe the typical McMansion. The price point for purchasing a McMansion to make a decent rental income must be pretty low.

More Americans again view owning a home as a good investment

The burst housing bubble reduced the value of many homes yet more Americans are again seeing a home as one of their best investments:

According to a recent Gallup poll, real estate beats out stocks, bonds, savings accounts and even the Great Recession’s investment darling, gold, as the favored form of long-term investment. A full 30 percent of Americans see real estate as the best investment—up from just 19 percent in 2011.

A new survey by the Pulte Group echoes such sentiments: 35 percent of Americans reported that they would like to buy a home soon in part because they see it as a smart financial investment, said Valerie Dolenga, spokesperson of Michigan-based home builder, Pulte Homes.

This kind of growing confidence should make us all wonder, though: Haven’t we learned anything from the housing crash? One of the big takeaways from the crash was to avoid this exact line of thinking…

Now that the market is recovering, and home prices are growing again—in fact home prices are at an all-time high in nearly 1,000 cities across the country, according to Zillow—the siren song of seeing your home as an investment is becoming tempting once again.

Then four tips are offered to help ensure your home can be a decent investment: location matters, buy a home that needs some work so you can increase its value, “don’t buy the best house on the block,” and expect to stay in the home a while to allow the value to increase. In other words, a house is not automatically a good investment yet good planning can go a long ways.

At the same time, sentiment about seeing homes as good investments is not necessarily related to making bad choices about buying houses. In other words, we need to see how these beliefs become translated into actions. For example, more Americans may want to buy homes but if other pieces are not in place, such as good inventory or readily available mortgage credit, then this may not lead to another housing bubble. The bigger issue may come when everyone involved from buyers to lenders to the media gets caught up in a housing rush and it takes on an inertia of action that goes far beyond consumer sentiment.

Finally, views on homeowership as a good investment are tied to other factors:

Upper-income Americans are much more likely to say real estate and stocks are the best investment, possibly because of their experience with these types of investments. Upper-income Americans are most likely to say they own their home, at 87%, followed by middle (66%) and lower-income Americans (36%). Gallup found that homeowners (33%) are slightly more likely than renters (24%) to say real estate is the best choice for long-term investments.

Social class and wealth matter when determining what are viewed as good investments.

McMansions can derail your retirement plans

Amidst concerns baby boomers will have difficulty selling their homes, here is a suggestion that buying a McMansion can derail retirement plans:

We occasionally hear about a friend who somehow saved up enough money, or just decided to chuck it, and walks off to retire at age 60, 55 or even 50. It can be done.

Also, some people live in a McMansion, drive a Tesla, and vacation in the south of France. But we know it’s a very expensive lifestyle. And we know we all can’t afford it, as the real estate bust of the 2000s so cruelly reminded us. We need to appreciate that, like buying a McMansion, taking early retirement is a very expensive proposition. Yes, a fortunate few can afford it. But most of us just have to get real.

Two things are interesting here. The first is that purchasing a McMansion seriously hampers retirement plans. Purchasing one uses up a lot of money and saddles the owner with a large mortgage (plus the home might be underwater and it can cost a lot to fill such a large home). A more prudent investor would purchase a more modest home rather than splurging on a McMansion.

The second interesting part of this is the comparison to owning a Tesla or vacationing in France, both relatively rare things. For example, Teslas start around $70,000 and only about 22,500 were sold in 2013. In the 2000s, it was common to see McMansion purchases compared to SUVs, a mass production item that cost much less than a Tesla. The implication then is that McMansions are even rarer today, making it even more of a folly to own one.

Americans like homeownership – but some really dislike the process of obtaining a mortgage

Recent data suggests numerous Americans don’t like the process of getting a mortgage:

To be fair, a little more than half the 1,000 people polled this fall found the buying-lending experience rather simple and easy to navigate. But nearly 1 in 4 said they would rather gain 10 pounds, and almost 1 in 8 would rather spend 24 hours with the person they dislike the most.If you think that’s bad, 7% would rather have a root canal, and almost that many would choose a night in prison over going through the mortgage process again.

Asked another way — “Which of the following makes you extremely uneasy or anxious” — obtaining financing again scored very low in the Guaranteed Rate study. In fact, more people were more comfortable with public speaking, being in high places, flying in an airplane, being around snakes and being in a confined space than they were going through the mortgage process.

This flies in the face of the latest J.D. Power mortgage origination satisfaction study, which found that more borrowers were pleased with their lenders now than at any time in the last seven years.

Overall customer satisfaction improved for the third consecutive year. But as you might expect, first-time buyers who have never had to navigate the system weren’t as tickled as repeat buyers and refinancers.

I remember a whole mess of paperwork though the actual numbers and costs didn’t seem too complicated. Several pieces of this process might lower people’s satisfaction:

1. The idea that someone knows all of your financial information. Americans are pretty guarded about their incomes (try bringing it up even vaguely in social settings) so even though the bank needs all of this information, it makes people nervous.

2. The purchase of a home will be the biggest single investment many people make so it induces nervousness about being tied down and having to make monthly payments for the next (usually) 30 years. Perhaps this kind of investment should make people nervous…

3. First-time homeowners are not well educated about what it takes to purchase a home, even if they have a strong idea that they should purchase a home. For example, HGTV shows the mortgage process isn’t much of anything at all: you go from liking a home, making an offer, to living happily ever after in the home. Granted, getting the mortgage and working out the details is not exciting television but there is little information about mortgages conveyed by these shows.

It is too bad the article doesn’t discuss the characteristics of those who disliked the mortgage process more. Could it be disproportionately lower-income residents who don’t have that much money to spare? Could it be younger adults who are used to processes going quicker?