More remodeling, less moving, and uncertainty

Another trend that is the result of the current housing market: fewer people are moving and more homeowners are remodeling what they already have.

Now, according to research, homeowners are eager to hold onto the ultra-low mortgage interest rates they were able to get after the crash, and they are leery about taking a chance on a move. Many also lack the financial wherewithal to upgrade to a larger, pricier home. They own houses that haven’t recovered enough of their value in the wake of the crash to generate the down payment needed to buy a new place.

The percentage of homeowners moving up to their next home is the lowest in 25 years, said Todd Tomalak, vice president of research for John Burns Real Estate Consulting. Instead of moving, people are deciding to make starter homes permanent and are expanding and repairing them for the long term, he said…

From 1987 to 2008, homebuyers stayed in their homes six years on average before selling, according to the National Association of Realtors. The number of years homeowners expected to stay in their homes started increasing during the housing plunge and has been at 15 years since 2010…

Last year, people spent about $320 billion on remodeling — a 5 percent increase over the previous year, Tomalak said. This year, they are expected to spend $350 billion — a 9 percent increase.

Interesting data yet there are some conflicting things going on here. This raises a few questions for me:

  1. If you aren’t moving soon, remodeling can make sense. At the same time, how does the remodeling square with homeowner’s interests in making money on their home? Many remodels do not recoup the money put into them – unless people are hoping that the tight market will keep housing values going up and up.
  2. Does the same animosity some have toward big box retailers like Walmart also carry over to Home Depot and similar stores? I know some things can vary tremendously from retailer to retailer – such as wages and benefits – but all big box stores have some similar effects including knocking out local businesses (who goes to the local hardware store for all their remodeling needs?) and contributing to an automobile culture with massive footprints on commercial stretches.
  3. On one hand, fewer people moving suggests the housing market is sluggish and this may not be good for the housing industry and the economy at large. On the other hand, people staying in the same house longer means they are more rooted in their communities (combats the critique of the soulless suburbs or the image of Americans just wanting to move up) and are avoiding senseless consumerism (just chewing up new house after new house). Is this an example where the consumer driven economy doesn’t really work in the long-run? (Or, maybe enough homeowners can be convinced that they need the newest item for their home – concrete countertops! wi-fi enabled refrigerators! – that the remodeling can pick up some of the slack.)

Claim that McMansions have proportionally lost resale value

A recent study by Trulia suggests McMansions don’t hold their value:

The premium that buyers can expect to pay for a McMansion in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., declined by 84 percent from 2012 to 2016, according to data compiled by Trulia. In Las Vegas, the premium dropped by 46 percent and in Phoenix, by 42 percent.

Real estate agents don’t usually tag their listings #McMansion, so to compile the data, Trulia created a proxy, measuring the price appreciation of homes built from 2001 and 2007 that have 3,000 to 5,000 square feet. While there’s no single size designation, and plenty of McMansions were built outside that time window, those specifications capture homes built at the height of the trend.

McMansions cost more to build than your average starter ranch home does, and they will sell for more. But the return on investment has dropped like a stone. The additional cash that buyers should be willing to part with to get a McMansion fell in 85 of the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas. For example, four years ago a typical McMansion in Fort Lauderdale was valued at $477,000, a 274 percent premium over all other homes in the area. This year, those McMansions are worth about $611,000, or 190 percent more than the rest the homes on the market.

The few areas in which McMansions are gaining value faster than more tasteful housing stock are located primarily in the Midwest and the eastern New York suburbs that make up Long Island. The McMansion premium in Long Island has increased by 10 percent over the last four years.

Read the Trulia report here.

Interesting claim. After the housing bubble burst, some commentators suggested that Americans should go back to not viewing homes as goods with significant returns on investment. Instead, homes should be viewed as having some appreciation but this happens relatively slowly. This article would seem to suggest that return on investment is a key factor in buying a home. How often does this factor into the decisions of buyers versus other concerns (such as having more space or locating in the right neighborhoods)? And just how much of a premium should homeowners expect – 190% more than the rest of the market is not enough?

This analysis also appears to illustrate both the advantages and pitfalls of big data. On one hand, sites like Trulia and Zillow can look at the purchase and sale of all across the country. Patterns can be found and certain causal factors – such as housing market – ca be examined. Yet, they are still limited by the parameters in their data collection which, in this case, severely restricts their definition of McMansions to a certain size home built over a particular time period. As others might attest, big homes aren’t necessarily McMansions unless they have bad architecture or are teardowns. This sort of analysis would be very difficult to do without big data but it is self-evident that such analyses are always worthwhile.

Super rich investing billions in office blocks, hotels

The global super rich are spending money beyond the dreams of average people on certain kinds of real estate:

The world’s super rich are turning from luxury mansions to hotels and office blocks, as they hunt for bigger property deals to preserve their growing fortunes which hit a combined $20 trillion in 2013, data showed on Wednesday.

The move into commercial property comes as wealth levels rebound after the financial crisis and home values in London and Monaco soar, prompting the rich to look for riskier investments that offer higher returns than gold or bonds.

Wealthy individuals spent $11.2 billion on hotels, offices, warehouses and shops globally in 2013, up from $7 billion in 2012 and three times the amount spent in 2008 after the crash, data compiled for Reuters by research group Real Capital Analytics (RCA) showed.

Such high net worth investors, most of whom come from Asia or the Middle East and made their fortunes in manufacturing among other sectors, often already own homes in cities such as London and Hong Kong, said Jeremy Waters, head of international investment at UK-based property consultants Knight Frank.

This is quite a flow of money. It is too bad the article doesn’t talk about the ROI on these office and hotel properties; what kind of investment can be expected in today’s economy?

I wonder if this means there just aren’t many luxury homes left in the world for the super rich. If so, this could mean builders will look for even bigger and more luxurious homes in the near future.

The best ROI in hipster neighborhoods

If you are looking to make some money in real estate, check out these hipster zip codes:

Real estate data provider RealtyTrac conjured some numbers to support what everyone already knows or suspects— that, as a developer or landlord, investing in rental housing in “hipster” nabes is a solid idea. Chicago gets three hits on RealtyTrac’s just-published top 25 list of hip zips for high return on rental properties, in descending rank: 60625 (Ravenswood, Albany Park); 60647 (Logan Square, Bucktown); and 60642 (Noble Square, River West, Goose Island). Yup, they got all the usual suspects. The above chart, interactive and expandable at the source, shows the equation for investment success in “nascent hipster markets”: a high proportion of 25-34 year-olds; a ready stock of renters; a low vacancy rate; and a climbing but still low median home price relative to average rents. Wouldn’t you know it— these are the basic conditions for any successful rental investment, almost anywhere. Why all the fuss over hipsters? Probably because the “culture” that follows this trendy group around usually matches up closely to rapid gentrification. In other words, it’s the hipster as beacon. For the frugal renter trying to stay away from big money, there’s a different use for this list. Stay tuned for follow-up RealtyTrac analysis on “top hipster zips for fix-and-flip profits.”

While hipster may appear to be a lifestyle choice, this article is a reminder of the economic conditions involving hipsters. They also have money and are interested in moving into less-than-perfect neighborhoods that have the appropriate grittiness and authenticity. Thus, a savvy investor might find properties in neighborhoods on the rise and with the influx of hipsters make some money.

It would be interesting to then look at how these investment work out over time. Getting in at the right point is important but how does that investment then work out over a long period of time? What happens when hipsters stop moving in or the neighborhood is no longer the hot one? We need to see not only this data but a ROI curve.

Should every home improvement increase the value of your home?

HGTV host Sabrina Soto discusses five home improvements that might actually lower the value of your home:

Converting bedrooms into other spaces: If potential homebuyers “see it’s a four-bedroom house, they want to go to the open house and see four bedrooms. You have to take the guesswork out,” says Soto. If you do convert a room, there’s one feature you should absolutely never mess with. Watch the video to find out what that is.

Hot tubs: Soto thinks inheriting someone else’s hot tub is a turn-off — and she’s not alone. “You’d be surprised how many potential buyers find them to be a little gross.” And once a hot tub is installed, it’s not an easy feature to remove from a deck or backyard.

Colored trim and textured walls: It seems like any potential homebuyer would see these features and know they can easily paint over them, but not so fast, says Soto. “I would much rather paint walls than trim any day — it’s a beast of a job,” she says. And textured walls are “a mess to sand down and remove. The fad is over anyway, so just let it go.” If you feel your trim is outdated, see the video for Soto’s tips on what to do.

Children’s theme bedrooms: Spending hundreds of dollars on a mural for your child’s wall is throwing money away. Not only will they outgrow it in a matter of years, but “you’re never going to get that money back when you sell, so just keep it neutral,” posits Soto.

Too much landscaping: Conventional wisdom says you want your yard to look as nice as possible, but heed Soto’s warning: you want to “keep up with the Joneses — but don’t exceed them.” To a potential buyer, gorgeous, overdone landscaping screams high-maintenance.

My question after reading this list: what if you simply want these features for yourself and not because it might add to your resale value? Granted, if you are looking to sell your house, you might not want to pursue these options. But, if you are looking to live in your house for a while, you might decide that one or more of these features is what you want.

The bigger issue is this: doesn’t a list like this perpetuate the idea that a home is primarily an investment? That is one way to view things but there are other reasons for owning a home.

If homeownership in the US isn’t about making a good investment, what is it really about?

Politicians and others argue homeownership is a good financial investment. But, if it isn’t really a good investment, what is homeownership in the United States all about?

Politicians and pundits across the spectrum regard homeownership both as the best investment a family can make and a measure of national prosperity. But a significant majority of Americans believe differently. According to a 2012 Pew survey, 86 percent of Americans now believe the key to a middle-class life is a “secure job,” almost double the share (45 percent) who say the same about owning their home. To compare, seven out of ten respondents to a Time/CNN/Yankelovich survey back in 1991 said that homeownership was essential to middle class membership, while just one-third said that a white-collar job was required. Since 2004, the overall rate of homeownership in the U.S. has declined from 69.2 percent to 65 percent…

Of course, I’m by no means advocating that we put an end to homeownership altogether and become a nation of renters. My hunch is a homeownership rate of between 50 and 60 percent is just about right; and that’s not too far from where the U.S. is now. But we can’t hide from the fact that excessive levels of homeownership — either among nations or metros — seem to be associated with lower levels of innovation, productivity and economic development.

I wholeheartedly concur with Columbia University economist Edmund Phelps (I quoted him in my book The Great Reset) when he says, “it used to be the business of America was business. Now the business of America is homeownership.”  And, he adds, “America needs to get over its ‘house passion.'”

Americans like financial investments but they also like other aspects of homeownership. Here are a few other reasons:

1. Some have argued Americans like private spaces to the detriment of public spaces. Having a home that you control, and not just rent, is the epitome of this private space. Owning a home is viewed as related to independence and self-determination.

2. Americans like to consume and houses are another consumption object. When you own, you can put your own personal stamp on the property as well as shape the house into a reflection of yourself. (This is opposed to viewing homes primarily as dwelling places, not as individual expressions.)

3. Owning a home is historically linked to the American Dream. Being able to buy your own home demonstrates that you have made it. The American Dream may indeed change in the future but it takes time to overcome this decades-old inertia.

4. This may not come up much now but homeownership was viewed in the past as a bulwark against communism.

5. Building homes as well as buying and selling them is a big industry. There is a lot of money to be made – though homeowners themselves might not make much.

6. There are long-standing negative perceptions about renters including renters are often from less desirable segments of society and renters are less committed to a community because they are more transient and don’t have the same kind of investment in their property.

While the idea of investing in a home may soon fade, there are other influential reasons Americans choose to buy homes. Economics may be a powerful motivator but it isn’t the only one when it comes to homes.

McMansions are not retirement vehicles

In a discussion of the number of Americans approaching retirement age, one economist briefly mentions one issue: the expectation some retirees had that their homes would be retirement vehicles may be misguided.

“The fact of the matter is that this aging-but-not-yet-aged segment of the baby boomer class can’t afford to retire,” said David A. Rosenberg, the chief economist of Gluskin Sheff, a Canadian firm, noting that overall household net worth was 15 percent lower than at the prerecession peak. “Dreams of the 5,000-square-foot McMansion being a viable retirement asset have morphed into nightmares of a deflationary ball and chain.”

This is indicative of a larger shift: with the ongoing housing crisis, homeowners can’t expect to cash out their homes in the same way they might have in the late 1990s and early 2000s. McMansions are emblematic of people taking out large mortgages and then having difficulty in paying off their mortgages or moving (“downshifting”) to a cheaper residence because of the reduced value of their homes. Of course, this shift moves housing back to its historic role as a dwelling but not necessarily as a golden nest-egg for retirees.

I would be interested in knowing at which age people tend to purchase McMansions or other large homes. For example, buying a McMansion in one’s 50s might not be the best idea if someone wants to retire at 65. If a homeowner is willing to live in a home for a longer period of time, say more than 10-15 years, then such a purchase might not be as unreasonable as the homeowner can pay off more of their mortgage. Living in a home long-term may not be possible for everyone given changing job circumstances as well as the general mobile nature of American society but there are ways to help ensure one could make more money off of selling a large home.