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Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016

The ‘thrill’ of buying a house

William Hanley, Financial Post · Apr. 21, 2011

You walk into the open house, take one look and say to yourself: This is it. It’s the house I have to live in. Where do I pay? A bidding war? I’m in.

Over my years of buying houses, I never bought one that did not have that frisson moment, that thrill of finding a place so suited to my wants. Indeed, I have in the past decided that I wanted to buy a house in what seems, in retrospect, to be nanoseconds. (By contrast, I’ve taken weeks to decide on the right pair of shoes.)

It is no way to make an “investment,” to be sure. But, as I’ve previously discussed in this space, buying a house is perhaps the most uninvestment-like of investments.

Just about anyone who’s purchased a property or thought about purchasing knows that it is much about gut-feel, in which the senses can conspire to trump sense.

Now, as the major real estate selling season gets under way, along comes a survey commissioned by BMO Bank of Montreal to give statistical weight to the notion that intuition carries a particularly heavy weight in the house-buying process.

The survey by Leger Marketing found that more than two-thirds of Canadians cited a “good feeling” toward the property as a reason to buy. Meantime, though, good sense is not thrown out of that gorgeous bay window and into those manicured flower beds. More than 90% of house-hunters value affordability and location over resale value.

So, the axiom that there are three important things in real estate – location, location and location – might reasonably be replaced by the Three Ps: Price, place and personality.

Nevertheless, that resale value is not a big concern to these surveyed house-hunters – people between 25 and 45 who plan to buy a home within two years – is a telling sign of the real estate times.

With some dips here and there, Canadian house prices have been rising strongly for more than a decade. Indeed, even the recession created just a downward blip in the chart of ever-growing values, with the average national price rising 8.9% last month from the previous March (but just 4.3% excluding Vancouver).

As a result, most of the house-hunters surveyed might never have been aware of a housing market that was not rising. I suspect many in this 25-to-45 demographic believe house prices basically keep going up forever, that though they downplay resale value in the survey, the expectation for solid gains is, well, a given. (Any significant drop in prices would surely shake that belief.)

In recent times, investors have been asked if they are stocks or bonds. If you’re a stock, you are prepared to take on more investment risk. If you’re a bond, you are not.

Perhaps, though, many people are probably houses when it comes to investing. A home is both partly a stock and a bond – and somehow neither.

It is a bond because over the long term it will likely produce modest returns through the enforced savings required by paying down the mortgage. It is a stock because the gains could be outsized if the investor were to buy and sell at propitious entry and exit points for market-timing gains.

And it is neither because it is an “investment” with many moving parts and frictional costs. You don’t live in a stock or a bond, but when the house leaks, it costs money and cuts into the investment. Meantime, the costs associated with buying and selling a property are becoming more daunting in many jurisdictions, with some observers reckoning that a house is often a mediocre investment at best.

But most young first-time buyers and mover-uppers are not fazed by such commentary. Home ownership is a cornerstone of our culture, with 70% of the population owning properties and many of the other 30% looking to join the majority.

And the real estate industry has become far more adept at marketing and selling than in the days decades ago when I was in the market. Today, houses are often professionally “staged” to produce that frisson moment. Prices are sometimes set artificially low to produce that exciting bidding war and that extra frisson of “winning.”

A house, it is said, is not a home. And a home is not strictly an investment. But does a stock have granite counters? Does a bond have stainless steel appliances?

Financial Post


 

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