Has the Time Come Again to Invest in Real Estate?

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Real estate has been the favorite whipping boy of the investment community for the past few years—heck, and most of the media too—but is it time to rethink that position? I’m not talking about the decision to buy a house as a primary residence—that’s a deeply personal decision based on your unique circumstances. No, I’m talking about real estate for investment.

A lot of people are nervous about real estate right now, and you can hardly blame them. Given the wild ride the housing market has been on for at least the past three years, this is hardly a time for unbridled optimism. Yet investing in real estate is probably a better bet than it’s been in decades.

Consider the following:

The speculation—and the high prices it caused—are gone

In many markets, house prices have come down so far that all of the speculation that caused the crash has been flushed out. The good news there is that future price declines may have been washed out of the system, lowering risk as it did.

It’s ironic that so many people were paying top dollar buying at the top of the market—and doing so confidently—and now that prices have collapsed, there are few buyers anywhere. The reality—that we now know to be true only in hindsight—is that high prices equal high risk. Much of that risk is now gone.

Cheaper than rent

House prices have fallen to a point where a typical monthly housing payment is lower than what you’d pay to rent an equivalent property. That means two things, and both are REALLY significant:

  1. There’s a greater likelihood of buying property that can generate an immediate positive cash flow, and
  2. When the typical rent exceeds the typical house payment in a given market, the situation is ripe for a surge in house prices as renters look to become owners.

From an investor’s standpoint, low prices mean rich buying opportunities. The most critical decision in any investment plan is buying smart—if you do, you lower risk and raise the likelihood of profit immensely.

When everyone is selling, it’s time to buy

The real estate market has had its purge, and the “blood is running in the streets”—which is usually considered the optimum time to buy—i.e., buy when everyone else is selling. Right now there are a lot of properties on the market and relatively few buyers. Not only has that been the driver in lower prices overall, but it also creates the opportunity to find real bargains—properties that are low priced even by today’s depreciated standards.

 

As all coins have two sides, herewith the flipside of the real estate investment coin–the negatives…

Financing is harder to get

The Great Mortgage Giveaway that began in one or more distant decades and reached its crescendo some time around 2006 is now in the history books. Getting a mortgage these days—especially for investment purposes—won’t be easy. It will require sterling credit, a large down payments, a pile of cash reserves after closing and VERIFIABLE income

You won’t have appreciation to bail you out of a mistake

THE factor that’s made real estate close to the perfect investment is the fact that—at least until 2006 or 2007—any mistakes made by a property owner would be fixed simply by hanging on to it long enough. It was called “appreciation” and it was the real estate owner’s ace in the hole. It didn’t matter if you paid too much for a property, or even if you were carrying it with a negative cash flow (a.k.a., subsidizing your tenant)—time and rising prices would cure all ills and make nearly everyone look like investment geniuses.

Well, we don’t have that critical advantage right now, and may not for a long time—if ever. Not to sound too gloomy and doomy, but the reality is that future price directions in real estate will be dependent on external factors, particularly interest rates and employment. Those cannot be predicted with any degree of certainty.

In practical terms, that means that it will be completely essential to buy property A) at prices well below even current depressed market values, and 2) at a price level that will ensure a positive cash flow from rent.

What’s old is new again, and we’re back to normal here, back to the days when investment real estate was purchased only if it made immediate investment sense. That is, the rent income should be expected to cover:

  • Principal and interest on the financing, plus real estate taxes and any required insurance
  • Expected repair and maintenance costs
  • A reasonable estimate for vacancy—the time in between tenants—as well as the marketing costs to obtain those tenants, and
  • A reasonable rate of return on the cash invested in the deal—your down payment

Real estate isn’t very liquid these days

Liquidity is a double-edged sword: the lack of it is the very reason prices have fallen so low, but it’s also why you won’t be able to flip for a profit in a few short years. Any decision to buy property will need to be long-term—check that–very long-term–in it’s time horizon.

Timing may not be the only issue on this front either. Once you buy a property, especially if you’re looking to do so for investment, all the problems of the previous owners of any house you buy will be yours. That means your property will be subject to future declines in value.

We can’t discount the possibility that the market isn’t done sliding; the same factors which have caused the value of a house to fall from say, $200,000, to $100,000 in three years could also drive it down to $50,000. Mind you, I’m not predicting that outcome, only pointing out that it can’t be discounted. Instead of get-rich-quick, we may be playing a game of get-poor-quick if prices don’t stage a convincing turnaround.
Considering all of the potential plusses and minuses involved in real estate investing, it maybe that the most important qualification that you can have going in is nerves of steel. Much like the stock market, real estate maybe a game of riding the ups and downs. But one thing we do know going in—buy now and you’ll be buying into a certified bear market—and those are usually the best times to make long-term investment decisions.

What do you think—is now a good time to move into real estate investing? Can you think of any other reasons why we should? Do you have any thoughts on why we shouldn’t?

( Photo by NNECAPA )

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10 Responses to Has the Time Come Again to Invest in Real Estate?

  1. In our view the supply overhang will keep prices falling for several more years. The overall economy is still in decline and residential real estate will not turn around, as an investment, until the jobs picture improves.

    Another important consideration is that roughly 40 out of the 50 states are bankrupt. Local governments are in no better shape. The illiquid and immobile nature of real estate makes it a prime target for property tax increases which will only serve to make these properties less attractive to a potential buyer.

    Real estate, as an investment, will turn around at some point and the key to recognizing when such a turn is approaching is when there is a reversal of the political and economic thinking that got us to where we are presently. There are hints of social unrest and discontent that could lead to a reversal of such thinking, but we think that many are still looking for the easy way out. When local and state governments appear willing to make the necessary spending cuts to regain a semblance of solvency, it would mark the beginning of the turn, but the turn could be very long, protracted, and painful.

  2. Oh, one thing we didn’t say is that this is a great article, very balanced in it’s approach to a heated topic 🙂

  3. S & D – Thanks for the praise and for the thoughtful comments. I actually agree with what you’re saying, and tried to address that in the post, at least to some degree. There is a very real possibility that prices may keep falling.

    But one thing we can gleen from past experience is that investments don’t behave the way we all expect them to, otherwise there’d be a whole lot more millionaires. This post is actually counter-intuitive for me–I tried to look at real estate investing from an entirely different perspective. When I did, I began to realize that in many markets houses are selling for a fraction of their peak value, and rents exceed house payments in many of the same places. Those are fundamental shifts.

    We can’t know with any certainty when a real turnaround in housing will come, but I do think there are some early signs that are worth examining more closely. A 2-4 unit small income property in a prime neighborhood selling at a big discount can be a real find in any investment environment.

  4. Kevin, where are folks suppose to find the money to “maintain” the property they buy?

    I feel times are still hard and people need to concentrate on the simple things of life – not real estate investments.

    And with any investment that you do not live in, where are the folks that will have cash to either rent or buy from you.

    Great post as usual – made me think.

  5. Angela – This isn’t a post for everyone-and I agree with you, times are tough. Unfortunately, bad times are usually the best time to buy investments, precisely because people don’t have money, and things can be bought at a discount. Again, it’s not for everyone, but for people with money to invest, this could be the best of times.

  6. I would think that you are right, and this market downturn in housing is an anomaly!

    If I had the money to spare, I would think about buying some property (even if to just get a taste of what it’s about).

  7. MR – I’m not sure if this is THE moment to jump back in, but potential is starting to rear it’s head. Of course, we’re not talking about the entire housing market here, but about specific deals in various pockets around the country. Disaster always brings opportunity with it.

  8. Hi Kevin, I agree with Steven and Debra that you have a balanced post but I don’t see a bottom for a while either. First of all, the mortgage resets aren’t supposed to end until 2014. Second, real estate is still not very affordable in many areas despite the decrease in prices. Third, I see many houses in my neighborhood that haven’t sold in over a year on the market, indicating a big overhang of supply. Fourth, the real unemployment rate in the US is over 20%, so I see even more foreclosures.

  9. Jennifer – I agree with everything you’ve written, no matter what, we’ve got a long road ahead. The other issue is that we have a market struggling even with record low rates. We can only speculate how bad things could get if rates were to spike upward.

    That being said, the point of the orginal post was to call out that there are deals to be had in this market–something that didn’t exist in 06-07. I would never be so bold as to call a bottom in the market–as you say, there are too many negatives still hanging out there.

  10. House prices have fallen to a point where a typical monthly housing payment is lower than what you’d pay to rent an equivalent property. That means two things, and both are REALLY significant…

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