Recently I considered buying a house as an investment, because of historically low interest rates and looming inflation. I eventually decided against it for several reasons. I wanted to write out those reasons so that I can stop spending further brain cycles on it. I also wanted to document why I don't recommend buying a house as an investment to anyone.
Why I will never invest in real estate
The moral argument against real estate investing
We all want to change the world. The simplest way to change the world is by changing how you spend your money. What you spend your money on is a vote for what you want to see in this world. Buying an expensive car signals to the world that you want to see more expensive cars. Paying millions of dollars for a house signals to the world that you want (or are at least OK with) housing being so expensive.
There is nothing difficult about building more houses. It's not like going to Mars, we already have the technology. As a society, we just chose not to build with all the zoning laws and regulations.
It's weird that real estate is seen as an investment asset. Investment is about putting your money into technologies that will increase productivity and output of goods. A house by itself doesn't produce anything. Investing in real estate is like investing in kitchens or cars. However, historical reasons made housing act like an investment vehicle, this behavior has been reinforced through laws and rules and that's why we don't expect housing prices to fall with technology like other goods. However, housing is a basic need like food that should be a consumption asset, hence, it's supposed to be affordable and reliable.
The current housing situation in the U.S. is the opposite of that, with most houses being old and extremely expensive. This is terrible for the younger generations who can't even dream having a family and kids in the current market conditions. Millennials only own 4% of the real estate in the U.S, so no wonder most young people live with their families, they are single or childless. Most of the real estate is held by older generations who have multiplied their wealth over the decades while we have stripped younger generations of their hopes and dreams. We sacrificed the most important thing for any society to flourish. Source
I decided against investing in real estate on moral grounds because I am extremely unhappy with the current situation and I want this to change.
The financial argument against real estate investing
The tailwinds behind real estate price appreciation are slowing down or reversing
Global migration from rural areas to urbanized areas globally has contributed massively to the astronomical rise of real estate prices. However, urbanization rates have already come to a halt in the developed world and they have been decelerating rapidly in the developing world. Source
Interest rates have come down to a few percentage points over the last decades, and are now close to the theoretical limit of 0%. Since creditors wouldn't provide below 0% mortgage rates, we can assume that we are close to peak interest for borrowing money for real estate. Source
Covid-19 forced everyone to spend most of their time at home, causing massive demand increase for real estate, while the supply is squeezed to record levels. This even caused lumber prices to reach record levels. This extreme low supply, high demand situation is temporary and will be relieved as Covid comes to an end. Source
The democratization of finance and investing threatens real estate's throne
Historically, most people didn't have access to equity markets (investing in the stock market required capital and intermediaries until very recently). This is partially why most of the wealth is stored in real estate.
The recent democratization of finance enabled anyone to participate in alternative investment methods including stock markets, derivatives, commodities, futures and cryptocurrencies. Culture changes slowly, but I expect younger generations to store less than 70% of their wealth in real estate.
There is also an argument to be made about contrarian investing here. There is nothing contrarian about investing in real estate, and we know that * To make higher than average returns, embrace being uniquely wrong.
There are several technologies which might make real estate prices to go down
Remote work is already allowing a certain percentage of workers to work from anywhere, making location less important. Augmented or virtual reality can provide the sense of presence we get from being physically in the same space, also making location less important.
Self driving cars will decrease the importance of location, allowing people to commute from farther locations in a faster and safer way.
Automation will decrease the demand for human labor, allowing communities to be less densely populated
Plant based meat and vertical farming will possibly unleash large areas for housing projects and development of new cities.
The trend towards building online communities instead of local communities will decrease the benefits of agglomeration. Humans tend to have niche desires, and technology will allow us to connect with anyone in the world who shares the same interests.
You should only invest in things that you know
People should only invest in the things they work on and know. I work in technology, live and breathe it in my daily life. I have lots of information about lots of technology companies and products. Since I am an early adopter in several technologies, investing in the technologies that I personally use usually returns me good ROI.
The practical argument against real estate investing
Real estate investing and management have a lot of hidden costs. Apart from buying and selling costs and hassles, real estate also has an ongoing maintenance cost. I am not only talking about the financial cost here, the bigger deal is that it requires my time and attention.
I am trying to be very cognizant of where I spend most of my time, and I have come to realize that I don't want to spend any time on real estate maintenance. I tried outsourcing this in the past, but still got annoyed because it doesn't help with any of my life priorities unlike other investments.
To be fair, investing in the stock market also requires my attention, probably more so than any real estate investment. However, I see that as part of my job, because I try to put my money where my mouth/career is.
What might change my opinion?
I also have a list on why I should invest in real estate, but that list is much shorter than this one, so I decided not to include it here. To summarize, most scenarios to invest in real estate are about either safety or pessimistic scenarios about the future. I am a super optimistic person who believes deeply in technology's positive impact in our lives. I should probably hedge against this optimism if I want to be more risk averse.
Also, I am not at all against buying a house to live in. I am super supportive of that if anything. All of my arguments here are about buying a house for the purpose of investment.
I am open to change my opinion, feel free to email me if you think I am wrong.