How Not to Invest in Real Estate

It has been nearly two weeks since I allowed myself the pleasure of writing about SmartMoney. That is certainly a streak to be proud of, but it cannot goTwo-story_single-family_home on forever. I am only human.

The problem is that there are just so many things at SmartMoney that I would enjoy discussing. How to pick only one?

There is Taming the Cost of Traffic Tickets, currently the most popular post on the site. It lists five things you can do to reduce your expenditures on traffic tickets, none of which is to avoid getting traffic tickets.

And yesterday brought Recession’s Surprise Impact on Credit Scores. Apparently, the average FICO score fell during the recession, bottomed out in 2009, and now, three years into the recovery, is back to where it was in 2007. Which is a surprise. Also, the article had the insightful warning “increasing a FICO score could be harder than lowering it.” Good to know.

But the story I choose is Is It Time to Buy Into Real Estate? I knew it was the winner from a single word in the opening paragraph.

To most people, U.S. real estate still stinks. More than a third of all mortgages are under water, with their holders owing more than their houses are worth. Home prices continue to fall in many areas of the country, and thousands of foreclosed homes are still waiting to be sold. Yet an investor no less than Warren Buffett recently said that if he could, he would buy up a couple of hundred thousand single-family homes.

In case you missed it, that word was “Yet.” The real estate market is in a shambles, prices are depressed and a legendary value investor wants to buy. Who’d a thunk it?

More substantively, although the article tells us that investors with “short memories or long time horizons” think houses are a great buying opportunity just now, and mentions that some economists agree, it never really circles back to address that first sentence, that most people think real estate still stinks.

That is just the sort of clash between popular perception and reality that a high circulation personal finance publication might be expected to resolve, or at least discuss.

Whatever the proportion of US homes under water (and there are no hard numbers on that topic, everything you see is an estimate) it is lower than it was a few years ago. Yes, there are places where house prices are down lately, but saying that they are “continuing” to fall is misleading. Compared to 2006-09, prices are everywhere stable. And although there are still foreclosures, their number is drastically reduced from the recent past, as illustrated by a chart in the FICO surprise article mentioned above.

To be fair, despite the title, the article is not about whether or not now is a good time for a consumer to buy real estate in the conventional sense, that is, by buying a house to live in. It is about how an investor could buy real estate in other ways, assuming that he thought real estate was a good buy just now, for whatever reason.

Having missed the question that is obviously more relevant for most of its readers, SmartMoney then misses the important bit from what Warren Buffet said. The key phrase is “if he could.” That the Sage of Omaha sees the fire sale prices on single family homes and wants in is not really news. What is worth considering is that he cannot act on this impulse.

Unlike stocks, bonds, and most of the rest of the investment world, investors and speculators do not have an obvious way to participate in houses. Put another way, unlike stocks, which are bought and sold primarily by professionals who do it everyday for many years, houses are bought and sold by amateurs who will generally enter into only a few transactions during their lifetime. Buffet can pick up the phone and buy billions of dollars worth of a great many things, but a few hundred thousand houses is not one of them.

For me, this is the single biggest difference between the market for houses and the market for conventional investments. It explains why the price charts for houses and stocks (or bonds, or crude oil, etc.) look so different. If a stock becomes badly mispriced, either unreasonably cheap or unreasonably expensive, there are well bankrolled professionals standing by who will take advantage of the situation and push prices back towards reality.

Not so with houses. As prices climbed beyond reason in the early part of the last decade, the Warren Buffets of the world could not take the other side and go short houses. Instead, the price rises just increased consumer enthusiasm, which spiraled prices up further. (Some sophisticated investors could short mortgage bonds backed by those houses, but in the event there were too few bears and the vehicle too indirect to have much impact.)

So what does an investor who, very plausibly, believes houses are cheap right now do to take advantage of that insight? SmartMoney gives five stock suggestions, which it labels “Smart Picks.” Some of them may have merit as investments, but all bear, at best, an indirect relationship to house prices.

There are three REITs on the list. One owns apartments in Texas. Another owns shopping malls. The third owns no real estate at all, but rather government sponsored mortgage backed bonds. Rounding out the list are a broker and manager of commercial property (office buildings) and an ETF made up of home builders.

Warren Buffet might look at that menu of second-choice options and pick one or two as the best he is going to do, or he might just take a pass and look for other mispriced things he can take advantage of.

But if you are not burdened with billions to put to work, and are just an ordinary person looking to shepherd ordinary wealth, which is to say if you are SmartMoney’s target audience, you do not need to go through all this. Just buy a house and live in it. Already got one? Trade up. Or decide you already have plenty of exposure to the house market, thank you, and pass. Too bad you do not have a popular magazine to help you through that.


  • By jim, July 18, 2012 @ 3:55 pm

    I remember hearing news that there were 1-2 companies planning to spend a large amount to buy individual single family homes in bulk.

    Colony Capital LLC apparently just won an auction of 2500 Fannie Mae foreclosed homes last week. The homes were estimated at $330M and 85% are currently operating as rentals. Colony apparently already owned 1100 homes nationwide.

    I’ve only heard of a couple companies getting involved in single homes and its not likely to put much of a dent in the market. 2500 foreclosures isn’t even 1% of the total out there in foreclosure.

  • By Neil, July 18, 2012 @ 5:11 pm

    Why can’t Warren Buffet buy a couple hundred thousand houses? Seems that this the same thing as starting his own REIT.

  • By jim, July 18, 2012 @ 7:40 pm

    This is what Buffett said:

    “Yeah, single-family homes— but if I had a way of buying a couple hundred thousand single-family homes and had a way of managing— the management is enormous— is really the problem because they’re one by one. They’re not like apartment houses.”

    So it seems that the overhead work required to manage single family homes is the key reason he’d not be interested in buying them. I agree with that management of single family homes is not as efficient or cost effective as buying an apartment complex.

  • By Bill, July 20, 2012 @ 10:40 am

    You don’t “bare” a relationship, you “bear” it.

  • By Frank Curmudgeon, July 20, 2012 @ 3:14 pm

    Sorry. Fixed it.

  • By W, July 24, 2012 @ 6:30 pm

    It seems to me that the outcome of the single family home is tied to the US population. Which is about to peak, since the newer generations are all smaller than the baby boom. Immigration could alter the picture some, but immigrants tend to be cautious participants in the housing market anyways.

    I think the net result has to be a long term drop in the demand for housing, which could lead to Case Shiller index prices below what we’ve seen historically. I could see the 10-City index below 100, which would be about 30% below current values.

    I laid out this thesis in more detail on my blog here:

    I don’t think much has changed since I wrote that.

  • By Craig, July 29, 2012 @ 11:31 am

    Single-family investment properties are generally owned in twos and threes by small-time landlords, who can handle the management as an informal part-time job…gosh, like me, all of a sudden. Professional property managers are expensive, and the nature of the business is not to realize profits for many years. There are businesses out there trying to make a go of large-scale home renting, but it’s not clear if they can pull it off.

    Vanguard offers a REIT index fund, which might be a good possibility for expressing bullishness. Swapping up to a new house and leasing out the old one is another possibility, although it is serious work and the tax implications are positively Byzantine, so it pays to talk to an accountant.

  • By, August 5, 2012 @ 10:51 pm

    It will probably take another 5-10 years for housing to turn around. It takes this amount of time for people to start forgetting how bad things are and to start becoming optimistic again.

  • By Thirdy Rosales, August 29, 2012 @ 4:02 am

    “It is about how an investor could buy real estate in other ways, assuming that he thought real estate was a good buy just now, for whatever reason.”

    Having real estate property as an investment is a good business. On the other hand, you should really take time to check some consideration that may affect your future business such as its overall location. Location is crucial these days because of some unforeseen events such as natural calamities and the like.

  • By Utd Homes, August 30, 2012 @ 4:28 pm

    The property market is very difficult to judge, we bought a 2 bedroom house at the peak of the property boom and are now left with a lot of negative equity, I hope over time we see the benefit.

  • By Rich Uncle EL, January 24, 2013 @ 9:31 am

    Housing is a good investment, I say do it if you have a good downpayment and want to stay in the area for more than 5 years. I believe those people will see a return on their money.

  • By givememoneyu, February 25, 2013 @ 6:32 am

    Anything is a good investment if you buy it for the right money and sell it for the right money. The trick with real estate is to have a low mortgage. That being said I had a good downpayment on a flat but had to stay in it for five years just to get my money back, due to a downturn in the economy. Long term I think that real estate is a great investment.

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  • By Aram Durphy, March 22, 2013 @ 12:35 pm

    If the majority of possible investors think an investment is scary, or fear further losses, it’s a good bet you can find some great value. I agree with Buffett, if I could buy up large amounts of single family homes, I certainly would.

  • By givememoneyu, March 26, 2013 @ 4:07 am

    Real estate used to be a great long term investment but with property prices so high and no real sign of a wage increase does this mean that property is not a good ivestment. Ivesting in bricks and mortar may be a saying of the past.

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  • By Mark, May 24, 2013 @ 9:49 am

    Investing in real estates is really great but it also has some risk. But I think it’s exciting to see and own different types of lots and houses.

  • By CO123, June 18, 2013 @ 2:29 am

    A little more than a year later and, according to recent statistics, you would have made 10 to 20% on your real estate investments in select markets. It pays to be ahead of the game, before everyone else realizes “it’s a good investment”.

  • By, June 28, 2013 @ 7:07 pm

    What years of birth are considered “Generation X”?

  • By برامج, August 9, 2013 @ 6:44 pm

    i agree with you
    Investing in real estates is the best way to save money value

  • By Robert, August 30, 2013 @ 9:43 am

    I’m waiting for good times

  • By Andrew, September 4, 2013 @ 3:31 pm

    I guess you are still ok with real-estate market in US. Check prices in Poland and compare it with Polish people average salary. This is hilarious.

  • By Ali, September 10, 2013 @ 8:55 am

    I’ve real estate in Polandia.

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