In most cases, a house is still a good investment

March 15, 1992|By J. Linn Allen | J. Linn Allen,Chicago Tribune

I don't have much money, but boy if I did,

I'd buy a big house, where we both could live.

"Your Song," -- Elton John.

*

But Elton, would that be a wise investment?

What if home values were declining in your area?

What if you planned to move in a couple of years?

Would you be better off renting and putting your down payment money in, say, Treasury bills?

Ah, the dour questions that economic reality invents to quash poetry.

Buying a house continues to have the emotional pull that makes good song lyrics. But the sag in home price appreciation over the last couple of years -- and the decline in prices in some areas of the country -- have caused concern over whether a house is still a solid investment.

Well, relax, Elton, and all you other bards of home and hearth. The analysts' recommendation on homes is still buy -- although with important qualifications.

"After looking at the figures and at most people's financial position, a home has to be the first investment that people should make, and perhaps the most important," said Robert Genetski, president of Genetski and Associates, a Chicago-based economic analysis and forecasting firm.

And the calculations don't even take into the personal, psychological and social arguments for an owned home rather than a rental property as shelter.

Can you lose money on a home? Sure. It's happened to plenty of people in the last few years, especially in the Northeast, where some have had to bring big checks to a closing in order to sell their homes.

"Some people have suffered from homeownership," admitted Donald Leavens, director of tax research for the National Association of Realtors. "Like any investment, things can go bad."

But by and large, even without the tax credit, analysts say a home makes money sense. The main reasons:

* Taxes. The federal tax system overwhelmingly favors homeownership, allowing deductions for mortgage interest and property taxes. If you rent, you're almost certainly paying your landlord's mortgage interest and property taxes -- and getting no deductions.

In addition, when you sell your house and buy another one for as much or more money within two years, you don't pay taxes on profits from the sale of the first house. And at age 55, you can shelter up to $125,000 in profits from a home sale without ploughing the money into another house.

* Leverage. If you pay 20 percent down on a $100,000 house, you've paid $20,000. If the home price appreciates by 20 percent, to $120,000, you've actually made not 20 percent but 100 percent on your down payment investment.

* Forced savings. In paying off your mortgage, you are building up equity in your home and likely adding more with appreciation as well. Thus your mortgage payments are a form of savings that you will cash in on when and if you sell your house.

"Buying a home is one of the few forced savings methods that consistently works," said David Perry, director of financial planning at the Homewood, Ill., accounting firm of Friedman & Huey Associates.

"If you try to discipline yourself to put $100 a week in a mutual fund, you might skip a few weeks. You won't do that with your mortgage payments," Mr. Perry pointed out.

* Borrowing power. With home equity loans you deduct the interest on loans up to $100,000 for any purpose. You can also cash money out of your house by refinancing it at an increased value, if there has been appreciation.

And gradually coming on line are reverse mortgages, which basically allow those 62 and over to get cash for their homes while still living in them.

* Inflation control. Rents will go up with inflation, but your mortgage payments are most likely fixed, or at least fairly predictable even with an adjustable rate loan.

Of course, taxes and maintenance costs will go up, but remember they will go up for a landlord, too, who will pass them on to you.

All of the above advantages are of little solace, of course, if your home is actually declining in value. But how likely is that to happen?

The depreciation phenomenon in recent years has affected parts of the West and Southwest and hammered the Northeast. According to the National Association of Realtors, the median price of existing single-family homes in the Northeast dipped from $145,200 in 1989 to $141,200 in 1990 to $140,000 in 1991.

A Chicago Title & Trust report notes the median price for all

homes in Boston from dropped from $166,200 in 1990 to `D $162,300 in 1991. Other major markets, from Los Angeles to New York to San Antonio, have suffered varying periods of decline in recent years.

The depreciation fears were intensified by a flurry of articles on the subject in national magazines in 1990. A much-debated study by Harvard economics Professor Gregory Mankiw predicted that post-Baby Boom demographics would send inflation-adjusted housing prices down 47 percent by 2007.

A good part of the reason for the sag, however, was that prices in the areas affected rose stratospherically before they began to drop as the last decade turned.

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