Real estate may not be as real as it used to be

Posted 8/24/10

One of my first landlords used to love impromptu philosophical debates about politics and business. He would often stop by the driveway of the duplex …

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Real estate may not be as real as it used to be


One of my first landlords used to love impromptu philosophical debates about politics and business.

He would often stop by the driveway of the duplex I was renting from him and discuss what town council was up to or what he thought Clinton was doing to the country and things of that sort.

One day, he blurted out, “I just don’t understand the stock market.” I braced myself for a discussion about market volatility and market timing and that sort of thing, but that’s not what I got.

At a basic level, the stock market just made no sense to him. What are you really buying, he asked. In his mind, stocks were akin to lottery tickets. Sure they had track records and paid more often than not, but owning stock didn’t feel like owning much of anything to him.

Nope, he was a real estate man with an emphasis on the word real. He wasn’t the high-risk developer type. He was a property owner. The place I rented from him was one of many he owned. He fixed them up himself, drove a truck loaded with tools to do so, fought with planning commissions and building departments about his renovation plans and watched his equity build.

“Buy a place as soon as you can,” he told me. In fact, he wanted me to buy a fourplex and live in one unit while I rented the other three. I got the sense pretty early on that he wasn’t talking to me as much as he was talking to that part of himself that wished he was 23 years old again and could do things right.

I would have been smart to follow his advice, find the money somewhere — anywhere — and start building equity myself. When the stock market crumbled in 2008, I thought a lot about that landlord.

On one hand, I shared wholeheartedly in his questions about stocks and investment funded and what we’re really buying. Ironically, what we were buying in many of those funds were real estate loans.

Still, I was left with a tear-stained 401k statement, and he was left with tangible property probably still worth more than he paid for it 15-20 years ago, which still lent weight to the other hand which said owning land and buildings will always be there for you, just be patient.

While I rented from him, a buddy of mine bought a house in Aurora. He was the first of my college gang to own a home, and to call that tri-level collection of DIY projects a starter home is an understatement. He bought that place for $95,000 and sold it seven years later for just over $170,000. Ah, the ’90s.

Of course, we didn’t think, “Ah, the ’90s” back then. That’s just the way real estate worked then and the way it always had worked. Buy a place and over time you’ll see returns well above what you’re repaying. I could see the trends in my own family. My first (and likely last) new car cost more than my parents paid for their house. The down payment on that car was more than double what my grandparents spent on their nice house. That’s not a bad return on investment over the long haul.

So when my wife and I bought our house, I felt like we had arrived to a certain place of stability in our financial lives.

We had indeed arrived, just not where we expected. We arrived at what might be the greatest seismic swing in the arena of personal wealth since World War II.

We all know that the real estate market is down. But it’s been down before. We knew what to do: just ride it out because high-rising property values will, eventually, give us more equity than we’re really paying for, and all will be right with the world again. Patience will be the virtue it always has been.

Time has passed and we’ve been dutifully riding things out like good little home owners.

Well, we better get used to riding.

I’m writing this on the eve of the release of July’s real estate figures which are expected to show continued downward slides in the number of homes on the market and the number of months homes are on the market before they sell, according to a New York Times story earlier this week.

That same story takes a broader view, quoting industry insiders who say the days of getting more than you paid for out of your home may be over forever. You’ll get your money back, but your home will not be the great nest eggs my grandparents’ home was, that my parents’ home was, my landlords’ homes were or even my college buddy’s first home purchased 15 years ago.

Is the speculation right? Time will tell. But patience might not be the virtue it once was. Re-examining our assumptions and adjusting our thinking about wealth might just be replacing it.

Jeremy Bangs is the managing editor of Colorado Community Newspapers.


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