The current U.S. real estate bear market comes with different perceptions. On one side are those – the majority – claiming the market is depressed and it’s “too risky” to invest in real estate today. On the other side are the few taking a bullish approach because of the great bargains, low prices and excellent monthly returns. Competition is minimal because most people wouldn’t endeavor to make real estate part of their investment. A good number of owner-occupant buyers, the largest segment of real estate activity has been eliminated. These folks won’t turn their credit, income, and savings over night. Banks will continue to “proceed with caution” thus keeping many Americans renting – instead of owning their own homes – while the concept of easy credit standards will soon be history.
To get clarity on the Boom and Bust aspects of real estate it’s essential to revisit last decade’s events from an economic standpoint. Back during the early 2000’s the real estate boom started as a result of the credit expansion policy of the Federal Reserve. Add to that the government’s intervention in the lending sector and the deregulation of Wall Street’s paper derivatives and you have the recipe for an “artificial” booming economy. I refer to it as artificial because it had no ingredient of a free market growth.
A bust was inevitable yet it was only foreseen by a few while everyone else was gambling on continued rising values. The first sign expressed itself in the form of sub-prime loans default, the catalyst for the banking chaos that eventually erupted. This event was followed by a chain of defaults in the prime sector causing the stocks of the many financial institutions react in a free fall. When Wall Street bailout was approved by Congress and used in response, the conventional wisdom was that it saved the entire economy from collapsing. That wisdom can definitely be debated. Whether it’s right or wrong to transfer the losses of Wall Street institutions onto the shoulders of the taxpayer is a topic I will leave for another article. For now I’ll just focus on whether real estate may be a potential investment to park your money.
Real estate activity along with market prices reached their peak in 2006 only to collapse in 2007. 2009 suffered a serious decline in activity while prices continued to decline. Relative to 2006 peak prices homes have dropped a stunning 45% but they have not reached pre-2000 levels. If you’re wondering what the future holds for real estate it’s possible that a healthy activity – resulting from an increased number of qualified buyers – may return within six to ten years but no inflationary boom for a very long time. I know it doesn’t sound very encouraging but keep in mind that buying low and selling high is only the speculative side of investing. If, for example, you’re currently invested in mutual funds or stocks enjoying dividend returns your real estate portfolio can generate – in many cases – better monthly cash-flow returns. Ten, twelve, or fifteen percent annual returns are quite feasible but chances are your financial adviser will not want you divested from Wall Street’s paper assets.
While Americans’ retirement portfolios will remain heavily invested in the volatile U.S. stock market, Australians, Canadians, British, and Asians are finding the American real estate to be appealing for their own retirement. Rather than looking at it as an inconvenient investment they are taking advantage of qualified professionals who handle everything for them including the eviction of undesirable tenants, making repairs, or whatever else is associated with the maintenance of the investment. These international buyers have learned that they can’t get similar rates of returns by investing in their own countries’ real estate. Whether leased-out single family homes or apartment buildings all the way to investing in bigger commercial projects via private real estate syndicate funds, they mean business and are unstoppable.
So, how does one assess the investment potential for real estate? First, ask yourself if it generates substantial revenues not only during good times but during hard times, as well. Today’s economic environment is not one that makes people cheer and if you choose carefully you’ll find that a ten to fifteen percent on your money is feasible. The next question to ask yourself is if it’s a real or a paper asset. Can it vanish and will it be there ten, twenty, thirty yeas down the road? Differentiate between owning the physical asset and the paper secured by a physical asset.
Does real estate lose its earnings potential with time? It could since there is no guarantee in life. But with a proper maintenance, the right team, and the fact that it’s an asset satisfying a human need (housing) the chances are diminished. Does it keep up with inflation? Its price may not go up soon but its value most likely will, and with time prices will follow values.
Finally, one of the well known rhetoric is that real estate is not liquid. That is very true. At the same time, unless you’re a short term Wall Street trader, how often have you liquidated your securities portfolio for a generous profit? My point is that if you have to sell your stocks, bonds, or mutual funds it usually is because you’re in a desperate situation and that translates, most likely, in a loss. Take this thought and apply it to a real estate investment that you hold free and clear. Its liquidation could be much faster when and if you’d be willing to take a loss. Reality is that there is no such thing as an absolute perfect investment. There are pro’s and con’s attached to each one of them. Your homework is to weigh them to determine the best fit for your investment needs. In his book “A Gift to my Children” Jim Rogers – who is one of today’s most successful investors in the world –
advises us to “Never ignore the bear market!” The one with an eye for profitable opportunities already knows it. The bear market comes with depressed values but the depression that prevails in most people’s minds represents the hidden treasure of opportunities for only a few.