Cheap Houses Hedge Inflation Risk

Investment ideas are cyclical. They come and go, like fashions or cicadas, obeying their own curious rhythms. In the last few years, rare was the investment thinker who said you should buy a house. Housing was in a bubble that was deflating.

But the investment seasons turn. Today some smart investors are once again saying you should a buy house. John Paulson is one of them.

You may know him as the man who turned the greatest trade of all time. Betting against the housing market, he netted a cool billion dollars for himself in 2007. One fund he managed rose 590% that year. Today, he is one of the richest men in America.

His advice today is very different. “If you don’t own a home, buy one,” Paulson said. “If you own one home, buy another one, and if you own two homes, buy a third and lend your relatives the money to buy a home.”

That’s a strong endorsement. It sounds similar to the advice another investor gave his audience in 1971, at the dawn of another inflationary age. It was Adam Smith (George Goodman) on The Dick Cavett Show. Here is a snippet from that conversation:

Smith: The best investment you can make is a house. That one is easy.

Cavett: A house? We were talking about the stock market. Investments…

Smith: You asked me the best investment. There are always individual stocks that will go up more, but you don’t want to give tips on a television show. For most people, the best investment is a house.

Cavett: I already own a house. Now what?

Smith: Buy another one.

It was good advice. In the 1970s, U.S. stocks returned about 5% annually, which failed to keep pace with inflation. Still, it was an up-and-down ride. In 1974, the stock market fell 49%. But here are the average selling prices for existing homes in the 1970s as inflation heated up:

  • 1972   —   $30,000
  • 1973   —   $32,900
  • 1974   —   $35,800
  • 1975   —   $39,000
  • 1976   —   $42,200
  • 1977   —   $47,900
  • 1978   —   $55,500
  • 1979   —   $64,200

You can see that housing held up pretty well. And think about the effect of a mortgage on 80% of that house in 1972. That would mean $6,000 in equity, a sum that went up fivefold in eight years. It’s hard to find a better inflation fighter than that. Granted, today’s market is different, but still.

Apart from this, you might also reflect on the fact that it is quite absurd today to think that anyone can buy an average house for any of these prices — and that, too, is the point. The average price today is $257,500 — even after the great collapse in the last few years.

“If you have a 7% mortgage and your house is worth half a million dollars,” Adam Smith writes, “you may gripe about shoes and lamb chops and tuitions like everybody else, but your heart isn’t in it.” Your heart won’t be in it because you’ll be in fine fettle with your house.

Of course, you can do a lot better than 7% today. For the first time, the rate on 30-year mortgages slipped below that on the 30-year Treasury bond. You can get a 30-year mortgage at little more than 4% today.

Factoring in mortgage rates, housing affordability is back to where it was in September 1996. Then mortgage rates were 8% and the average price of a home was $171,600. As Murray Stahl writes: “One can actually buy a home for a monthly payment that is not very many dollars different from the monthly payment one would have needed in September 1996, when rates were significantly higher.”

Adjusted for inflation, Stahl points out that the payment for an average-priced home today is about 30% lower than it was 14 years ago.

The advice of Paulson and Smith starts to make sense now, doesn’t it?

Essentially, real estate is a way to buy now and pay later. It is a way to short (or bet against) the dollar. And the case for housing extends to other property types, too. Owners of quality real estate are getting deals on mortgages that we are unlikely to see for a generation.

Chris Mayer
Whiskey & Gunpowder

January 5, 2011