Ask this question of just about any American and they will happily tell you that it is both. And why not? From home improvement centers and real estate agents to government programs and tax breaks, the clear message is that it is always better in the U.S. to own a home. The reality is a little trickier, though. And if you plan to use your home as an investment—that is, to actually get additional value out of it at some point in the future—you need to think more clearly about the limitations of living in one of your biggest savings accounts. Here are a few key points to consider:
1. You don't buy a house for the land.
We have a tendency to think that buying a house is somehow a more "stable" investment, as if the fact that we can still touch and see the land means that it's value is not going anywhere. Sure, you can probably still grow potatoes on the land even if the economy tanks. But let's face it, you didn't pay a quarter of a million dollars so you could grow veggies and no one else is going to either. The value of property, like the value of any other investment, comes from only one factor—what someone else will pay for it at the moment you want to sell;
2. Home values can be just as unstable as stock markets.
Our most recent U.S. Census data shows that median household net worth went up by about 30% between 2000 and 2005 (an increase from $81,821 to $106,585)! This was great news, and it was almost entirely due to the fact that people's home values went up during those years. But when home prices dropped in the 2008 crash, Americans' net value also went down...by about 35% as of 2011. That crash wiped out almost a decade worth of gains, and it left many homeowners with mortgages that were more than the home's value. We haven't all recovered, yet. According to Zillow's 2014 report, 16.9% of U.S. homes were still "underwater" (worth less than their home loans) as of the end of October, 2014. Which brings me to my next point—
3. You can't live in a mutual fund.
Generally speaking, this is a point in favor of buying a home as an investment. Since you were going to pay housing costs anyway, why not put it toward an asset of your own? But if your stock prices crash, you can usually leave them be and wait it out until the market recovers. If your home price crashes and you can't afford your mortgage or you have to move for a new job, you just don't have that luxury. That means you may be forced to "cash in" at the worst possible time, making you a lot more vulnerable to losing all of that money you've put in and possibly more;
4. Your mortgage is someone else's investment.
In our rush to celebrate the great American home-buying dream, we often forget that the reason economists love home buyers is because home owners borrow so much money. Home owners not only tend to take out large mortgages (which can be bundled and sold off into all sorts of investments by financiers), they also borrow more through auto loans, education loans and credit cards because of the sense of safety provided by their home values. It's great for the economy, but it might not be so great for you. If we assume that the average U.S. mortgage is a 30-year fixed rate at about 4.5% interest on a $222,000 loan, then the average home owner is paying a total of about $183,000 in interest for the privilege of being rent-free. This, of course, does not include any of the closing costs, maintenance, taxes and upgrades you choose to do on your home (not to mention the added temptation of new sofa cushions, shelving, curtains, etc...);
5. There's no profit until you sell.
All of us are happy when we get word that our home price has gone up. And thanks to refinancing, we can access some of that money (for a price) by borrowing against the new value. But nothing will change the fact that investments don't make you any money until you sell them, and this applies to your home, as well. If you are counting on the value of your home to help you in retirement, keep in mind that without some creative help from family members, this will mean a reverse mortgage or a sale. And if you choose the latter, you are going to have to find somewhere else (somewhere less expensive) to live.
All of this is not to say that your home in not a good investment. It may very well be! The mortgage tax deduction can offset some of those interest payments, and if you buy in the right time and place you could make a lot of money when it is time to sell. What all of this does mean is that averages will do you no good in determining whether you should by a home. You need to do the calculations based on things like how long you plan to stay in the area, what other resources you have in case of a downturn, what the rental market looks like in your area and what other financial and familial obligations you have.
Most importantly, though, you need to account for the fact that what you are buying is not a house...it's a home. If flexibility, adventure, ease or mobility are what you need at this point in your life, there are probably better investment options for you. If, on the other hand, buying a house ensures that you can keep the kids in school with their friends or that you can finally set down roots in a community, well, that is another kind of investment—one that doesn't come with a calculator but makes a world of difference.