5 Surprising Truths About Investing in Real Estate

Singaporeans are absolutely crazy about property. Whenever I walk into a bookstore, I see shelves upon shelves of real estate investing books with pictures greasy men in business suits on the cover, wearing a big smile and screaming “I Got Rich Making Big Money Investing in Real Estate, AND YOU CAN TOO!!”

I hate those books. One day, I’m going to write a book with a naked picture of me on the cover, wearing nothing but a big smile and screaming “I Published a Book With A Picture of Me In a Birthday Suit, AND YOU CAN TOO!!” And I’m going to get the bookstores to stack ‘em right next to those damn real estate books.

I get really puzzled whenever I talk to someone my age about investing, and hear that they would rather “just invest in property”. Those greasy men in business suits can’t be that convincing, can they?

I’m probably going to piss off every single real estate agent in the world by writing this, but I can think of 5 reasons why real estate isn’t the best investment for young people:

1. Your first house isn’t an investment

Most people who buy a house more expensive than they can afford justify it by claiming that it’s an “investment”. Let’s be clear here – your first house is a place to live. It is NOT an investment. Even if your house rises in value along with every other house in the country, whatever you gained from selling your house would just go right back into purchasing another place to live in.

2. Property isn’t necessarily safer than the stock market

Most people think that property is “safer” that the stock market. But really, if you’re lumping ALL your savings into one house, how diversified is your investment portfolio, really? Compare that to investing in the Straits Times Index (STI), which immediately diversifies your investment into 30 stocks, each backed by a real, physical, blue-chip company.

By the way, you can lose money in real estate. Anyone remember 2008?

3. Property may not give you a better return than stocks

An SGX-led study showed that if you invested in Singapore property in 2001 and held it until 2010, you’d be worse off than if you had simply invested that same amount in the STI. Globally, stocks may or may not outpace real estate in any given year, but stocks have historically performed better than real estate over the long-term.

A New York Times article also described how real estate in the US has only barely managed to keep up with inflation, while stocks have risen comfortably above inflation for the past 200 years. As Yale economist Robert Shiller puts it, “from 1890 through 1990, the return of real estate was just about zero after inflation.”

4. Costs will destroy a large chunk of your returns

If someone bought a house for $250,000 and sold it 5 years later for $400,000, most people would think, “Great! I made $150,000!” But they failed to account for all the associated costs that go along with it: Taxes, agent fees, commissions, insurance, maintenance, stamp duties, renovation costs, furnishing, etc, which would add hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to your monthly bill.

Let’s not forget the interest you’ll have to pay on the housing loan you took out, which is easily in the ballpark of tens of thousands of dollars. For Singaporeans, if you use your CPF to purchase a house, you’d have to pay back the amount you “borrowed” from CPF, PLUS INTEREST (It stands at 2.6% today, but it’ll rise once interest rates go up. I totally see the rationale of this policy from the government’s perspective, but am I the only one who thinks this is a crappy deal from an investing standpoint?).

The costs I pay for investing in a low-cost ETF? A commission of $25, and an annual expense ratio of 0.3% (For every $10,000 invested, that’s like thirty bucks).

5. Mortgages screw with your psyche

“Hey, let’s use other people’s money to get rich!”… is what most people would tell themselves before taking on a huge-ass mortgage.

Dude, a mortgage isn’t something to scoff at. It’s as full-fledged and serious a commitment as… marriage. Things change once you’ve got the ever-present threat of a monthly mortgage payment hanging over your head. You start to see things differently. Mortgages cause people to become way more risk-averse, and less likely to do things like finding a better job, starting their own business, and investing, even though those options may help them to become financially better off.

Think of it as a Big Buy – Not an investment

I’m not saying that real estate is a bad investment. You can make money from it if you already have 1) a house to live in, 2) lots of spare cash, and 3) a strong portfolio and are looking to diversify your investments.

But most young people don’t fall into this category. Instead, we should see our first property as a really, really, really large purchase rather than an investment. Think of it as a great way to build equity and start a family. But please don’t delude yourself into thinking that you’re going to get rich from it. If you’re just starting out, you’d be better off focusing on building a sensible portfolio of stocks and bonds.

Agree/disagree? Leave a comment or send me an email at cheerfulegg [at] gmail [dot] com. I’d love to hear from you, especially if you’re interested in publishing my birthday suited book cover.

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Some Good Investment Research… and Terrible Advice

I didn’t want to blog about investing till much later, but the Straits Times had an interesting article yesterday titled Stocks v Property. It deals with the issue of “Where the hell should I put my money?!” when it comes to investments. Everyone talks about investments, like: “yeaaahhhh I should really save up for a house… but it’s really expensive…” or “yeaaaahhh I’ve been meaning to invest for awhile now, but I don’t think I have enough time/money/interest…whine whine whine”. But very few people actually get off their ass and actually do some real research on what they should be investing in, so they either 1) don’t invest altogether, or 2) make some stupid investment decisions.

So an article like this gets some of that research done for you, which is awesome. I loved the first part of the article, which used numbers and statistics to back a case and destroy some common assumptions that we all have. The article should’ve just stopped right there, but part 2 of it gave some absolutely terrible investment advice, and I just had to say something about it, in a minute.

Some good investment research

From the ST article: “Retail investors, especially those in Singapore, tend to think of stocks as a short- to medium-term investment. When seeking a long-term investment, most Singaporean investors think of property first. 

But a recent comparison done by the Singapore Exchange (SGX) has shown that, in fact, local stocks have outperformed private residential property over the long run. In the 10 years from 2001 to 2010, the benchmark Straits Times Index (STI) gave an annualised return on investment of 4.9 per cent. Meanwhile, if you had bought property in 2001 and sold it in 2010, you would have made an annualised return on investment of 3.9 per cent over the period.”

Sure, the study excluded returns from dividends and rents, but add those into the mix and stocks have still historically outperformed real estate over the long run. And while 10 years is hardly considered to be the “long run”, other studies have shown that stocks have outperformed real estate over longer time periods (see this New York Times article).

Some terrible investment advice (esp if you’re young):

So the Straits Times article would have been awesome if it had presented the statistics, drawn a conclusion, and stopped there. But page 2 of the article had some terrible investment advice:

Mr Vasu Menon, OCBC Bank’s head of content and research, noted that such wild swings in the stock market are even more prevalent today. As a result, he said, holding on to stocks for the long term is no longer a relevant strategy in this day and age.” (emphasis added).

“So even if stocks had outperformed property between 2001 and 2010, he said, there is no guarantee that they will do the same over the next decade. His advice: Set a target for your stock investments and have the discipline to stick to it. Say, for example, that you hope to make a 30 per cent return on a certain stock within three years. If the stock somehow reaches that 30 per cent target within six months, just sell, Mr Menon said.”

Hello?! Stocks are “no longer a relevant strategy in this day and age” just because the market has been volatile and uncertain? Mr Menon obviously needs a lesson in economic history: volatility and uncertainty are NOTHING NEW to the stock market. They’ve always been there – the Great Depression from 1929, the 1940s when stocks pretty much didn’t go anywhere, the “Black Monday” of 1987, the dot-com bubble of 2000, the collapse of Lehman in 2008…  and yet the US market has averaged a whopping 9.96% annually from 1920 to 2010. Volatility and uncertainty aren’t “unusual”, they’ve been characteristic of the stock market for the past 200 years. And anyone hoping to benefit from the long-run return of the stock market would have to learn to deal with these characteristics.

Next – Mr Menon is advocating that you cut your gains short by selling as soon as your stocks make a certain amount of profit. Sure, that might prevent your portfolio from turning into a loss, but it also prevents you from ever getting rich if the stock market does take off, leaving you sitting by the sidelines and whining like a baby. If you’re a young investor with a steady income and many years of investing ahead, then Mr Menon’s advice is absolutely terrible for you. He’s right that there is no guarantee stock prices will rise over the next decade – there are no guarantees when it comes to investments (unless you consider Ponzi schemes to be “investments”) – but over a long enough time period, there’s a pretty damn high likelihood that the stock market will come out on top.

So what the hell should you do?

Let’s be clear – your job isn’t to make sure that your portfolio makes money over the next 6 months, 1 year, or 3 years. Your job right now is to ACCUMULATE as many assets as you can. Since we know that stocks are ultimately likely to give you the best return over the long run, your job is to make sure that you have as many of those assets as possible, so that your returns will be multiplied across all those assets after a long, healthy period of investing! We’re talking 10, 20, 30 years here. Who cares if volatility wrecks havoc to your portfolio over the short run – it doesn’t make a difference because you’re not thinking of selling within the next couple of years anyway. Ignore the day-to-day fluctuations, ignore the uncertainty and fear that pervade the news, and ignore the stupid, complicated investment advice out there. Investing can be simple, straightforward, and best of all, automated (I’ll be blogging about that in time to come). Stick to your guns and accumulate as many stocks as possible, and you’ll be rewarded in the end.

To me, the answer is pretty clear: multiple studies, research and 200 years of stock market history have shown that the stock market is more likely to give you a better return over the long-term. Do I think that property is a bad investment? Of course not. The best portfolio would consist of both stocks AND real estate, among other asset classes. There’s way too much to say on this topic, so I’ll be blogging more about it as we go along. But I thought I’d start us off with a little taste of it here. 🙂