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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How to Hide Money Like a Criminal Mastermind

Let’s do a little role play. You are an international criminal mastermind, wanted by the authorities in 14 countries. Your crime ring has prospered, earning you an obscene amount of money. You could buy over a small country (or attend a Mitt Romney fundraiser) if you wanted to. You’ve also covered your tracks well. The police have got nothing on you, so they’re targeting the easiest piece of evidence they can find – your money.

Tipped off by your trusty financial advisor, you move your money in small parts to a secret bank account in the Cayman Islands. By the time the police crack open your “official” bank accounts, they can’t find anything to charge you with. So once again, you escape scott-free… and tax-free.

The awesomeness of tax-advantaged accounts

Death and taxes are the only 2 sure things in life (That, and the fact that you can never find your keys when you’re late for work on Monday morning).

You can’t escape the first, but you can totally lower the second… legally. You may not have a secret Cayman Islands bank account, but the governments of the world, in their benevolence, have offered the next best thing: tax-advantaged accounts.

I’ll talk about tax-advantaged accounts for Singaporeans, or people living in Singapore, in this post. Americans, you already have more than enough information out there on your tax-advantage accounts – Google it. (Hint: Sign up for a 401k and contribute enough to max out your employer match. You guys are so lucky).

Singaporeans – you have a little-known account called a Supplementary Retirement Scheme (SRS). The SRS is sort of like a beautiful exotic girl who’s been hidden on an island. She’s got a weird-sounding name, not many people have heard of her, but she’s got huge… benefits.

The photographer claims that the girl just *happened* to walk into the shot and he just *happened* to press the shutter. Honest!

Why the SRS is awesome

1. It gives you tax-benefits

Think of the SRS as your own secret tax-free bank account for you to stash a whole bunch of moolah in. Every dollar you contribute into that bank account reduces your taxable income by a dollar.

So if your tax rate is 7%, contributing $12,750 a year effectively saves you $892.50 in taxes every year. Ta-dahhhh, you just earned your next weekend getaway vacation! You’re welcome.

It’s purely voluntary, meaning that you can contribute any amount you like, up to a cap of $12,750 a year (Yeah, the government realizes how awesome this is too, so they’ve gotta put a limit on how much you can screw them over by not paying taxes).

 2. It boosts your investments

What are you gonna do with all that money you’ve put into it? Don’t be a kuku and just leave it sitting there (remember my post on Don’t Save For Retirement?). Instead, invest it – preferably in a couple of index-based ETFs – and let your money grow absolutely tax-free.

There’s also a hidden benefit to investing that cash. By not paying $893 in taxes, that means that you’ve earned a guaranteed 7% return on your $12,750 for that year (ie: if you invested that $12,750, your investment would have had to grow by approximately 7% just to match the tax savings).

If you can resist the temptation to withdraw your investments till you’re 62, you’ll only be taxed for 50% of the prevailing tax rate. That may seem annoying at first, but ask yourself:

Would you rather pay 1) a 10% tax on $100,000, or 2) a 5% tax on $1,600,000? (Hint: The answer is option 2).

Sure, option 2 entails you paying more in taxes, but it also means that you have ONE POINT FIVE MILLION DOLLARS to play with after tax. Paying more tax is a good thing – it means you’re richer. By not paying tax initially and deferring it till the end, you’re effectively allowing your whole amount of cash to work harder for you. 

3. It’s flexible on withdrawals

Unlike CPF, you’re allowed to withdraw your cash pretty much anytime you like.  It’s meant to be kept till you’re retired, but if you really need the cash before you’re 62 you’ll have to pay a 5% penalty and get taxed for 100% of the rate (The penalty is waived if it’s withdrawn in the event of death or medical cases). It’s annoying to have to pay those, but at least you still get access to it if you really need it for an emergency.

“What are we gonna do tonight, Brain?” “The same thing we do every night Pinky… Try to open a TAX-ADVANTAGED ACCOUNT!”

How to set up your own criminal mastermind account

1. Contact any one of the three local banks (DBS / OCBC / UOB) to set up an SRS account. If you already have another savings account with those banks, you probably won’t even need to visit the branch – just download the application form from their websites. If you’re Singaporean, all you need is a copy of your NRIC.

2. You won’t even need to make a claim in your annual tax return – it’ll be automatically done for you through your SRS operator. Yay to #FirstWorldAwesomeness 🙂

3. If you’re a foreigner living in Singapore, the contribution cap is different, but all of the above apply to you too. You’ll also have to submit an annual IRAS declaration form.

And finally…

Congratulations – you’ve now embarked on your journey towards being a world-class, financially-savvy criminal mastermind. So if you’ve got nothing to do tonight, maybe you can try to TAKE OVER THE WORLD!