Home, Sweet Home

April 3, 2022

by Stephen Stofka

Interest rates belong to the world of money assets where changes can happen as fast as a keystroke. Prices are “sticky,” moving slower in the concrete world of real goods and services. This week the 30-year mortgage rate rose to 4.67% (MORTGAGE30US), but home prices are still high, reflecting the higher demand for homes at low interest rates. Denver was 11th in the country with an annual price increase of more than 20%, according to the Case Shiller index for January (DNXRSA see note). Six months ago, a 30-year rate was 2.87%, near a historic low. The difference in monthly payments on a 30-year $240K mortgage is $245.

When we buy a home, we leverage our down payment into a stable asset and become our own landlord. When the BLS computes the CPI inflation index, they include an item called Owner Equivalent Rent (OER) and it contributes 25% to the CPI index, the largest component of that index. Based on a survey of actual rental housing, OER represents the opportunity cost of renting our home to ourselves rather than to someone else at the going market price. While this might seem contorted, it reminds us that a home represents consumption capital, an investment whose benefits we consume during the time we own the asset. A home is the largest component of most household wealth.

The Federal Reserve charts changes various components of household wealth (Fed, 2022). Our homes represent a stable base of change, as the chart below shows.

The light green shaded area is the change in our home equity. You can visit the site and play with the time controls. Because the change is so stable, people’s expectations became anchored until the housing and financial crisis when the change in housing equity turned negative. People were shocked that such a thing could happen on a broad national scale. It is not unusual for home prices to turn down in a local area, usually in response to a substantial shift in the economic base of an area. Home prices in some Midwest cities experienced substantial losses as manufacturing went to other countries with lower labor costs. In the 1980s, the decline in oil prices made investments in oil shale on Colorado’s western slope unprofitable. Thousands lost their jobs and the prices of working class homes in Denver experienced a 10% decline (DNXRLTSA). Over several decades across the entire country, home prices are sure to rise but the probability of regional economic declines is equally sure.

The blue bars in the graph above represent the volatile changes in stock market equity. Compare that volatility to the stable changes in bond equity (orange). That’s why financial advisors recommend a growing portfolio allocation to bonds as we grow older. The small deviations in bond and real estate prices help anchor the large deviations in stock market wealth.

As mortgage rates rise, people can afford less home and the decrease in demand should relieve the upward momentum of rising home prices. There are those who play momentum in stock prices, buying and selling to take advantage of short term changes in sentiment. The graph above highlights the difference in deviations of stocks and homes. Playing the real estate market like it was the stock market got a lot of people in trouble during the 2000s. A home is an investment in stability, not a raffle ticket to riches.


Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

Home Price, Denver Note: Even affordable homes in Denver have experienced sharp prices increases, rising 19.6% in January (DNXRLTSA).

Fed. (2022, March 10). Board of governors of the Federal Reserve System. The Fed – Chart: Changes in Net Worth: Households and Nonprofit Organizations, 1952 – 2021. Retrieved April 2, 2022, from https://www.federalreserve.gov/releases/z1/dataviz/z1/changes_in_net_worth/chart/

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