The excellent personal finance blog Get Rich Slowly (highly recommended—one of my daily reads) posted a link yesterday that reminded me of a topic that I’ve been meaning to post on. As I read the story, titled “Cars affordability: Cheapest since 1980” I couldn’t help but think about the stark contrast between the price trends of cars versus real estate. Granted, land does not “wear out” in the way that cars do, so you wouldn’t expect real estate today to cost less than in 1980, but there is a similarity in the buying process of each that I’ve been thinking about lately.
Cars and real estate are similar in that the purchase price is negotiable. Think about the negotiation process that you go through when you buy a car. If you’re a smart buyer, you come to the table with a pretty good idea of what the car is worth, and negotiate the price based on that bottom-line. The monthly payment, taxes, fees, dealer extras, and trade-in value are important factors in your total out-of-pocket cost for the car, but they are all secondary to the purchase price of the vehicle. Consider this quote from the Edmunds.com article Confessions of a Car Salesman:
From my commission check it was clear that the minivan couple could have made a better deal and saved several thousand dollars. So where did they go wrong? Well, first of all, they negotiated as monthly payment buyers, rather than bargaining on the purchase price of the vehicle. When you agree to be a “monthly payment buyer” several variables are introduced that are harder to keep track of: the term of the loan can be extended up to 72 months (six years!) without your awareness and the interest rate can be raised. When you bargain on purchase price, it is a cleaner, simpler way of negotiating.
If you think about it, this is exactly what has happened with real estate. The combined forces of super-low interest rates and loose lending practices have turned the vast majority of home buyers into “monthly payment buyers.” A recent post by Ardell at RCG titled Beginning the Home Buying Process illustrates this phenomenon (emphasis hers—as usual):
STEP 1: The first step is the most extensive one, as it combines many factors. Home Price, which is determined by monthly payment affordability, cash needed to close, and commission to be paid to the Buyer’s Agent.
The first step is to base your home price on your “monthly payment affordability”—exactly the mistake mentioned above by the undercover car salesman that led to overpaying by thousands of dollars on a new car. In my opinion, it’s no wonder that home prices have gotten so out of whack with true fundamentals, when the first question someone asks in the home buying process is not “Is this house worth $XXX,000?” but rather “Can I afford $X,000 per month (no matter what kind of financing it takes)?” Obviously a monthly payment must be affordable, but should that really be the sole determining factor in whether a house is worth buying?
The longer this kind of mindset goes on, the more detached the price of real estate becomes from where it “should” be. In a way it pisses me off, because I know that for every person like me that thinks “there’s no way that house is worth $500,000!” there are hundreds (probably even thousands) of people that say “if we stretch our budget, we can afford $2,500 per month,” and thus the lunacy continues.
At least I know that the madness will end eventually, one way or another.