Why You Shouldn’t Buy a House

I ought to make a declaration up front that I have bought my house and own it outright.  It’s taken me nearly 20 years to get there though, and the world has changed. And obviously it’s not up to me as to whether you should buy a house, I’m just playing devil’s advocate because nearly everything else you’ll read says go for it :)

Here are some reasons you might set against buying a house in today’s market:

  1. Houses are overpriced
  2. You need over 9 years of net income to pay it off
  3. In London? Forget it unless you work for the likes of Goldman Sachs
  4. Paying just the interest? You’re renting from the mortgage company, but unlike with a landlord you can’t make it fix the boiler for you.
  5. You may need to move to follow work.

There’s a strong emotional attachment to home ownership in the UK. It may have served us once, but there is much to be said for a model where renting is more widespread in a world where jobs are less secure than they used to be. Let’s take a look at these items –

Houses are overpriced. A mortgage used to be given on an income multiple of 3.5 times gross earnings for a single person, or 2.5 times joint earnings. This income multiple has stood the test of time; if you need to borrow more than that then the houses you’re looking at are overpriced for you. You can:

  • earn more
  • stump up more capital
  • be less ambitious in your house aims (I wanted a detached 3-bed in ’89, I bought a mid-terrace two up two down :) )
  • move to a cheaper area (I left London – couldn’t compete with the über-rich)
  • give up the idea
  • take ridiculous chances with your personal finances and risk losing money and your home.

Housepricecrash has a chart of real house prices varying over time.

House prices in real terms over time

At the moment it looks like this. From the trend line, perhaps they are not as overpriced as they have been for the last 10 years, however, there is a recession on so I wouldn’t bet on a switchback, personally…

I bought in 1989, and had to sweat through the 1990-2001 hole. There’s no fun whatsoever in paying down on a mortgage that is ‘underwater’ and my net worth is down by about £40,000 in 2010 terms from buying at the wrong time. People even warned me that there were specific factors inflating prices but I was too cocky to listen. You never hear from the people that lose money on buying houses. It happens, but people usually keep schtum about it because success has many fathers but failure is a bastard.

I’m an exception to that because I’ve managed to pay off my house, so I can view this from the other side, it doesn’t still trap me in debt-slavery. Buying that first house was what is so far the one most monumental personal finance cock-up of my life. It dwarfs my second worst PF mistake –  endlessly churning my portfolio and then losing my shirt in the dot-com bust. At least I got some excitement out of that, and learned what not to do!

Everybody talks up the Kodak moments about buying a house. Nobody talks about grinding years of looking at your mortgage statement at the end of the year and making an annual capital repayment of about the price of a secondhand car  so you can at least see an end to it in decades hence. This was around the time when they started to tell me my with profits capital repayment vehicle wasn’t going to repay the capital… A bonfire of fresh twenty pound notes every December would have been more fun than that.

You need over 9 years of net income to pay it off. This mortgage calculator shows that at an average 6.5% interest rate you get to pay back twice the amount you borrowed. So if you borrow 3.5 times your gross salary, you get to pay back 7 times your salary back.

The Government relieves you of about a quarter of gross for a typical basic rate taxpayer, leaving you with 75% of it. Kiss goodbye to 9 years of it if you want to pay the mortgage off in 25 years at an average interest rate of 6.5%.

Things that work in your favour here is that your salary may increase in real terms through job switches, promotions etc. Inflation also reduces the real value of the loan, if we manage to stick with the 2% targeted rate of inflation the real average interest rate is 4.5%, provided your salary keeps up with inflation. That means in real terms you get to pay back 1.67 times what you borrowed, which take out nearly eight years of your net salary.

London prices? They kicked me out of the city 20 years ago and are still causing Londoners problems. The problem is that you’re competing with serious money in the Smoke, both UK wealth from the City and foreign wealth too.

Paying just the interest? You’ll never own your home. Not only that, but you have to fix the damn thing if something breaks, and you can’t up sticks and leave it behind (unless you are in America, where apparently you can simply surrender the house to the bank and walk away debt-free). Seems a lose-lose situation, I can’t understand why anybody goes interest-only without having a strategy to pay the capital, other than for a short period of financial stress. As for those nutters that kept on ramping up their mortgages in equity release schemes to go on holiday, well I not sure they should be licensed to drive any financial instruments whatsoever ;)

You may need to move to follow work. Work is much less stable now than it was in our parents’ generation. Globalisation and the associated ‘creative destruction’ churns companies and job roles faster and faster. Buying and selling a house is stressful and costs money in estate agents’ fees, removal costs and stamp duty. Owning a house makes it hard to get on your bike for a new job. That can seriously damage your wealth, and your health if you end up with a long and stressful commute.

The pros of home ownership are often promoted without a hat tip to the darker side. And one fact is inescapable – nobody who has a mortgage owns their own home. They only own their home when they release the dead hand, by paying the last installment and redeeming the loan. Without a strategy to do that, they might be better off renting instead.

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