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How to buy a house

Actually, how to think about buying a house.

You don't see a lot of ads trying to sell you on spending too much money on a house. It's more subtle than that. The marketing is all around us, and has been for years. The enormous social pressure and the expectations that come with it lead to misunderstandings and confusion. Here's my advice to someone in the market:

  1. In an era where house prices rise reliably (which was 1963 to 2007), it was almost impossible to overpay for a house. It was an efficient market, and rising prices cover many mistakes. Investing in houses in the USA was a no-brainer. More leverage and more at stake just paid off more in the end. This consistent, multi-generational rise taught us more than an ad every could: buy a lot of house  with as little downpayment as you could.
  2. A house is not just an investment, it's a place to live. This is the only significant financial investment that has two functions. Things like cars and boats always go down in value, so most of the time, if you're investing, you're doing it in something that you don't have to fix, water, fuel or live in. You shouldn't fall in love with a bond or a stock or a piece of gold, because if you do, you won't be a smart investor. The problem (as people who sell and fix and build houses understand) is that you just might fall in love with a house. What a dumb reason to make the largest financial investment of your life.
  3. The psychology of down markets is irrational. Rising house prices might be efficient (many bidders for a single item lead to higher prices), but when there aren't so many bidders, irrational sellers (see #2) don't lower their prices accordingly. So, inventories get longer and it's easy for the prospective buyer to think that a certain price is the 'right' price because so many people are offering houses at that price. Just because someone offers a price, though, doesn't mean it's fair in a given market.
  4. Along the same lines, anchoring has a huge impact on housing prices. If someone offers a house for $800,000 and you think it's worth half that, you don't offer half that. No, of course not. The price is a mental and emotional anchor, and you're likely to offer far more.
  5. The social power of a house is huge. When you buy a big house or an expensive house, you are making a statement to your in-laws, your family, your neighbors and yourself. Nothing wrong with that, but the question you must ask yourself is, "how big a statement can I afford?" How much are you willing to spend on personal marketing and temporary self-esteem?
  6. Debt is an evil plot to keep you poor. If buying a bigger house (or even a house with a living room or a garage) is going to keep you in credit card debt, you've made a huge financial error, one that could cost you millions.
  7. By the time you buy a house, you probably have a family. Which means that this is a joint decision, a group decision, a decision made under stress by at least two people, probably people that don't have a lot of practice talking rationally about significant financial decisions that also have emotional and social underpinnings. Ooph. You've been warned. Perhaps you could add some artificial rigor to the conversation so that it doesn't become a referendum on your marriage or careers and is instead about the house.
  8. If you have a steady job, matching your mortgage to your income isn't dumb. But if you are a freelancer, an entrepreneur or a big thinker, a mortgage can wipe you out. That's because the pressure to make your monthly nut is so big you won't take the risks and do the important work you need to do to actually get ahead. When you have a choice between creating a sure-thing average piece of work or a riskier breakthrough, the mortgage might be just enough to persuade you to hold back.
  9. Real estate brokers, by law, work for the seller (unless otherwise noted). And yet buyers often try to please the broker. You'll never see her again, don't worry about it. [Let me be really clear about what I wrote here, just in case you'd like to misinterpret it: When a prospect sees an ad or goes to an open house, she is about to interact with a broker. That broker, in almost every case, is hired by the seller and has a fiduciary responsibility to the seller to get the very best price for the house. There are exceptions, like buyer's brokers, but those brokers, as I said, note that they are representing the buyer--how can you represent someone without telling them? Many brokers like to pretend to themselves that they are representing both sides, and while that's a nice concept, that's not the law.]
  10. You're probably not going to be able to flip your house in nine months for a big profit. Maybe not even nine years. So revisit #2 and imagine that there is no financial investment, just a house you love. And spend accordingly.
I'm optimistic about the power of a house to change your finances, to provide a foundation for a family and our communities. I'm just not sure you should buy more house than you can afford merely because houses have such good marketing.

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