No one knows what the economy or the stock market will do over the next six months. But when your time horizon is 20 years, the outlook is actually a lot clearer. And right now, all the trends are lining up to make real estate a fantastic long-term buy.
Of course, if you look at recent real estate statistics, the picture is a total catastrophe. Home prices are down by a third, and the decline recently exceeded that of the Great Depression. Across the country, 2 million homes are in foreclosure and another 2 million are more than 90 days behind in their payments. The backlog of foreclosures could last two or three years.
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Falling home prices plus the foreclosure backlog probably mean a flat-to-down market over the next couple of years. But beyond the current desolation, the outlook is exactly the opposite. In fact, three different trends are aligning that figure to produce a major home-price boom over the next 20 years.
1. The Economic Cycle. Admittedly, the current recession is far worse than a typical cyclical downturn. Nonetheless, the economy has grown for seven straight quarters. It is possible that there could be a double-dip recession – triggered perhaps by the default of Greece or Portugal. But the worst damage to the U.S. economy appears to be behind us. Home prices are largely driven by demand, which depends on the number of people working, their prospects for salary increases and the availability of credit for mortgages. All three of those things are bad right now, but they typically lag the economic cycle for GDP. Once the economy finally recovers, the factors that drive housing demand will follow.
2. The Real Estate Bust. The collapse in housing prices has destroyed confidence among home buyers and left perhaps a quarter of all properties worth less than the mortgages they carry. But the experts see prices within 5% to 10% of a bottom. Once the process is done, prices will have been knocked all the way down. As a general rule, the worse the crash in a market, the longer the subsequent recovery can last, because there is nowhere to go but up.
3. The Inflation Outlook. The combination of a cyclical economic recovery and the end of the housing bust is by itself reason enough to buy real estate. But in my view, there is an even more compelling long-term argument – the near-inevitability of higher inflation, as I have argued before. Basically, if the U.S. continued building up debt at its present rate, the country would eventually end up where Greece is today. The reason that won’t happen is that while Greece’s debt is in euros, a currency it can’t control, U.S. debt is in dollars. The U.S. will always be able to pay its debts because the Federal Reserve and the Treasury can simply work together to create more dollars (what people used to call “printing money” in the days before electronic funds).
The catch is that creating money that way would eventually lead to inflation and the devaluation of the U.S. dollar. In such an environment, any kind of tangible property appreciates rapidly. The last time such a pattern occurred was in the 1970s as inflation soared into double digits. Of course, ’70s-style inflation might not recur if federal spending is slashed, taxes are raised and oil prices fall. But that’s not how I would bet.
The real estate market may not quite have bottomed out yet. And the boom I’m talking about will probably take more than a decade to unfold. It also may not apply as directly to real estate stocks. Home builders have more complex problems and real estate investment trusts often depend on commercial properties that are sensitive to business conditions. But the next two or three years should offer exceptional opportunities for buying actual real estate – primary residences and vacation homes – preferably somewhere that’s green.