I largely agree with Mike's broad point - too often people overvalue the notion that housing is an investment. My particular bete noir is the idea that "rent is throwing money away" while mortgage payments are building up equity. I think it's pretty intuitive that the decision to rent versus buy any asset hinges upon the relative cost of doing each. Historically, it's been a very good idea to buy in most markets, especially considering that labor mobility wasn't as important as it is today and people were able to stay in one place for longer periods of time, avoiding the significant transaction costs associated with moving.
In any event, I fall in Mike's and Felix Salmon's camp of thinking that housing as an investment is generally a bad idea. But I actually disagree (I think) with one of Mike's comments:
Felix notes: “DanHess and Matt Turner make the point that buying a house is a great way of forcing people to save over the long term.” There are no free lunches of course, and the reason it is a great way of forcing people to save over the long term is that it is incredibly expensive and difficult to get any money out of it.
I think the more straightforward reason is behavioral. You've gotten people to commit to saving in a way that isn't transparent, so they're not actually aware they're doing it. It's just that, 30 years later, they get to put a mortgage document on their grill and have a party when they realize how much equity they've built up.
It doesn't seem terribly different (to me, of course) from:
- withholding social security payments involuntarily
- automatic 401(k) enrollment
- the new programs where employees can commit that future raises will go toward retirement contributions (are these just hypothetical? I feel like I've read about the idea many times, but haven't seen any actual examples)
In all of these cases, it strikes me that saving is made easier because there was something automated about the process, where the individual doesn't feel the "pain" of foregone consumption.
(You could also point out that the mechanism of withholding income taxes accomplishes the same thing - reducing the public's understanding of how much in tax they actually pay.)
So overall, I actually do think it's a free lunch, in much the same way that a lot of valuable internet content is a free lunch. Of course there's a cost - individuals truly are foregoing consumption, and internet contributors truly are laboring to create content without compensation. It's just that in those cases, the people bearing the cost don't seem to mind as much as they probably should.