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For Real? The Really Real Returns of Real Estate

brown wooden house near green grass field during daytime

Despite what your parents tell you, a house is not an investment. It's a depreciating asset. A house, like any physical asset lose value over time. They age and wear down. To slow down the depreciation, you need to constantly throw money at it for maintenance. This is simply to maintain the value, not to increase it.

Houses without maintenance is like an unrefrigerated milk, it goes bad fast . Take a look at any abandoned home. After only a few months you see damaged roofs, clogged gutters, cracked windows, and probably some unwelcomed furry tenants.

Maintenance can be pricey. A conservative rule-of-thumb is 1% of your home's value annually. So if your home is valued at $500K, you should budget $5K a year for maintenance. Obviously this is a ballpark figure and should be taken with a grain of salt. Your cost will vary depending on a number of factors such as home age, weather conditions, etc.

You've heard the stories from friends and family, homes doubling in value and people getting "rich". The problem with these stories is, like a lazy artist they don't paint the full picture. These "success stories" are backed by overly-simplified math, looking only at a house's current value against its original cost. 

If you bought a house for $500K and sold it for $1M after 30 years you'd probably be pretty happy. You doubled your money!

Not so fast, let's unpack this. Doubling your money after 30 years, works out to be only a 2.33% annual return. That's even before you factor in inflation, taxes, transaction fees and maintenance costs. Once you factor in the costs, you'll end up in the red.

If you look at US housing data from 1890-2019, the annual inflation-adjusted return for houses is just 0.4%. Again this is before factoring in all the costs associated with homeownership.

Homeownership might be right for you depending on your goals. However, don't treat it as an investment as it'll surely disappoint.


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