Is Now the Time to Get into Real Estate?

I’m not very interested in predictions about how long the current economic downturn is going to last. What I’m interested is in the thinking behind the predictions. Here’s what I think about the segment that started the downturn: Real Estate.

My basic formula is that we’ll see the bottom when foreclosures have brought prices down enough so that it costs as much to own as it does to rent. That sweet spot gives investors the incentive to buy rental property.

The first caveat is that, in a particular area, if there is a lot of property in foreclosure, the prices can fall below the formula. The banks that own the foreclosed property might just want to unload it, driving prices lower and lower. However, if the foreclosures run through the system in a fairly orderly fashion, the prices will go down until it’s a good time for landlords to buy property. Similarly, in some areas that are very desirable right now or have very little rental property, the prices may stay higher than the formula.

The second caveat: this formula works if there are no big bad unexpected events. Big bad events usually include a lot of people dying, losing their jobs, or losing a lot of property. GM going bankrupt was big and bad but not unexpected; people knew that it might happen. The events that could affect the recovery are events, like natural disasters, that are a surprise.

With formula and caveats in mind, let’s look at Chicago. Readers in other real estate markets can follow the logic and apply it to their own. In Chicago, we don’t have some of the factors that make the housing crisis so severe in other parts of the country. We aren’t suffering huge population loss because of industry moves, like in Michigan. Also, people don’t tend to buy second homes, which have a higher risk of abandonment and foreclosure than principal residences, in Chicago. That’s Florida and Las Vegas.

But the real estate market isn’t a monolith here. The types of buildings matter a lot right now. A recent story in the Chicago Tribune details how Chicago two-flats (two story buildings where you live on one floor and rent out the other) have come down in price. According to the Trib, now it’s worth it to buy with the intent to rent:,0,7127635.story

I wasn’t sure if I believed it until a friend called and told me about a two-flat she has her eye on. She’s planning on living upstairs and renting out the first floor. Financially,
it sounded like a great deal. So, using my formula, pricing for two-flats could be at their low.

Condos are still facing problems right now, especially new construction. It’s more difficult to get mortgages on condos than it used to be. Lenders are more skittish about condo associations and have tightened their standards considerably. This American Life ran an episode with one Chicago condo horror story.

So, using my formula and caveats, it may take a while for the condo market to get back to normal. The issue isn’t price, however, as much as availability of mortgages.

On the single-family home front, I was talking to my local building inspector a few weeks ago in the near-western suburbs. According to him, there are a lot of properties in foreclosure in my suburb and even more in pre-foreclosure. The foreclosure situation is worse than in many parts of the metro area. This sounded like bad news. But when he told me about a how much a neighbor of ours is renting his house for, I did the math in my head. A light went off. Ah! The magic formula was approaching. What the neighbor could rent it for and the market price are coming together. If nothing catastrophic happens, once the foreclosures move through the
system, things will probably turn around in this segment of the market, too.

Does this mean I am suggesting you buy now? No. Don’t buy because you suspect that the real estate market may be around the bottom. Buy if now is a good time for you to buy for other reasons. And buy with your eyes open. While the economic news has settled down for the time being, we are still financially vulnerable. We need a lot of good news before the recovery is really on its way.

Does this mean that the housing market in other parts of the country have hit bottom? I have no idea, but I’m interested in your thoughts! Enter a comment and let me know what you think.

About the author

Bridget Sullivan Mermel, CFP®, CPA

Hi. My name is Bridget Sullivan Mermel. I started a fee-only financial planning firm, Sullivan Mermel, Inc. We especially enjoy working with attorneys, small business owners, near retirees, and clients interested in socially responsible investing.

We practice in a small niche of the industry called fee-only, which focuses on giving un-biased advice. We don't take commission, get kick-backs, or sell products. We have no hidden agendas. Our focus is on giving our clients the best comprehensive advice possible.

I started out with a tax practice in 1997. I could see that clients wanted and needed help not just with their taxes, but with other areas of their personal finances, too. When I found out about fee-only advising, with its emphasis on giving bias-free advice, I was hooked! I love helping people understand and improve their fiances.

I worked as manager and district manager during the start-up phase of Starbucks. I also worked supporting high profile litigation and in the back office of a derivatives firm.

I have a BA in Accounting and Marketing from the University of Wisconsin, Madison and a Masters in Liberal Arts from DePaul University in Chicago. I am a Certified Financial Planner™ as well as a Certified Public Accountant.

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