Breakout

Even after the crash, Americans still love real estate best

Jeff Macke
Breakout

Five years after a real estate bubble popped in epic fashion, it seems Americans are looking to get back in the trade. According to a recent Gallup poll, 30% of us say real estate is the best long-term investment. Gold and stocks were ranked as the second most popular investments at 24%.

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The results are a far cry from the peak popularity of housing back in 2002, but are still eye-popping in light of the magnitude of the housing collapse just 6 years ago. In the attached clip Yahoo’s Phil Pearlman says America’s passion for investing in whatever seems to be rising at the moment may have given us collective amnesia, but other forces are at work as well.

“Part of this is confirmation bias,” explains Pearlman. Most people didn’t sell in 2007. Those who managed to hang on are still in tangible possession of a physical asset in the form of their house. Intuitively any asset that managed to survive the last decade of craziness in America can’t be all bad, can it?

A Contrarian Indicator

Over the years, America’s preferences as measured by Gallup have shown some wild swings. Back in 2002 in the wake of the dot.com bubble bursting, more than 80% of Americans regarded corporate corruption as at least “somewhat widespread” and fewer than 1 in 5 thought equities were a good long-term investment.

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As fate would have it stocks were just weeks from bottoming when the 2002 poll was taken. Those who bought a basket of U.S. stocks the day the Gallup data was released made nearly 20% over the next 12 months. Suffice it to say there’s some statistical support for the idea that buying whatever asset is the most unpopular at any given moment is a good strategy.

With home prices on the rise it makes some sense to see housing regaining some appeal as an asset. What’s harder to understand is the stubborn appeal of gold. The price of gold has dropped more than $600 an ounce, equal to almost ⅓ of its value in the last two and half years.

A deeper dive into the numbers offers a disturbing explanation. As it turns out gold is overwhelmingly favored in households earning less than $30,000 per year. With the volatility of gold prices and its inherent lack of utility, the notion of gold being an optimal investment is a triumph of marketing over economic fact.

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In other words, those who can least afford to be investing in precious metals are the most likely to be putting their money in gold.

What’s this all mean for the future of housing? It suggests prices are a long way from the lows, but there’s little to support the idea of bubble-levels of enthusiasm for either housing or stocks. For better or worse the safest bet is that we’re somewhere in the middle of a rise in housing prices, and Americans have learned nothing from the boom-bust cycles of the last 10 years.

The question isn’t whether real estate is the best investment they can make. The question is whether real estate is an “investment” at all.

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