We’ve not one but two of our favourite bloggers guest posting today. What’s more they’re going at each other head-to-head! Roll up, roll up, for a bare knuckle cage fight – personal finance style! Okay, not really, Mr YFG and Fire v London are too polite for that. But we hope you enjoy their gentle jousting nonetheless.
There’s a divisive issue that has been tearing the nation apart forever. Bloggers are at odds over it. Family members squabble over it. Maybe you’ve even put off retiring because of it.
No, we’re not talking about Brexit. This is a far more ancient disagreement than that mere whippersnapper!
We’re thinking of the age-old question as to whether your home is an asset and an investment. And even if it is, whether you should count it as part of ‘the number’ you need in order to declare yourself financially-free and able to retire early, should that float your boat.
Parliament isn’t getting a great rap at the moment, but we see merit in a serious debate. So let’s have at it!
At the end you’ll even get to give your (indicative) vote.
- Proposing the motion “This house believes it deserves to be included in your net worth” is FIRE v London, who is here to make the argument FOR including your home in your Financial Independence (FI) net worth figure.
- Opposing the motion is Mr YFG, who will make the argument AGAINST.
And are you sitting down, dear reader? Because there’s a twist…
Warren Buffett’s wise sidekick Charlie Munger once said:
“It’s bad to have an opinion you’re proud of if you can’t state the arguments for the other side better than your opponents.”
We’re going to put this to the test: Each debater is arguing the opposite of what they believe.
Let’s see if we change anybody’s mind. (Maybe even our own?)
We now call upon FIRE v London to get proceedings underway.
FIRE v London: Property should be counted in your net worth
Gentle readers, the argument I am putting forward today is nothing short of simple common sense.
Property is big!
Property is the biggest type of asset out there. In the UK it is 51% of our net worth, dwarfing all other types of asset.
Why would retail investors like us FIRE types ignore the biggest asset class?
Of course not all properties are residential properties. And not all residential properties are your home. But what we are discussing in this debate is your primary home – where the FIREr lives – and whether this home, and any associated mortgage, counts in the Net Worth calculation you tend to do for FIRE.
The average home in the UK is worth around £250k. In London it’s more than £480k.
For most people, the savings needed for Financial Independence are around £1m. So in that context, the house you live in is an important number – potentially half of the total assets required.
Why would we possibly exclude the most important asset from the calculation?
Big as an asset but also big as an expense
Of course, property is also the biggest cost for most households. It is around 22% of disposable income in the UK on average, and a lot more for #GenerationRent – who in London pay on average more than £1,600 per month to rent a home.
From the point of view on somebody on the FIRE path, this is important. To be Financially Independent one needs to be able to meet all your living expenses, and this obviously includes housing costs. If you own your own house outright, with no mortgage, you’ll have a significantly lower cost of living.
So, in fact, this house believes not only that your primary home, as an asset, should be included in your net worth, but that your housing costs should be included in your assessment of FIRE. You can no more disentangle your primary home, as an asset, than you can forget about paying for electricity and broadband.
So far, so much common sense.
Rent vs buy? An important side question
In fact once you move beyond common sense, there are good practical arguments for considering both your asset and your housing costs in your FIRE deliberations.
It may even be that – counter-intuitively – renting rather than owning turns out to make FIRE more achievable.
Certainly in parts of London with low rental yields, renting may prove significantly cheaper, especially if you can obtain decent investment returns on the freed up capital.
This house might be better off sold! But you won’t know if you don’t consider it in your net worth.
UK property has important tax benefits
But never mind the size of it, look at the quality. Property is not just a large asset, it is also – especially as your primary home – one of the best assets. Particularly here in the UK.
In the UK property holds a special place in the heart and mind of everybody – not just those Englishmen whose ‘home is their castle’. In Britain, property investment is ‘safe as houses’. Property is a ‘one way bet’. Stocks and shares? That’s ‘gambling on the stock market’, whereas you can put your trust in ‘bricks and mortar’.
As you can see almost every week in the Sunday Times’ Fame & Fortune column, where successful people make these arguments all the time. And they are successful people, so their arguments must be right, right?
In the UK, the taxman agrees with Fame & Fortune. Property is taxed differently to other types of asset. Crucially, there is no capital gains to pay on your primary home. If you pay off your mortgage, live in your home rent-free, and ultimately have no capital gains to pay, your primary home – the single biggest chunk of wealth for most of us – attracts no tax.
As in most places, here in the UK property is also arguably the key asset that it makes sense to borrow to buy. This means that you can get leveraged returns on it. This means you’d be crazy not to – especially for your own home, where mortgage rates are particularly low.
So, property is different. It is a large and obvious asset for retail investors to buy. In owning it you eliminate rent as a housing cost. There is no tax to pay, and you can leverage up your returns. You’d be foolish not to invest in it.
Let’s hear no more nonsense about excluding it from your net worth. Property is too big to exclude, and too attractive to exclude. That’s why this house believes it deserves to be included in your net worth!
But now I turn to Mr YFG, who is going to oppose the motion.
My YFG: Does my asset look big in this?
Whilst my honourable friend is right to call our home big, the case for it being an asset is less clear.
That’s because our homely abodes don’t generate any income or cash towards our FIRE target.
As Robert Kiyosaki of Rich Dad, Poor Dad fame points out, a home creates a negative cash outflow. For example, a mortgage, maintenance costs, bills and taxes. That makes it a liability!
My friend and rival also correctly points out that whether you should rent versus own your own home is a serious question to ask. This follows from the above. A bigger, more valuable house means you need to hold greater and greater amounts of other assets to balance out the cash outflow.
It also means leaving money on the table. The research shows that in the UK, investing in the stock market has beaten investing in property. Money in your house is money out of the market. Money out of the market is the lost returns needed to finance FIRE.
Overall, the bigger your house, the harder it is to reach FIRE!
Putting aside whether a house is an asset or not – can we even claim it’s big?
Valuing a home is very difficult. Unlike shares in an ETF (or FIRE bloggers), no two houses are alike. Sure, we can get a valuation from our local slick-backed-hair estate agent. But the ‘true’ value is only known when you come to sell.
Those mansions in Florida were quite valuable until they weren’t. Likewise the owners of former homes in Dunwich thought little was safer than houses… until the North Sea developed a taste for bricks and mortar.
This means that if you include your own home in your assets column the number is a little bit ‘fake news’. It’s not a ‘real’ number like the cash in your bank account. It may never be realised.
The main point of our FIRE stash is to fund our living costs. All those craft beers and avocado on toast won’t pay for themselves! And this is very difficult with a house.
As mentioned above, a home generates negative cash flow. But even thinking in capital terms, it’s tricky to realise capital amounts, too.
Unlike stocks and shares, we can’t just sell piecemeal amounts of our own home into the market as needed. Nobody would be interested in buying a quarter of my guest bedroom, and not only because of the mound of bric-a-brac I’ve stored in there.
To realise money from our own house we have to sell it all or else take out big remortgages. That makes your own home a really bad investment for funding living costs.
Mums and their sons
My honourable friend is quite right: An Englishman’s home is his castle. I love my home. And this level of emotion makes it very difficult to stay rational.
My home is the best home. Just like my mum’s son is the best son in the world.
So when it comes to my home, I have a huge blind spot. I’ll always be tempted to bump the value of my home up in a way that I can’t with my index fund investments.
My home is more than a number in a spreadsheet. As a rational accountant I must guard against that, and discount whatever value I magic up for my home.
In summary my case is this: we can’t categorically say a home is an asset as it loses money. Whilst it’s a big expense, it’s hard to put a real number on it. Any number we do conjure up is contingent on a future star-crossed home we’re in love with making it rain in our bank account. And even that number is probably unrealistically high because who doesn’t love their home?
My case rests.
Who is right? You decide
Well, there you have it. Two opposing points of view on a key question facing any ambitious seeker of Financial Independence.
What do you think? If you rent, is buying your own home part of your financial plan? If you own already, what will your financial independence look like in the future? What arguments are we missing?
Please vote in the poll and expand your thoughts in the comments below!