The Pink Panther strikes again …

Old dudes like us have fond memories of beer-belly laughing out loud at the hysterical antics of Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau in the original Pink Panther movies.

If you’ve never seen them, check them out.  Two of the best are Return of the Pink Panther (1975) and Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978).

Clouseau is a bumbling idiot.  But through sheer dumb luck he always ends up succeeding … in unexpected ways as a result of unintended consequences.

The Senate’s recent hearings on housing reform remind us of Clouseau.

The purported goal of the Senate shindig is to gather a group of big-brained housing industry leaders and experts to find a solution to the affordable housing “crisis”. 

But … as this Forbes article opines, some perspectives aren’t part of the conversation … perhaps for a reason.

Of course, you may have a differing opinion and that’s fine.  We have our own opinion too.  But that’s not the purpose of today’s muse.

We simply watch what’s happening today and consider how best to capture opportunity or avoid loss based on where things are likely headed tomorrow.

In this case, it seems Uncle Sam is looking for ways to make housing affordable.  That’s a noble objective.  Go team.

There are really just three basic approaches.

One is to increase supply relative to demand.  When supply exceeds demand, prices to drop.  That’s how abundance and productivity create prosperity.  

After all, lower prices make things more affordable to more people, right?

That sounds reasonable.  But it also sounds a lot like deflation.

And when bankers are in the room … the kind who make home loans secured by the dollar value of the property … they FREAK at the idea of falling prices.

So you’re probably not getting sincere ideas from bankers about how to lower prices.

Then there are the builders … 

While builders LOVE the idea of building more houses, they also want to earn a profit.   Profitable building is easier when prices are higher, NOT lower.  So you can guess which direction the builders are leaning.

What about the wizards of Wall Street? 

These guys make money shuffling paper.   So they just want LOTS of paper (i.e., mortgage-backed securities) created, so they have more chips to play with in their casinos. 

And Wall Street knows falling prices frighten the lenders who make the paper possible.  So it’s a safe bet Wall Street votes with the bankers for higher prices.   

Even at the Main Street level, there’s not much motivation to push prices down in pursuit of truly affordable housing. 

Real estate agents (the largest trade association in North America) aren’t raving fans of low prices as the preferred path to affordability … despite their rhetoric.

After all, real estate agents promote buying a home as a great “investment”.  No one wants to make an “investment” that goes down.  So higher is better.

Last but not least, there’s Dick and Jane Homeowner (often registered voters) … whom are keenly aware of their castle’s current market value, even though they have no intent on selling.

Of course, it’s fine for the prices of cell phones and big screen TVs to fall, but not home sweet home.  God forbid.

Plus, its fun for Dick and Jane to use their home equity to reset credit lines with debt consolidation loans, or to augment the falling purchasing power of their incomes.

And everyone knows home equity ATMs only work when housing prices steadily RISE. 

So yes, home BUYERS want the house affordable when THEY buy it. But after that … home OWNERS want up, up, up.  Sorry, next generation.  Figure it out.

When we asked then-candidate Donald Trump for his plan for housing , he simply said … “Jobs”.  Presumably, good jobs with higher pay. 

Higher pay leads to the ability to make higher payments which leads to bigger mortgages (happy bankers, happy Wall Street) which leads to HIGHER prices.

So it’s just a wild guess … but we don’t think there’s a chance in a very hot place that there’s any serious motivation to make housing affordable.

Not if “affordable” means “less expensive”.

ALL the incentives are to make housing MORE EXPENSIVE … but ACCESSIBLE.  That means more, cheaper, and easier FINANCING. 

So even IF the PTB (Powers That Be … it only sounds like Politboro) sincerely believe more and cheaper financing makes things more “affordable” …

(Hey, it worked for college tuition … oh, wait …)

… like Inspector Clouseau, they’ll end up pushing housing prices up by “accident”.   

That’s what happens when you use debt to pull purchasing power from the future into the present.

But whatever the motives, they certainly have the tools to make it happen … 

… lower interest rates, easier lending guidelines, government (taxpayer) guarantees, tax breaks … and the Fed’s all-powerful printing press.

Yes, we know all that is what first inflated and then deflated the housing bubble last time.

But smart, disciplined investors made not only survived the implosion … they made millions from the re-inflation.

So while this may not be the time to speculate on a housing price boom in the short term …

… it’s arguably a great time to liquidate equity, streamline expenses, solidify leases, and prepare for the long game.

Because when Uncle Sam is working on making something “affordable”, it usually means that something is showing serious signs of slowing and needs a boost. 

Of course, when you find reasonable deals in relatively affordable markets and you have a GREAT boots-on-the-ground team, it’s also a great time to use cash flow real estate to stock up on cheap long-term debt.

Remember, real estate … even housing … isn’t an asset class. 

Every individual neighborhood and property is unique.  So while deals might be harder to find, they’re still out there.

And if the cash flow makes sense, you’ll weather the storm … warmed by the notion that everyone with power to influence policy will be voting for HIGHER prices year in and year out … forever. 

Of course, they might break the financial system or crash the dollar trying to do it … so it’s smart to be prepared for that too.

That’s why we like gold, oil, agriculture, and paid for properties in non-leveraged markets … including, and perhaps especially, in non-domestic markets.

Real assets like food, commodities and land tend to hold relative value when currencies struggle.

Gold and silver can almost always be easily converted into any currency … and are a useful way to store liquefied equity privately outside a fragile financial system or hostile jurisdiction.

And if the dollar continues its long-term slide relative to gold, a little gold might go a long way toward retiring dollar denominated debt (like a mortgage).

That’s where we think gold bugs and real estate bugs don’t understand each other.  We know.  We spend a lot of time with both.

Gold is great for reducing counter-party risk and hedging against a falling currency.  But gold doesn’t cash flow.

Real estate is great for using cheap long-term debt to create tax-free cash flow and long-term equity growth. But it isn’t liquid and it takes a long time to retire the debt.

But putting gold and leverage cash-flowing real estate in a falling currency environment together makes each much more powerful.

It takes time to get your mind around it … but we encourage you to dedicate a little of your financial education time and budget to learning more. 

Because once you understand how gold and real estate make each other better, you’ll probably be more excited about both.  We are. 

Until next time … good investing!


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This market metric may matter most …

“Live where you want to live, 
but invest where the numbers make sense.”

– Robert Helms

Nice quote.  But it assumes you know what numbers to look at … and whether or not they make sense.

Many times, investors focus primarily on numbers related to the PROPERTY …

… things like rent ratio, gross-rent multiplier, cap rate … and of course cash flow after debt service.

Those are all SUPER important … and you should pay attention to those.

BUT (you knew it was coming) …

Individual properties exist in local markets, which are affected by both macro and regional factors.

Macro factors are things like interest rates, tax rates, and how other markets compare to yours.  Sometimes people move to find greener pastures.

Regional factors include local taxes, landlord laws, economic drivers, supply and demand fundamentals, net migration trends, etc.

So it could be a mistake to focus solely on the property’s numbers.  The market’s numbers matter too.

If your prospective property is in an area with downward trending regional factors, you might end up … as stock traders say … catching a falling knife.

Think Detroit many years ago …

Once the RICHEST city on the planet, Detroit boasted a population of about two million people.  Strong incomes, lots of prosperity, a robust real estate market.

Slowly … for many reasons we won’t delve into now … Detroit’s regional drivers began to weaken.

So even though the numbers on a property in Detroit back then might have looked good at some point during the decline …

… the regional market trend was working against you over the long term.

And just as a rising tide lifts all boats, a receding tide lowers them.

So we think it makes a lot more sense to pick your market BEFORE you pick your property.

Our approach is to pick a market first, then build a local team, and then let the local team help find the right properties.

This way, when you’re running numbers on a specific property, it’s in the context of a market you think has a stable or rising tide.

One market metric we suspect will become increasingly important going forward is rental affordability.

That’s because the long-term trend of net “real” prosperity for working class people has been down … and that’s probably not changing any time soon.

Of course, even if we’re wrong … and we’d love to be … being in affordable markets isn’t a liability.  Again, a rising tide lifts all boats.

But if an area is NOT affordable, you may not have a healthy supply of tenants able to pay your rent …

… and you risk being on the wrong end of a price war to maintain occupancy.

Of course, determining a market’s rental “affordability” is a tad more complicated than just running a pro forma P&L on a specific property.

For example, if rents are low, is the area automatically “affordable”?  Or if rents are rising, is the area becoming less affordable?

Not necessarily.

Affordability is about the ratio between wages and incomes, how many people in an area can afford the area’s rent, and comparing one market to another.

Maybe in an area where rents are rising, wages are going up even faster.  More people start moving in to earn those higher wages, which increases the number of people who can afford the rent.

So rents could be rising, yet the area is becoming more affordable.

Like we said … it’s a little complicated.

Fortunately, there are smart people who study these things and produce fancy reports we can peruse for clues … about markets, trends, and where opportunities are.

New York University’s (NYU) Furman Center cranks out all kinds of research related to housing … including their recently released 2017 National Rental Housing Landscape report.

Page 10 of this report caught our eye because it charts 53 big city areas (“metros”) and compares “share of renter households that were rent burdened” in 2015 versus 2012.

They define “rent burdened” as those tenants paying 30% or more of their income on rent.

Obviously, when a smaller percentage of people in a region are rent burdened, it means a greater percentage can afford to pay whatever the going rent is … and absorb increases in rent or other living expenses.

This puts a little recession insulation in your income property portfolio.

So a number that “makes sense” for a market could be a low percentage of renters who are rent burdened.

Of course, it’s also wise to understand why rents are low relative to incomes.

It could be driven by falling rents (bad), rising wages (good), increases in rental stock (maybe bad), net in-migration (good), or any combination of those and other factors.

So we’re not here to suggest simply because an area is becoming more affordable, it’s automatically a great market to invest in.

But it’s a clue … and worthy of further investigation.

What’s nice about the NYU Furman report is it compares 2012 to 2015 … so you can see whether a metro is trending better or worse for this particular metric.

If a market is more affordable in 2015 than it was in 2012, it’s positive in terms of the number of people who can afford to pay the going rent.  More qualified prospective tenants is a good thing.

Of course, if affordability is driven by primarily by falling rents and rising vacancies, it’s a red flag.

But markets with increasing affordability, and stable rents and occupancies, should probably end up on a short list of markets to pay a visit to.

We’d probably further narrow the list to cities where median rents are in the middle to lower price range compared to other markets …

… because if there’s macro-pressure on renters … say rising expenses in food, energy, healthcare, taxes, or interest … they may move to more affordable areas to find some budget relief.

In tough times, people don’t typically move to more expensive areas. They look for places that are more affordable compared to where they are.

Again, it’s EASY to invest in a rising tide.  But it’s always smart to be ready for if (when) the tide goes out.

All things being equal, a market with rents to the mid-to-low range on a national scale is probably safer when sailing into uncertain economic seas.

So have some fun in the report … toggling between page 6 (median rent by metro) and page 10 (share of rent burdened households).

Look for metros which are affordable locally based on a low percentage of rent burdened population, with increasing affordability from 2012 to 2015 …

… and also affordable nationally when compared to the average rents of other metros.

Kansas City is best for lowest population of rent burdened, with a solid improvement from 2012 to 2015 … and it’s more affordable nationally than two-thirds of the list.

Oklahoma City, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Salt Lake City all also look pretty strong based on these metrics.

Again, this isn’t a final conclusion about great housing markets.  But it’s one set of numbers to consider when looking for markets to investigate.

Until next time …. good investing!


 More From The Real Estate Guys™…

The Real Estate Guys™ radio show and podcast provides real estate investing news, education, training, and resources to help real estate investors succeed.