Someone asked me what I’ve been doing lately.
I said, “Fixing up my house.” It’s true. I fixed up my office: repairs, paint, new floor, etc. Now, I’m fixing up the laundry room. I’m not planning on selling. I’m just dealing with normal wear and tear. But just down the street is a house for sale. Nice place. The people who bought it and renovated it are asking 995,000. If someone puts twenty percent down and pays all the expenses, taxes with cash, they’ll still have a mortgage of 805,000. If they own 190,000 of the house and the bank owns 805,000, who really owns the house?
Made me think about my house. That’s what we say, isn’t it? My house. But it isn’t really my house.
When I had a mortgage, it was mostly the bank’s house. If I’d sold my house, the bank would have got most of the money. Some of my friends who didn’t have houses thought owning that 1915 house built by a Welsh shipwright meant I was rich. They mixed up debt with assets. I just owed more than them.
My grandparents and my parents were scarred by the Great Depression. My grandparents had their house taken away by the bank. The bank foreclosed. It really didn’t take my grandparent’s house. The bank took back its own house.
The problem is that we all suffer from recency. We think whatever conditions exist will continue to exist. If there is a depression , there will always be a depression. If there are high interest rates, there will always be high interest rates. If house prices are going up, they will always go up.
The longer a trend continues, the more recency is reinforced. Even though housing prices are at absurd levels in Vancouver and Toronto—in Vancouver, a vacant lot can cost two million dollars—people are still buying. Young people are taking out 700,000 dollar mortgages. Are they afraid that house prices could fall twenty percent (140,000)? Their down payment and their equity could be wiped out? No, because, you see, house prices always go up. That’s what the TV shows say.
House prices don’t always go up. House prices crashed in the USA. House prices in Victoria in the 1980s fell so hard that the banks and credit unions had room dividers set up that were covered in pictures of houses they needed to sell. An offer of fifty percent of the mortgage would get you a deal.
House prices in many areas in Canada are starting to slip. Money is still cheap but it isn’t just in Alberta that people are losing their jobs. It doesn’t matter how cheap money is if you are unemployed. Or underemployed. My grandfather always had a job but the railway cut his wages not just once but many times. He was working full time but he no longer could make the monthly payments.
According to Garth Turner’s blog, http://www.greaterfool.ca/, house prices in Saskatoon are down 15% from this time last year. 96 houses sold last week. 85 went for below the asking price. Then there is Calgary.
House prices are notoriously sticky. People who have financial problems will keep paying the mortgage as long as possible. They need a place to live. They’ll skimp on other things but they’ll make that payment. When they can’t, they’ll put the house up for sale. They’ll start by asking for a price that’ll get them back the money they’ve paid. If the market isn’t there, they’ll be forced to drop their price so they can give the bank the money they owe. If they don’t get enough money to cover closing costs and the bank debt, they still owe the difference. A lot of people think they can just walk away from a mortgage. Nope, no jingle mail here. You owe 700,000 The house sells for 500,000. You owe 200,000.
Recency. We all suffer from it.
I sold my first house for more than double what I originally paid. My second house I sold for four times what I paid. I wasn’t investing in houses. I just bought a house I needed and then a house I wanted. It seems to prove that house prices always go up. Buy now or buy never. That’s the mantra. Except the assessed value of this present house has slipped every year since I bought it. I’m glad I’m not planning on selling it to provide a pension. I’m glad I don’t have a big mortgage. I’m glad I accidentally made money on the first two houses.
My house. Maybe. In a way, I guess it’s my house. If I pay the strata fee every year. If I pay the taxes every year. If I pay the utilities every year. Stop paying those plus the mortgage and, like my grandfather, I’ll discover whose house it really is.
It’s not just Alberta that is having economic problems. It’s not just low prices for oil and natural gas. Our economy is resource based. We sell oil, gas, ore, lumber, grain, fish. China doesn’t need our natural resources or Australia’s natural resources the way it did. Our oil can’t compete with oil that can be sold for as little as twenty dollars a barrel. You don’t work in any of these areas so you are okay, Jack? No, you are not. There is a business and tax chain that runs right through the country. Oil field workers come from all over the country. Suppliers exist all over the country. They can’t sell their product, they’ll shut their doors. Medicine Hat is already seeing service and supply businesses closing.
My house. I want to feel that it is my house. Although someone else lived here before I did and someone else will live here after I leave. The banks, the credit unions, the mortgage brokers, the real estate agents, the TV hypsters, all say now is the time to buy. Certainly, for them it’s a good time for you to buy. Maybe they’re right. Maybe I grew up too close to the Great Depression. Maybe I’m still influenced by the Great Depression that destroyed so many lives. Maybe house prices always go up. Maybe. Maybe no one will ever have to go through the trauma my grandparent’s went through. I hope so but I wouldn’t bet on it.
(WDV studied economics in university. Theory of Business, Money and Banking, Labour Relations, International Trade but then foolishly went off to write poetry, fiction, and drama.)