The Fine Print
Think of appreciation as the paper profits in real estate. Your profits exist only on paper--in this case, your deed - until you actually sell the house. If you buy a house in a rapidly appreciating area, there is no guarantee that property values will be the same or higher when it comes time to sell. The economy may sour or your neighborhood may lose its luster. If you buy at the height of an upswing when demand drives up prices, you may overpay. Just like in the stock market, the flip side of boom is bust, or at least correction. If you overpay and prices settle out 10 percent lower down the road, you may not recoup all of your investment. Appreciation is nice to have, but not what you should bank on when you buy or sell a house.
TIP: If you buy when demand is driving prices up, try to make your offer more favorable in ways other than price, such as offering to close early or reducing the number of contingencies. Be prepared to examine houses more rigorously the first time around so you'll be comfortable submitting an offer quickly, if you have to.
The Cause and Effect of Appreciation - Almost every aspect of the national economy affects real estate appreciation: employment levels, business climate, housing supply and demand, affordability and of course, interest rates. A healthy economy and low interest rates drive demand, which pushes up prices and appreciation. Regional economic changes come into play as well, at times causing housing prices to see-saw up and down.
Demographics play a significant role, too. In the 1980s, housing demand soared as the huge number of people born in the 1940s and '50s hit the market. Prices went up and many areas experienced appreciation that was greater than the rate of inflation, making real estate a profitable investment. As this group has settled into homeownership, lower demand in many areas has slowed appreciation to below inflation, making real estate less profitable than other kinds of investments such as mutual funds.
Understand the role of appreciation in your market and in the neighborhood where you want to buy:
Buying on the Upswing - If you think about buying in a rapidly appreciating area, weigh your decision carefully. Decide if you should rent or buy by calculating the after-tax cost of renting, and comparing it with the after-tax cost of owning over five years. Renting may pencil out as the better bargain for now.
If you decide to buy:
The Bottom Line - Many experts advise buyers to consider appreciation a bonus, not a sure thing. Buy a reasonably priced house in a stable and likeable neighborhood, invest in home improvements that add value (not eccentricity), and you're more likely to get your money back when you sell. You may even make a profit, especially if you avoid buying when the market is overheated. Just don't plan to retire on the profits when you sell.