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Pick The Better Investment: A Home Or Your Mattress

"You need to invest in your future." "A home is a great investment." "It might be painful for a while, but it's worth it."

These are the refrains Dawn Crowell of St. Paul, Minn., heard over and over again from just about everyone.

The single mother of four eventually bought a house with the assumption that it would only increase in value. But like millions of Americans, Crowell has seen the value of her house plummet.


Over the past four years, Americans have lost more than $5 trillion in wealth tied up in their homes. Economists hold vastly different views on whether there are worse days to come, and whether the home was ever meant to be a nest egg.

The 40-Year Bubble

Market-watcher Barry Ritholtz tells NPR's Guy Raz that based on his estimates, homes are still overvalued by about 10 to 20 percent, and that means prices can go down even further.

For him, there is no such thing as a foolproof investment, and the conditions that created the rising home values of the last 20 to 40 years were rare.


"If you look at the factors that were driving home prices from 1970 to 2000, they don't exist going forward," he says.

Ritholtz attributes the housing bubble to both the availability of credit and the baby boom generation. He says in the '80s and '90s that generation was at prime home-buying age, and now, that demographic bulge no longer exists.

Plus, he says, there’s the impact of mortgage rates, now at record lows just above 4 percent.

"They're likely over the next 10 to 20 [years] to go higher and that creates a headwind to potential real estate appreciation," he says.

Long-Term Investment

But according to professor Karl Case, one half of the Case-Shiller index, there's some good news as well.

The Case-Shiller index is one of the best measures of home values, and the latest numbers show that homes are now worth about the same as they were in 2003.

Case says the housing market seems to have bottomed out, and in some places, prices are coming back up.

The cost of California homes -- which account for a quarter of the market -- have gone up dramatically. Not long ago, San Francisco had hit bottom; Case says that market is now up by 21 percent.

"Eventually when prices get down low enough, people are going to buy this property," he says. "They're going to buy it up, they're going to live in it, and by all historical standards, they're getting a pretty good bargain right now."

According to Case, prices are the best they've been in five years -- and perhaps in his lifetime. He says the idea of a house having ever-increasing value never existed, but a house can still be a good long-term investment.

"If you don't think of housing just as something to earn you capital gains in the long run, but something you're going to live in, and you can afford to pay the payments on it," he says, "it looks to be a pretty good deal."

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