So you're looking for a big expensive house to upgrade your life. Perhaps the pandemic has made you want to live it up a little. You’re suffering from real estate FOMO and you're sick of putting your life on hold. I get it!
Owning a larger, nicer house will make living through future rolling lockdowns much more bearable. Further, it might appreciate faster given the demand for larger single family homes is going up. Millions of people are now permanently working from home at least part time, hence, a big expensive house may be required to also have a home office.
In fact, my wife and I bought a big expensive house one month into lockdown in April 2020. We figured, if we're going to stay home so much longer, we might as well have a nicer house!
Looking back, I don't regret the decision on bit. The intrinsic value of real estate has gone way up because we're all spending much more time at home. Further, it has felt nice raising our two young children in a bigger house so they can run around more.
However, I want to provide a warning that a big expensive house can ruin your life and derail you on your path to financial freedom if you don't carefully do the math. It is vital to crunch the numbers and buy an affordable house based on some home buying rules I'll highlight below.
Let me share one of my experiences almost buying an expensive house back in 2018 and the numbers. If you don't have the appropriate income or net worth, buying a big expensive house can really weight you down.
The Desire For A Big Expensive House Emerges
As a dad, I'd like my parents and in-laws to come visit more, which is why it'd be nice to have a ground floor level portion of the house dedicated just to them. This would make it more comfortable for all of us.
Given I write from home, it'd be nice to have a house large enough so that I can't hear my boy squealing with joy or crying in frustration. Trying to create while hearing him is one of my toughest challenges because once I hear him, I just want to drop everything and go to him.
Finally, I have some FOMO that if I don't buy this house now in one of the best neighborhoods in San Francisco, I might never be able to get in. This is my ego talking more than anything else.
Found The Perfect Big Expensive House
In 2018, I found the perfect house in Presidio Heights, one of the most prime neighborhoods in San Francisco.
It had four bedrooms, four and a half bathrooms, an awesome attic that would be used as a playroom, and a ground floor suite for my parents or in-laws. My commute to the tennis club would be cut down from 15 minutes to only five minutes a well.
Here are some pictures:
Pretty nice house right? The house was roughly roughly 3,200 square feet, or 1,300 square feet larger than our existing three bedroom, two bathroom house. Not extravagant, but nice.
Here is the problem problem. The asking price was……………. $4,495,000! Nooooooo.
Believe it or not, buying a single-family home in Presidio Heights for under $5 million back then was considered reasonable. But when I do the math on how much it would cost to own a $4.5 million home, it kind of hurts my stomach.
The Cost Of Owning A Big Expensive $4.5 Million House
It's important to always do the math before making any big purchase. Here's the math to own this beautiful house with a $2 million downpayment just because I thought it might be nice to live in Presidio Heights instead of Golden Gate Heights.
If I bought this house, my all-in monthly housing expense would more than triple to $18,605 while I would no longer be able to earn any potential income or returns from $2 million currently spread out across municipal bonds, stocks, and real estate crowdfunding in lower cost areas of the country.
The $2 million downpayment is guaranteed to earn $62,000 a year in state tax-free income if it was invested entirely in a 10-year government bond. Hence, one could easily argue that the total annual cost of owning this house a year is not $223,254, but actually $223,254 + $62,000 = $285,254.
Although the mortgage would eventually go away, the 1.23% property tax rate is for life. I cannot get over how egregious it is to pay $55,350 a year in property tax forever. Upgrading homes also comes with upgrading property taxes, maintenance expenses, and more. You might find out you have bad neighbors too.
You can rent a nice two bedroom, two bathroom, lightly remodeled condo in a nice part of San Francisco for $4,613 a month. Further, the property tax amount will keep on going up by about 2% a year because the city automatically assesses the value of your house up by 2% a year.
The Cost Adds Up With A Big Expensive House!
After 20 years of ownership, you will likely have paid roughly $1,200,000 in property taxes alone. That is just sounds absurd.
To add insult to injury, due to the $10,000 SALT deduction cap, I can no longer deduct the entire property tax amount. The SALT deduction cap includes state income taxes as well. Therefore, I'd be losing out on at least another $10,000 in tax refunds, despite the rise in the standard deduction to $24,000 for married filers.
When you buy a home, it's important to have the appropriate income and net worth to comfortably afford a home. Below is a chart I created highlighting how much income and net worth you should have before buying a home at all price points.
If I wanted to buy the $4,500,000 home, I would need an income of between $1 – 1.67 million, which I didn't have. Or, I would need a net worth of between $1.35 – $15 million, which I do have. But I wouldn't buy a $4.5 million home if my net worth was only $1,350,000. I need at least $10 million, the ideal minimum net worth amount to retire.
Note: If you want to calculate how much capital you need at a 4% rate of return to cover your housing costs, simply add up all your housing costs, divide by 0.04% and multiply by 1.4X to account for taxes.
Never Getting Out Of The Rat Race
Buying a big expensive house would put me in massive debt. If you buy a large expensive home, you might have to work many more years. At least with us, my wife and I are already retired.
It's clear that me buying this house or this type of house is not worth it. It goes against my minimalism philosophy in early retirement.
I would need to amass almost $8,000,000 in capital just to cover my housing costs if I wanted to stay unemployed. It's hard enough to retire with only a $5 million net worth and a family.
Even after paying off the mortgage, I would still need $2,500,000 in capital returning 4% to pay for the ongoing $5,938 a month in after-tax unavoidable costs of owning such a home.
I can only imagine the family who ends up buying this home will have to work for a very long time with a very high income to afford this type of lifestyle. We're talking $500,000 – $1,000,000 a year in required income to be able to afford the house and everything else that comes with raising a family. These type of jobs can be very stressful, especially if you actually need that much money to survive.
Nobody buys a house this size if they don't have at least two kids. Further, each kid will probably also be going to private school at a cost of $35,000 – $50,000 each. If a downturn ever comes, these $500K+ jobs go away quickly. Then your stress goes through the roof as an albatross hangs around your neck.
If you needed to sell in a down market, you'd not only lose money on principal value of your home, you'd also have to pay at least 5% in realtor commissions and transfer taxes = $225,000.
A Deja Vu Feeling
Me wanting to buy this house felt exactly like how I felt buying my Lake Tahoe Property in 2007. The real estate market had just started to slow, and I thought I was getting a steal buying the 2/2 condo for $718,000 since the owners bought the property for $810,000 in 2006.
I was earning the most amount of money I had ever made in my life at the time, and I erroneously extrapolated that earnings power forward for 10 years. Of course, the financial crisis hit, and my earnings power along with my property got cut by 40% – 50%.
Right now, Financial Samurai is firing on all cylinders. I haven't seen a down year since I started the site in 2009. But it's very possible that Financial Samurai and all my investments could take a beating.
What If A Recession Comes After Buying A Big Expensive House?
There's always a chance we could buy a house at the top of the market again. The subsequent two-to-three years of a typical home price down cycle may be tough to bear.
If I leveraged up to buy this Presidio Heights home and a recession comes, we would lose our lifestyle because one or both of us would have to go back to work in a hurry. All the levity we've felt having a reasonably low housing expense would go out the window.
The house would start to own us instead of the other way around.
I hope the buyers of this home are prepared for all types of scenarios. Their new house has likely trapped them into a lifetime of continuous work.
When we moved to our current house in 2014, we effectively lowered our housing cost by 40%. I originally looked at the move as just a change in scenery. We were bored of living in our old neighborhood after almost 10 years, but we weren't ready to relocate to Hawaii.
Downsizing Our House Actually Felt Great
But it turns out that the downsizing really did wonders to our FIRE lifestyle, especially after I sold our old house in 2017.
At a 3.5% rate of return, the proceeds from our house sale 100% covers our existing housing costs. This means I'm certain my wife and I will never have to go back to work again so long as we REMAIN in our current house.
Investing $550,000 of the proceeds in private real estate with platforms like Fundrise have helped boost our net worth. It feels wonderful to diversify our investments and earn more 100% passive income. As we get older, we longer for more simplicity.
However, if we buy this $4.5M house, we open ourselves up to massive lifestyle risk. This happened before when I bought my Lake Tahoe vacation property in 2007.
I had just made the most money I had ever made in my life. Because I extrapolated my record earnings into the future, I thought buying a $718,000 Lake Tahoe property after purchasing a $1,520,000 single family home a couple years earlier would be no big thing.
Of course, I ended up making a poor financial decision as the global financial crisis ensued. Extrapolating your earnings into the future with continuous growth is the second biggest financial mistake you can make.
Low Housing Cost Is The Key To Financial Freedom
Instead of owning a big expensive house, own something cheaper and more affordable. At least follow my 30/30/3 rule of home buying so you never feel like your house is a burden.
I highly recommend you keep your annual total housing expense to less than 20% of your annual gross income. Over time, you should be able to get your housing expense down to 10% of gross income thanks to largely fixed ownership costs and growing income. Once you do, achieving financial independence becomes much easier.
Go ahead and fantasize about living in a nicer, more expensive property from time to time. After all, visiting open houses is free. Maybe even spend a pretty penny renting a nice place for vacation once a year to get it out of your system.
Then come back to earth once you've done the math and realized how much you'll need to sacrifice in order to own such a property. Once you do, I'm sure you'll appreciate that what you have is already pretty good.
This $4.5M house in Presidio Heights is the perfect example of Buy Utility, Rent Luxury (BURL). It's a much better value to rent this house for $12,000 – $14,000 a month, given cap rates in San Francisco are around 2.5%, than to buy the property at current levels and pay all the continued maintenance, taxes, and mortgage interest if there is one.
My cozy home is currently being battle tested with my parents in town. Four adults and a toddler is quite a crowd. But my house is holding up like a champ. No matter how big or how small our house, we tend to get used to the size.
Therefore, I'll be shelving my dream property plans for now until the next stock market correction hits. At least I was able to experience what it was like to live in an $18 million mega-mansion. And now that I know, I'm not itching as much.
Big Expensive House Update
I originally wrote this post on November 1, 2018. I'm sure my wife and I would have enjoyed living in this big expensive house, especially now that we have two kids. The attic and outdoors would be nice play areas for our children. And an au pair or guests could live in the room on the ground floor.
On the other hand, putting down $2 million and taking out a $2.5 million mortgage would feel like a lot. In my chart, I used a 4.5% mortgage rate that would result in a $12,500/month mortgage.
By not owning a big expensive house during the March 2020 meltdown, we were able to invest several hundred thousands dollars into the stock market. I wrote a prediction in March 2020 that we'd soon hit the bottom. We also felt less stressed because we had purchased a single family home with cash a year earlier.
On the other hand, owning a nice home during a pandemic was more valuable than ever before. We're spending so much time at home now that our home's intrinsic value has shot way up. The single-family home market is booming, and this property is likely up 15% – 25% in value since.
Bottom line, it's better to comfortably afford your home immediately instead of expect your wealth to grow larger enough to allow you to comfortably afford your home in the future.
Our wealth has increased since the time I first laid eyes on this $4.5 million house. But instead of spending $4.5 million, we spent about 40% less for a lovely house with panoramic ocean views on all three levels in Golden Gate Heights.
Real Estate Investment Alternatives
If you don't have the downpayment to buy a property, don't want to deal with the hassle of managing real estate, or don't want to tie up your liquidity in physical real estate, take a look at Fundrise, one of the largest real estate crowdsourcing companies today.
Fundrise manages over $3.5 billion in assets and has over 400,000 investors. Fundrise primarily invests in residential and industrial real estate in the Sunbelt, where valuations are lower and yields are higher. Sign up and take a look at all the various funds Fundrise has to offer.
If you are an accredited investor and bullish on the demographic shift towards lower-cost and less densely populated areas of the country, check out CrowdStreet. CrowdStreet focuses on individual commercial real estate opportunities in 18-hour cities.
The global pandemic has accelerated the work from home trend. I see positive demographic migration trends to the heartland for decades to come. CrowdStreet is also free to sign up and explore. The value of real estate has gone way up because interest rates have come way down.
I've personally invested $810,000 in real estate crowdfunding so far to earn income passively. It's been nice to diversify my real estate holdings in lower-cost areas of the country. As a father of two young children now, I don't have much bandwidth left to deal with tenants and maintenance issues.