This article is about the choice between a dream home and something called house hacking. It’s an ultimate battle to see which housing choice is smarter financially. It’s also about how you can have both your dream home and amazing wealth if you wait until the right time to make your purchase.
A good or a bad choice with your housing, especially in your 20’s or 30’s, can make a difference of hundreds of thousands of dollars in the end! And that could mean the difference between achieving financial independence decades earlier (or not).
So, to make my point about these housing choices, I’ve created the ultimate battle of housing! This battle will pit two housing choices – a dream home and house hacking – against one another in a fight for financial dominance. You get to watch (and learn) as the battle progresses.
Preview of the Ultimate Battle of Housing
In one corner is the heavy-weight champion of the housing world – the dream home. This rarely contested champ is the most desirable choice of dreamy-eyed home buyers worldwide. The benefits of these amazing yet financially questionable dream homes are pushed daily by real estate agents, media giants like Zillow and HGTV, and well-meaning family members.
In the other corner is the scrappy and financially lean challenger – the house hack. The challenger represents hybrid home-rentals, like small multi-units or houses with rentable basements and guest houses. This financially powerful housing options allows you to live cheap or free and then later transition to a full-time rental if desired. You can read my House Hacking Guide for more details.
At the end of the article, I’ll give you the winner of this epic battle, including all of the gory financial details. Winning simply requires having the higher net worth after 20 years.
But in case you’re curious now, I’ll give you a little sneak peak of the final results. The winner has a landslide victory. It’s not even close. The final net worth difference for the winner after twenty years is between $420,000 to $760,000depending upon appreciation scenarios. Yikes!
If you want a higher net worth, more life options, and faster financial freedom, I suggest you choose the winner.
But let me begin with the back story for this battle. It began with a contrarian comment I received on a recent article.
Dream House or Alternative Housing Choices – Which is Better?
Recently the blog editor at BiggerPockets.com asked me to write a guest post titled Forget the Dream House: These 3 Alternatives Will Buy You a Dream Life Instead. It got a lot of reads and comments because it challenged some conventional thinking. But I was mostly preaching to the choir. Many comments were positive stories confirming my advice to not buy a dream house early in your life. These people had used house hacking, live-in flips, and live-in-then-rents to build wealth and exit the rat race early.
But I also appreciated one commenter who pushed back. I enjoy an intelligent, good-natured counter argument because it makes me think. He shared that buying his dream home near Palo Alto, California (Silicon Valley) was the best financial decision his family ever made. He stretched to buy the house for $250,000, and 19 years later he sold it for $1,250,000! That’s an incredible 8.84% appreciation rate, according to my financial calculator. The national average, in comparison, is closer to 3-4%.
I conceded that he had in fact done quite well. And I agreed that housing choices are complex, personal, and local, so people need to think long and hard about their final decision. But I also pointed out that his success was not easy to replicate. And furthermore, he could have done EVEN better in his location if he had used a few of the strategies I outlined in the article.
That comparison of scenarios is what inspired me to create this Battle of Housing. I’ve had to make some assumptions, as all examples must, but I think it will illustrate my main point.
The main point is this:
Being entrepreneurial with your housing, especially in the first decade or two of your adult life, is the best wealth building decision you can make.
Now let’s jump into the ring of the Battle of Housing!
Two Identical Home Buyers
In this battle, I’m going to use two identical 30-year-old couples who make housing choices. The couples each earn over $150,000 per year. They all have excellent credit, save a reasonable amount of money, and perform well at solid jobs. They each begin with $30,000 savings to contribute to their first housing choice.
The couples live in Coweta County, GA, which is part of metro Atlanta. This is a growing, economically thriving location in the southeastern United States (and also where I grew up!). They both plan to start having children in the next 2-3 years after buying their home.
Outside of their housing choices, these couples make the exact same financial decisions. For example, if one puts $10,000 into a 401k at work, so does the other. And if one spends $800 per month on food and buys a $20,000 car, so does the other. I won’t go into those non-real estate details, but I want to set that up so that we can only focus on the financial impact of their housing.
Their choices of housing look like this:
- Couple #1 immediately buys a brand-new dream home in a great location. They live there for 20 years.
- Couple #2 takes a different path:
- They immediately buy a small, older duplex and live there 2.5 years while renting out the other side.
- After 2.5 years, they buy a bigger duplex with more space and keep the first duplex as a rental. They live in this second duplex for 7.5 years while also renting out the other side.
- After 10 years, they buy their dream home, which is exactly like the house couple #1 bought (only at an appreciated price). They keep their two duplexes as rentals during the final 10 years of the battle.
Now let me share more details and numbers for each housing choice.
Choice #1 – The Dream Home
I randomly pulled the listing above from Zillow.com. It’s an actively marketed, new construction home in Newnan, GA. I hid the identifying details to protect their privacy.
This dream home is centrally located near good schools, shopping, and work options. It’s also a short walk to the neighborhood pool, tennis courts, playground, clubhouse, and walking trails. And the interior of the home has a beautiful kitchen, hardwood floors, nicely finished bathrooms, and a private back yard.
Couple #1 has the credit and income to qualify for a home loan. And a special 10% down financing program allows them to stretch and buy the house even without the traditional 20% down payment. Their purchase financials look like this:
The ongoing housing costs for Couple #1 and their dream home look like this:
Now let’s look at the original housing choice of Couple #2.
Choice #2 – House Hacking Before Buying a Dream Home
I also pulled this listing from Zillow.com. It was sold within one year from when I wrote this article.
This duplex is located in an older neighborhood within walking distance of the beautiful, historic downtown square in Newnan, GA. The location is safe, but it’s definitely more working class than Couple #1’s dream home location.
The duplex was built in 1939, but I’ll assume the electrical panel/service, roof, and HVAC were all updated within the last 15 years. The kitchen and bathroom finishes are very basic, but it does have hardwood floors. The structure of the building is solid.
Couple #2 live in the side of the duplex with 2 bedrooms and 1 bath. When not occupied, the 2-bedroom side will rent for at least $600 per month. The other 1 bedroom, 1 bath side is already rented to a long-term tenant paying $450 per month.
The purchase numbers for this second duplex looked like this:
Couple #2 benefits from interest and depreciation tax deductions on the duplex. Because only one unit is rented, only part of the unit can be depreciated (38% of the total cost in this case because the second unit is smaller).
So, here is the total housing cash flow for Couple #2 while living in their house hack duplex:
As I said earlier, after 2.5 years couple #2 make another duplex purchase. I’ll explain the details in the next section.
Couple #2 Buys Their Second Duplex
Couple #2 buys a second duplex, which is larger, newer, and a higher price. They like the concept of house hacking, but with the arrival of their new baby, they want a bigger nest. This duplex works because each identical side had 3 bedrooms and 1.5 baths.
Like their other duplex, the location is working class but safe. It is also relatively close to their work so that they can walk or bike to save money and to get exercise.
During the 2.5 years before buying the second duplex, Couple #2 managed to save an extra $46,680 to help with their new purchase and down payment. This savings resulted from the difference in their housing costs compared to Couple #1:
The purchase numbers for this second duplex looked like this:
Couple #2 benefit once again from interest and depreciation tax deductions on duplex #2. Because only one unit is rented, only part of the unit can be depreciated (50% in this case because the units are equal size and value).
They also benefit from the rental cash flow from duplex #1, which now has both sides rented. Here is the cash flow calculation for duplex #1:
And here is the resulting positive cash flow Couple #2 receives from their newest housing situation:
Couple #2 lives not only for free but for positive $230/month! They stay in this housing situation for another 7.5 years. Then they decide to buy a bigger, more expensive dream home. But they do keep both duplexes as rentals since they cash flow well and because they like the locations.
Couple #2 Buys Their Dream Home
After a total of 10 years of house hacking, Couple #2 buys their dream home after all. I try to talk them out of it, but the pressure from HGTV, Zillow, and well-meaning family members is too great. But perhaps it won’t be such a bad decision after all.
During their final 7.5 years living in duplex #2, Couple #2 managed to save $174,510 to help with their dream home purchase and down payment. This savings resulted from the difference in their housing costs compared to Couple #1:
As I said before, Couple #2’s dream home is exactly like the home Couple #1 bought. The only difference is that prices have increased in 10 years. For now, I’ll use a scenario of 3% appreciation, but later in the article, I’ll share what happens with a much higher appreciation rate.
With an appreciation rate over the last 10 years of 3% (close to historical averages), the purchase financials for the identical dream home look like this:
The Final 10 Years
Now Couple #2 lives in their dream home for another ten years, just like Couple #1 who are still in their original dream home. Because of their large down payment on the dream home, Couple #2 actually has a mortgage payment $208/mo less than Couple #1 ($1368 – 1160 = $208). Both couples generally pay the same other housing expenses (taxes, insurance, HOA, etc) because their houses are identical.
But couple #2 has a special advantage. While enjoying the comfort of their dream home, they still have their two duplexes producing income to help with their finances. And although this cash flow would likely increase over time in step with appreciation, I’ll keep it flat to make the math more simple.
The total cash flow from rent and tax savings on both duplexes combined is $1,095/mo. Couple #2 chooses to use this cash flow and combine it with their $208/mo mortgage payment savings to accelerate the payoff of their dream home mortgage. With a big monthly payment of $2,463 ($1160 + $1095 + $208), they pay off the loan early in only 9 years, 7 months. They even have an extra 5 months to pile up $12,315 in cash!
At this point, it’s been twenty years from the start of the competition. It’s time to look at the final results and announce the winner of this Ultimate Battle of Housing!
The Winner of the Ultimate Battle of Housing
As I said in the beginning, the winner of the Battle of Housing is simply the housing choice that leads to the highest net worth.
Let’s begin with the net worth of Couple #1, who bought their dream home and lived in it for 20 years.
An increased net worth of $410,000 doesn’t seem bad after 20 years, does it? But let’s look at Couple #2, who lived in 2 duplexes before ultimately buying their own dream house after 10 years.
The combined net worth from housing using all three properties is $142,752 + $145,770 + $542,000 = $830,522!This is more than double the net worth increase of Couple #1 for a difference of $420,522. And this figure does not include any cash savings or rent increases.
So, Couple #2, the house hackers, are clearly the winners of the Ultimate Battle of Housing!
Their first 10 years of hustle allowed them to accumulate three real estate assets instead of only one. As a result, they benefited from more appreciation and cash flow than simply owning the one dream house.
But there is one more scenario to explore. Perhaps someone who buys a dream home in a hot area, like Palo Alto, California experiences much higher appreciation – like 8.38% for example. Would the winner still be the same? Let’s see.
A Second Look at the Winner – Higher Appreciation Rate
With an 8.38% appreciation scenario, Couple #2 still buys their dream home after 10 years. But the difference is their house costs a lot more. So, instead of costing $403,000, their dream home costs a whopping $671,000!
Just like before, Couple #2 saved all of their cash flow from the rental properties during the 7.5 years leading up to the dream home purchase. So, they once again have $174,000 cash available for a down payment. The purchase financials look like this:
Couple #2 again gets to use the cash flow of $1,095/mo from their 2 fully rented duplexes. But this time, their mortgage payment on the dream house is much larger. So, the rental cash flow simply serves to reduce the out of pocket portion on their $2,518 monthly mortgage payment. To keep comparisons simple, I’ll assume this puts Couple #2 approximately the same as Couple #1 for their out of pocket monthly costs on the dream home.
Now, let’s see who is the winner in this new appreciation scenario.
Let’s begin with the net worth of Couple #1, who bought a dream house and lived in it or 20 years.
Wow! $1,368,000 is impressive. That’s the power of owning assets in highly appreciating areas. This will certainly help Couple #1 with their financial goals if they use this equity. But Couple #2 also owned assets in the same area. Let’s see how they did.
The combined net worth using all three properties is $462,141 + $562,034 + $1,102,000 = $2,126,175!A net worth of over $2 million JUST from housing choices! It’s not quite double the net worth increase of Couple #1 like in the prior scenario, but the difference is still $758,175. And remember this figure did not include ANY increases in rental cash flow as a result of appreciation. So, the results would have been even more impressive had we included those.
The final, clear result of the Ultimate Battle of Housing is this. In bothcases, the couple who began with house hacking won. Their net worth and overall financial position were much better in the end.
Conclusion and Commentary
My point in this Battle of Housing isn’t to dissuade you permanently from owning a dream home. Life isn’t only about money, after all. Every day we choose to spend money on things that make us happy but aren’t the best investment. But the long-term financial consequences of your housing choices are incredibly large compared to other financial choices. That’s why you should decide your housing carefully and thoughtfully (especially early on).
And I firmly believe that a choice of financially smarter housing isn’t a choice to “deprive yourself for a long time so you can make more money.” You’re not giving up life. You’re actually claiming more of it, earlier on. It’s a choice to value flexibility and life options more than a big house early in your life.
My own experience has shown me that smart housing choices can be fun periods of growth when you’re living on purpose. And yes, small children still thrive in smaller, simpler housing for a few years! They won’t miss that extra bonus room or the neighborhood pool.
Most importantly, your friends and family will appreciate that you’re choosing more life options instead of an expensive house. Your smart financial choices mean eventually you can work part time. You can start a career you love (even if it pays less). You can take mini-retirements. And you can achieve financial independence and permanently do what matters in your life.
But it’s still entirely possible that a dream home means more to you than the hundreds of thousands you are giving up. And that’s fine. My hope is that at least you now know what you’re trading off.
So, think carefully about your housing decision. Question the assumptions given to you that owning a dream home is the only path that leads to happiness. And have fun thinking outside the box and using alternative housing choices, like house hacks. I think you’ll be happy with the results.
What did you think of the Ultimate Battle of Housing? Have you bought a dream house or a house hack? How did the financial results turn out for you? If you are new to home ownership, which path will you choose? Why?
I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
Tagged With: dream home, house hacking, primary residence
In 1750, Samuel Johnson wrote that "to be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition." And there's truth to this; for most Americans, our homes are our launch pads for being and doing our best in the world, and the places where we live out our most precious, private moments. So, if you follow our most important dreams to their logical conclusions, they almost all boil down to having a happy home, where we and our families can thrive and enjoy happy, secure lives.
Fortunately, dreams do come true - and dream homes can become reality. Here is a short list of musts for developing the vision, strategy, commitment and effort it will take to make your dream home your actual home.
1. Know what a dream home is - and is not. Like anything else in life, you can't realize your dream home if you don't know what it is - and isn't, definitionally. For purposes of this conversation, our definition of a dream home is closely related to our aspirations and our visions in a couple of key ways. Aspirationally, dream homes take some work and effort to achieve - they aren't usually handed to us on a silver platter.
And our dream homes are related to our holistic visions for our lives, as well. By that I just mean that our dreams of home are less about owning a particular building, and more about creating a vision for our whole life as it will be impacted by our choice of home. We want a home that will allow our children to flourish, that is safely located, that allows us to personalize it and either does or doesn't require much work, depending on our personal preferences. By the same token, our dream home is also one that doesn't create problems for our lives or prevent us from doing the things we want and need to do.
If a given home is beautiful, but owning it requires us to work overtime at a job we hate, causes relationship problems, or simply requires too much repair or work for the time and resources we have, then that home is - by definition - not our dream home.
Here are some other concepts of home that are often confused for dream homes, but don' fit the bill. Your dream home should not be defined by:
- the over-the-top fantasy mansion you saw on TV (if it's bizarrely unattainable, in other words, it's a fantasy home - not a dream home)
- some antiquated notion of the biggest, flashiest home with the most amenities
- the most expensive home you can afford
- your mother's, sister's or best friend's dream home.
Understanding what makes for a dream home - and what doesn't - can help you avoid the common pitfalls of being upset when your dollar doesn't stretch to get you a home like the one you saw on Million Dollar Listing, overextending yourself, or assuming that the types of homes your friends and relatives think are ideal for you are the same as your dream home. While they might overlap, they don't always - and trying to fulfill someone else's idea of what your dream home should be is the fastest way to create a nightmare home buying experience.
2. Get and stay clear on your personal vision. There are various tools you can use to create a clear vision of your dream home, to avoid the above pitfalls. The most important of these is to sit in a still and quiet place and literally start writing down what you want your life to look like after you're in the home of your dreams.
Don't start with the technical characteristics of the building: you'll get there soon enough, and the reality is that your co-buyer's wants and needs, your budgetary limitations and the inventory available on your local market at the time will all impact the granular details of the property you end up with.
Instead, start with big picture life objectives, like who lives with you; what activities everyone does in the home that may require dedicated nooks, crannies, whole rooms or outbuildings; where and how much you work (at home? 3 towns away? around the clock?); how you get there and home every day; and what you do in your down time - be it hiking, home fixing, entertaining or strolling to the corner cafe.
3. "Be stubborn on the vision and flexible on the details." Amazon founder Jeff Bezos delivered this one-liner in explaining his philosophy of creative problem-solving. And it applies just as powerfully to the creativity that is essential when hunting for your dream home. Compromise is unavoidable. Whether you're spending $25,000 or $2.5 million on your next home, you will be required to compromise in order to reconcile your dream with your financials, the dreams of any co-buyers you have and realities of the real estate market, the inventory of available homes and geographic and other realities.
You may want a water view, but your wife wants to walk to the shops - and no home exists with both of those things. Or maybe you want to keep your payment below $2,500 per month, but you also want to buy a move-in ready home in The Best School District Ever. And all of those things are simply not possible with the down payment money you have in hand.
Bottom line: you'll need to be somewhat flexible on the precise specs of the home you end up in as your 'dream' home - and the only way to do this is to ensure that you know what your whole-life vision is. Once you have your vision of life/home document ready,
then you can get granular about the number of bedrooms, bathrooms and square feet you need, as well as location specifics, brushing your absolute must-haves and absolute deal-breakers in the most minimalistic of strokes.
Adopting this Amazon-style 'flexibility on the details' empowers your experienced local agent/partner to suggest creative solutions for homes that will allow you to create the happy home life you're trying to achieve, despite the circumstantial limitations.
In any event, hold onto your vision of life vis-a-vis your home journaling document for later. If you end up in contract on a home and have second thoughts, it's a powerful document to revisit before you finalize the deal, to make sure the inevitable compromises haven't completely wiped out all traces of the life you hoped to create in this dream home.
4. Communicate your dream vividly to those who need to know. A frequently expressed dilemma of wanna-be dream home buyers is that their agent is not showing them homes that fit the bill. In my experience, this issue often arises when buyers' champagne tastes and beer budgets don't align, and their agent is trying hard to show them the best they can afford, but it still disappoints.
To make sure that you are communicating your vision and dream to your agent with crystal clarity, consider doing some or all of the following:
- Send your agent the Trulia listings for homes that reflect features of your dream home - or the whole enchilada, if you can find it.
- Attend Open Houses and save flyers of homes months, even years, before you start house hunting in earnest, to share what you loved about them with your agent when the time is right.
- Ask your agent to show you at least one home that reflects what they *think* you want in your dream home - regardless of price. You might be stunned and astonished at what your dream home really costs, but the experience can help you manage your own mindset, and expectations, back into the realm of reality.
5. Mind your business. Dreams may seem fluffy and soft, but the dream of a home is one which requires you to click into hard-core numbers mode in order to make things happen. Don't fall into the trap of fixating on images of wainscoting and tree-lined streets until your money matters have been fully handled. I'm often surprised at how many buyers believe their dream home is just out of their financial reach, but have so much fat that can still be cut from their monthly budgets: money they spend on things they would say are much lower than their home on their priority list.
Sit down and comb through your existing spending patterns with a fine-tooth comb and ask yourself whether your fantasy football habit is truly more or less important than getting closer to affording the home of your dreams. Talk with a financial planner and your mortgage broker about putting an action plan in place to eliminate bills that are impacting your ability to afford and/or qualify for your target type of home. Get clear, in your own household and spending plan, on what you can truly afford to spend on housing every month, versus looking to your mortgage broker to tell you what you can afford.
Making your dream home come true involves some heavy duty bookkeeping and an intense commitment to managing your finances in a way that lines up with your values.
6. Get uncomfortable. Being a grown-up is full of paradoxes, isn't it? A few of my faves:
- Living an easy life takes a lot of hard work.
- With fashion and food, often less really is more.
- I get younger and younger with every day that passes. (Humor me, please.)
Here's one more to keep in mind as you pursue your dream home: creating a comfortable home might require you to do some uncomfortable things. Writing - and sticking to - a spending plan, is one. Reading eye-glazing contracts and hundreds of pages of uber-boring HOA disclosures is another. Having frank conversations with your partner, negotiating, managing your emotions around affordability and the like - there are loads of uncomfortable moments that take place in and around the process of buying your home.
These discomforts are temporary. But avoiding these uncomfortable moments can get you into some long-term un-dreamy drama: surprise HOA special assessments, a decade of living in a home you (or your partner) truly despises and years of living paycheck-to-paycheck from having overextended yourself are a few that come to mind.
So, dive on into being uncomfortable for this short period of time, with the knowledge that doing so will set you up for long-term success in your dream home.
7. Know the difference between your vision for "this" dream home, and your long-term vision. The home you buy now might not be your forever home. It's essential that you feel comfortable with the prospect of staying put for at least 5-7 years before you buy, in most areas. But don't feel like this home must have every feature you'll ever want to have in a home. Especially if you're buying your first home, the reality is that you'll likely move up several times in your future, as your career, earnings and savings grow over time.
Also, if your 'dream' home features list is particularly aggressive and/or your budget is particularly tight for your area, you might have to exercise serious visionary powers to visualize how you can develop the home you can currently afford into your dream home over time. Focus on location, expandability, and these other characteristics of a hidden gem of a home, and find someplace that is livable right now, but has the potential, with your hard work, to become the home of your dreams down the road.
So tell us, have you scored your dream home? If you're still on the hunt, what's on your short list of features that makes a home your family's ideal?
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