Rent vs Buy in Vanity Markets

2019-12-07 09.28.44A vanity market is one where the main benefit you gain from ownership is telling your pals that you own.

Similar to my observation that I was wired to buy a “big” house, there are other purchases our ego gravitates towards: cottage at the lake, ski chalet, big-city pied-a-terre, beach house, farm…

Our ego’s weaknesses depend on our cultural background, childhood memories, current mood and social situation.

My ego can lead me far astray, particularly with non-yielding real estate, and depreciating assets.

I’ve been battling with myself since I first visited Vail, Colorado. I’ll illustrate with real figures from the neighborhood of East Vail. It is a niche market, which I’ve been following for 16 years.

The “buy” => $1 million buys you the opportunity to spend another $375,000 to renovate, and furnish, a property that was build in the 1970s. After your renovation is done you pay ~$25,000 per annum in taxes, insurance, HOA and running costs.

The “rent” => $25,000 to $40,000 all-in rental cost for the same property.

Something we noticed about skiing, most skiers don’t ski.

Put this observation another way… there’s a lot of empty real estate around.

I’m sure every empty place has a history of buyers, who were certain they’d use the property more often than they do.

A useful rule of thumb is to assume that every $1 million, in a vanity property, costs your family $50,000 per annum. Renting makes (some of the) opportunity cost real, and allows you to calculate the cost-per-night of what you’re using.

Above is what you can see and calculate.

What about what you don’t see?

#1 => the option to change your mind, without cost or hassle. This is a powerful argument when framed correctly.

Honey, the kids are going to grow up and leave. When that happens, our life will change in ways that are impossible to predict. We should maintain the flexibility to change our minds.

#2 => the option to buy in a downturn. About once a decade, property values snap downward. Waiting does not feel like a valuable option but it is. I’ve seen brief, 50% markdowns numerous times.

#3 => what I think I will like does not match what I actually like. I am a master at fooling myself. Fooling myself with regard to location, views, amenities, garages, layouts… you name it.

Renting “forces” me into different types of properties. Because mistakes are so expensive, I write down the lessons from every new property.

Here’s the best lesson of all…

Assets don’t create the life you want to lead.

Focus on shared experiences with the people you love.

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Family Real Estate 2019

2019-12-01 17.07.49I like investing in residential real estate for several reasons:

  • The market is dominated by unsophisticated buyers/sellers, who are often driven by external events and emotions;
  • The availability of long-term fixed-rate non-recourse finance; and
  • Favorable tax treatment.

There are some drawbacks:

  • It is extremely expensive to buy and sell => a mistake will cost me 10% (gross), if I am lucky. If borrowing, even conservatively, then I can lose 35-50% of my equity in a year.
  • It is lumpy => if you need the money back then it is very difficult to gradually drawdown your investment.
  • It is illiquid => if we _really_ need to cash out then we won’t be able to cash out
  • Humans are hardwired to over-buy => as soon as I could afford a huge home, I bought one. It took me years to get my capital back. I was very lucky => I purchased with a large margin of safety (no leverage, big site, big building, prime neighborhood).

Taking the above, together, real estate is a useful core holding for money that won’t be needed for 10+ years.

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I follow two types of markets:

Markets where growth in prices is driving by “wealth feelings” in the top 0.01% of society => Vail mountainside homes, Boulder view properties. These properties have done well, appreciating to levels where implied yields are -2% to 2%.

I prefer to invest in traditional markets => markets where price growth is backed by a combination of real-economic growth (ability to pay), construction inflation (replacement cost) and discounted cash flow (net yields above my cost of capital).

Both markets are influenced by the availability of credit. Both markets benefit from scarcity and desirability in location selection.

Remember that even a “cash buyer” is influenced by easy credit. Credit conditions influence the value of ALL assets => wealth effects. These wealth effects cut both ways => highly wealthy people can feel “poor” when their balance sheets are shrinking.

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When I buy, I create a margin of safety by seeking:

  • Land for cheap => is there extra land I could sell off or am I buying in a very desirable location.
  • A lot of square footage for cheap => ideally, I’d like to get the land for “free” by paying less than the replacement cost for the building. Even if you never build, it helps to know building costs.
  • Distressed seller => life happens, often at inconvenient times.
  • Closed credit markets => by ensuring I have the ability to hold through tough times, I can use unallocated capital to buy during down markets.

I’ve been preparing for my next deal by improving my credit worthiness:

  • Building up a capital reserve.
  • Improving my credit rating – paying credit cards early, taking advantage of a 60-month 0% car loan offer, always paying my mortgage on time => taken together these strategies added 80 points to my credit score from 2012 to 2019.
  • Reducing leverage => paying down my mortgage and car loan. Closing out my second mortgage.

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We’ve seen significant house price inflation in Boulder => supported by: (a) rising construction costs, (b) local economic growth, (c) inward migration of wealthy coastal buyers, and (d) easy credit terms.

In 2019, I looked at deals to increase investment in Boulder (buying apartments and renovating houses). In the end, we decided to decrease investment in real estate through a sale-and-leaseback of our home. 

The leaseback costs me some tax (today) and positions me to borrow long at favorable terms. The option also costs me the future capital appreciation of my home, which won’t be mine any more. We retain exposure to the Boulder market through rental properties we own.

I’ve structured the deal with vendor finance, allowing a gradual drawdown of the proceeds. The net monthly cash flow covers our cost of living through my youngest daughter’s high school graduation. Having our cost of living covered protects my ability to control my schedule => highly valuable to my family in a way that’s difficult to quantify.

This is the cheapest way for me to sell real estate and positions us to buy when conditions swing in our favor.

Raise money before you need it.

 

What To Do

2019-09-23 08.07.06-1Between summer day camp and the school year starting mid-August, I’ve had two months of a relatively quiet household.

I used this time to re-read Taleb and Munger. You can find my full notes here.

My initial purpose of re-reading was to figure out “what to do.”

It is far easier to be certain about what NOT to do.

Do you know what can ruin your family’s life?

I do.

  • Racing, especially high speed downhill => physical ruin leading to a downward mental spiral.
  • Alcohol use => historically, my average daily consumption is either: (a) zero; or (b) slowly trending upwards.
  • Anger => if I am going to screw up a key relationship then it will be when I act on anger.
  • Death by Accident or Avalanche

What is your list?


Assets and spending do not create a life with meaning.

My true job is keeping our cost of living down so we maintain the ability to control our schedules.

  1. Be wary of adopting the preferences of others. It’s easy to sign yourself up for millions of lifetime spending that won’t mean a thing to you late in life. Worse yet, you will pass these values to your kids and they blow whatever you leave behind.
  2. Pay attention when you notice “better” doesn’t make a difference. “Wasn’t worth it” happens to me a lot.
  3. Pay attention to the cost you pay in time and emotion => it costs me a lot of worry and stress to get more money. Way easier to spend less.
  4. Once you are beholden to a third-party, you’ve lost.
  5. A lot of times “worse isn’t worse.” We adapt very quickly to setbacks.

We discuss case studies at home. Housing, vacations, cars, the endless “needs” my kids and I dream up.


So while I’m removing things that can ruin me, and beating down my hedonistic tendencies… What to do?

Wait for the fat pitch.

A key benefit of a good position is being able to wait until the credit cycle swings in your favor.

The longer we have to wait, the better the opportunities. Cutting rates, running trillion-dollar deficits at the top of the economic cycle… there will be great deals eventually.

I’m not excited about any asset class right now.

  • The bond market is telling me that we’ve pulled 5-10 years of returns forward.
  • Net yields are under 1% for real estate that I’d like to buy.
  • The rest of my balance sheet feels like “enough” exposure.

I’ve decided to make no material new investments. We are going to periodically rebalance and I am going to reduce my cost of living.

What to do?

Enjoy nature with my family and pass my value system to my kids (by living the life I wish for them).

How Bad Ideas Get Funded

2019-06-26 14.43.54After a decade of asset price inflation, I’m tempted to shuffle the deck. I remind myself:

  1. Each time I change, I crystalize tax liabilities, pay transaction fees and introduce the possibility for error.
  2. A key benefits of an attractive position is the freedom NOT to change it.
  3. NOT following through on a mediocre idea => can be a great decision.
  4. My greatest investing weakness is the desire for change, for change’s sake.

Against the above, I’ve developed a hunch that assets are going to be cheaper 2 to 3 years from now.

Fully invested, with yields at historic lows, there’s little reason to rush into changing strategy.

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Costly mistakes happen when we overpay late in an expansionary cycle.

Where are we?

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Start with yourself => write out your ten largest items for the last year.

  • Childcare
  • Ski Season Accommodation
  • Food
  • Mortgage
  • Taxes
  • Healthcare
  • College and Retirement Accounts
  • Disney Cruise
  • Ski Passes & Gear
  • Insurance
  • Harry Potter World

How does your current rate of spending compare to 2009/2010? I’m double my bear market rate. Sitting at a 2007/2008 rate of spending (with 3 more dependents).

Are you considering any big-ticket items?

I am:

  1. Vacation property
  2. Trading up my home
  3. New vehicle

There is information in what you are willing to consider. #1 and #2 are rarely on my radar.

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What’s happening locally?

We are doing well in Boulder County, 2% unemployment, significant investment in schools, parks, and recreation facilities.

Some things stand out at the margin,

  1. multi-million dollar homes being left empty by seasonal residents
  2. houses being purchased for ~$1.25 million then torn down
  3. properties selling for double 2007/8 valuations
  4. local governments seeking to borrow HUGE and take technology risk on utilities / broadband

There are many people choosing risks they do not need to take.

There are many people sharing stories about quick money being made.

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Risk being ignored across all levels of society.

State => We have an active State Assembly passing laws and regulations as fast as the Governor can sign => at the margin… they are seeking the repeal of TABOR so they can spend money even faster.

Federal => in the news… medicare for all, national student loan forgiveness and a war of choice with Iran. No constraint on the ambitions of government.

Interest rates => at the top of the cycle, moving away from rate increases and a yield curve showing sub-2% money five years out.

VC to Public Markets => rapid internal dealing to ramp valuations prior to IPO => weak post IPO performance. The smart money is shifting risk, fast.

Every political viewpoint, local to global:

  • acting as if capital is unlimited
  • taking on risks of choice
  • increasing debt burdens
  • agreeing to future commitments of unknowable magnitude

These conditions are how bad ideas get funded.

  • Asset prices at all-time highs => a price umbrella influencing EVERYTHING
  • Cost of debt back at a generational low => easy money

If you are smart then the marginal idea that gets funded might be your own! Right now is THE time to raise money, sell businesses and unload illiquid positions.

If you are concentrated then consider taking money off the table (link is a blog of mine that’s worth your time).

Stay variable.

Cash Holdings in Context

2019-06-09 07.03.52The Algebra of Happiness is a great read. Professor Galloway has a hit on his hands.

In the book (page 83), Professor G says “I’m 80% in cash.”

I am used to hearing about wealthy guys’ portfolio allocations, I didn’t give it much thought.

However, his statement caught my wife’s attention (Big Time) and I spent a while explaining why I’d give the Professor an “incomplete” on this short section (of an excellent book).

Here’s what I said…

Start by laying out your sources of income:

  • Social security
  • Day job
  • Consulting gigs
  • University professorships
  • Unearned portfolio income
  • Rental property income
  • Tech fund consulting
  • Royalties from bestsellers
  • Spouse’s income

The segments, and the total, are useful to review.

These are figures you should know, roughly, off the top of your head.

Now, consider the information against your core cost of living.

I guess Professor G’s core cost of living is well covered by his sources of income. I’d further guess that his balance sheet has his family’s living expenses covered for the next hundred years. He is unlikely to be hurt by any investment strategy he selects.

The spread of your income sources will show concentration and diversification. Concentration can ruin life as you know it. You are likely to have skin in this game.

Addressing concentration can save you from ruin. Tweaking asset allocation, less so.

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Next, consider the areas of your life that hold option value:

  • Youth
  • Education
  • Ownership (bi-coastal real estate, start-ups, portfolio investments)
  • Wealthy relatives
  • Carried interest in tech firm general partnerships
  • Fame
  • Bestsellers
  • The ability to spend less
  • Equity stakes people toss you for being an entertaining non-executive director
  • World-class skills in well paying, niche specialties

When successful people talk about holding a lot of cash, they rarely mention the MASSIVE option value in the rest of their lives.

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What is cash?

As I write this I have six weeks’ living expenses in cash.

Seems really low!

  1. What if I add my US government bond portfolio?
  2. What if I net my unearned income sources from my core cost of living?
  3. What if I take a part-time job in one of my niche specialities?
  4. What if I downsize my house by moving?

In that case, my six weeks of cash should see me through to my 75th birthday.

Incidentally, I did all of the above 2009-2012 after my professional life was crushed.

Thankfully, I had a large cash holding at the time! 😉

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What should you hold in cash?

When allocating capital, most people want to receive a forecast of the unknowable.

Avoid pundits, forecasters and the predictions of others. They are worse than useless.

Each time I make an important decision, I write a file note to myself. Sometimes I publish these notes! Do this for 30 years and you’ll have a written record of your strengths and blindspots.

I use my limited attention to consider the implications of being wrong.

Overweight in cash and I am right:

  • Rich already => no implication, if you’re not satisfied with what you have today then you will not be satisfied with more tomorrow
  • Rest of us => Need to decide when to invest
  • Rest of us => Need to decide what to invest

The track record of “rest of us” is clear. We do an awful job at market timing and dynamic asset allocation.

Overweight in cash and I am wrong:

  • Rich already => no implication, my unborn grandchildren inherit less unearned capital
  • Rest of us => my widowed wife runs out of money in her 80s
  • Rest of us => I become a financial burden on my adult children

Some games you don’t want to play.

 

Memories of a credit crunch

2019-05-28 06.43.39I’ve been offline for a bit.

Spending time with my family in Mexico.

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I’m fond of reminding myself that the cost of the status quo is hidden.

I like to take breaks from my “status quo” and pay attention to what I have been missing.

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Since last July, I’ve been pulling the plug on the internet for 5-7 days at a time and writing notes in a memo pad.

Via my breaks, I am able to see the cost of constant connectivity…

….reduced creativity, clarity and cognitive ability!

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It’s tempting to think great opportunities will never come again.

It’s also human nature to forget anything that is further back than about three years.

So I’d like to share memories of what happened coming out of the 2008/2009 credit crisis.

Ancient history in the collective memory!

2019-05-28 13.59.14

In 2010-2012…

  • I bought two buildable lots, one with an older house, for under $300 per sq ft.
  • I then bought a two-unit downtown site for $375 per (very, very old) square foot. This seemed like a stretch. I didn’t expect the deal to show much progress for a long time.
  • I was able to buy Tucson condos at $49 per sq ft. Shouldn’t have furnished these! Sold them early as I was running tight on cash (due to living in a big house with no yield).
  • My last decision was NOT to buy a 5,000 sq ft house in Gunbarrel (City of Boulder) because I was concerned about the “hassle” of cleaning it up. This deal could have been had at $99 per sq ft! What was I thinking! Instead I put everything I had into a well-constructed home at $244 per sq. ft.

Cost to build (excluding land) is now around $400 per sq ft.

The figures above included land and building.

In hindsight, for three years, Mr. Market was giving land away in the City of Boulder.

Are you ready for the next tightening of the credit cycle?

A Little Economic History

2018-10-31 07.52.14It is much easier to position your life before, rather than during, an economic crisis.

It’s also truly amazing how fast a credit crunch can sweep across markets.

This month, a decade ago, was the mid-point for the toughest 90-day stretch of my financial life. Taking it back to October to December 2008…

  • My prospective earned income went to zero at a time when…
  • My Business/Personal cash burn rate was $10,000 a week. Simultaneously…
  • My net worth dropped by 67% and…
  • I was facing a potential claim 20x in excess of what remained. The one bright spot was my family life…
  • Our first child was born and we were very happy within our marriage.

The only reason I didn’t follow a friend into bankruptcy was a pre-crash restructuring. I had been scared by four events :

  1. The US was offering loans without income verification.
  2. The UK was offering loans without bank covenants.
  3. Down in New Zealand, I used both of the above and borrowed to pay my living expenses at a time when…
  4. I had a personal guarantee outstanding that covered most my assets, and all my net worth.

There is a line in Fooled By Randomness about Russian Roulette. It goes something like…

Even if the gun has a million chambers, there are some games you don’t want to play.

I was enjoying my life and didn’t want external circumstances to force a financial reboot at 40-years old. So… 2005-2007 was a time of significant change.

The restructuring took three years (2005-2007). It prevented ruin, but still resulted in a lot of pain when credit markets slammed shut in 2008.

At the time I was working in the UK. The entire chain of my business life went from Great-to-Insolvent in 180-days (bank, joint venture partner, developer, general contractor, sub-contractors, employer, CEO).

Just like that.

Gone.

2009-2012 were spent clawing back.

Key steps:

  • Downsized family home, spending and aspirations. Embrace Your Hubris!
  • Invested the downsized capital into a Downtown Boulder rental property. Two units, where the little unit’s rental income would enable us to live for “free” in the larger unit.
  • Invested our remaining funds in a redevelopment opportunity that I could hold FOREVER, because it was debt-free and cash flow positive.
  • Turned a loss making triathlon hobby (draining $75k annually) into a cash generating consulting business ($4,000 per month).

By 2013, we achieved cash flow break even. We were so blasted from our young family (up to three kids) that I don’t remember appreciating the significance of what we achieved.

Within my financial peer group, our story is not unique. Lots of people had a similar ride. However, they don’t necessarily blog about it.

Financial memories are short.

Remember.

You don’t get killed by prices falling — price volatility is emotionally painful but not financially fatal.

Companies, Your Personal Ethics, Friends and Families… All can get crushed by running out of cash in a banking crisis.

Where’s your cash flow statement?