The incredible rise in home prices over the past few years has made real estate the "it" investment. We're looking at homes as if they're ever-rising stocks that will never decline in value. But thinking like that can land you in big trouble.
Don't get me wrong: Real estate is a terrific long-term investment, but the key is long-term. Your house is a place in which you and your family will live. Over time you should also expect its value to rise at about the rate of inflation, not at 15 percentage points above it. Even Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, who fueled the current real estate mania by keeping interest rates low, has said that he expects the hyper-growth to end and that we could even see a decline in prices.
Condos are especially vulnerable. People have been buying up units they'll never live in, hoping to sell them quickly for a profit. But recent sales data shows that condo prices are already beginning to slip. Condos are also spending more time on the market than in previous months.
The only reason to buy now is if you intend to live in the condo or house for at least five years—otherwise, you're taking on a huge risk if we slide into a down market.
If you do have long-term plans and decide to buy, be very careful with the type of mortgage you choose. Steer clear of short-term adjustable rate mortgages or interest-only options. The only types of mortgages that make sense are traditional fixed-rate mortgages or longer-term adjustables (often called hybrids) with an interest rate set for five, seven, or 10 years.
If you're itching to take a risk, buy a pair of avant-garde designer shoes. But when it comes to real estate, you'd be wise to play it conservative.