A Basic Necessity – Part II

Housing is not a right…

The other day I went to the local hardware store to buy a 1’ x 6’ board to make some shelving. At the register I was shocked to find this single plank of wood cost US$65. I took it back to the lumber section and asked them to cut it in half. Three feet would do. Back at the register, I remarked to the cashier, “Holy crap, wood is expensive! Good thing I’m not building a house.”

“You can thank the president for that, honey,” she replied.

At first I thought she meant the president of the hardware store company, but then realized she meant the President of the United States. For a moment I couldn’t even remember who the president was. Did it matter? I had lived overseas for a decade and had never given it a second thought.

I disregarded the cashier’s comment as typical American political polarity, but decided to research it when I got home.

As it turned out, the cashier lady was not incorrect. According to an article on NPR, the previous president had jacked up tariffs on Canadian lumber, America’s number one source of foreign wood, to about 9%; but the current president had double-downed on this move, raising the tax on Canadian wood to almost 20%. This gave the American lumber industry a virtual monopoly, so they could sell it at any price. And if an industry could sell something at any price, well, then things got expensive, and the hardware store could charge sixty-five freaking dollars for a single board of wood.

The NPR article related these facts in an apologetic kind of way, because, presumably, even to a news outlet that could be expected to support a Democratic administration this seemed insane.

We were in the middle of a full-blown housing affordability crisis in America. Housing prices in many American cities (including the one to which we had decided to move) had tripled in the past decade (TRIPLED!), mainly due to low supply, and supply would not increase if building costs were high.

The current level of housing inflation was unprecedented in all of American history. Was this really the best time to jack up tariffs on foreign lumber? The U.S. lumber industry must’ve had some damned good lobbyists, was all I could conclude.

The apologetic NPR article attempted to end on a positive note, stating that at least the current administration was pushing the multi-trillion-dollar “Build Back Better Plan,” whatever that was. How were they were going to build anything back better with lumber prices through the roof?

For me, this topic hit much deeper than the price of a single board of wood. I was on a twenty-seven-year employment streak. Every weekday for the past quarter century I had done the exact opposite of what I wanted to do. For ten years straight I had dragged my physical meat mass through a two-hour round-trip commute aboard the trains of Tokyo metro to serve my daily sentence as a wage slave. Every day for a decade I had grit my teeth, gazed down at the tracks as the train approached, understanding why some chose to end it all. Every fiber of my soul had resisted, but I pushed forward. Two prevailing thoughts had pulled me through these 500+ consecutive weeks: one, my extra “hardship” pay allowed my family to live in one of the best communities in all of Japan; and two, I was saving enough to buy a house in America when we finally moved to the States. For years had I boosted my spirits with the idea of living the American Dream, with a house in the burbs that was spacious enough, where we could finally stop renting and settle down.

Housing was a basic necessity, but it was not a right. However, I had earned my way into above-average housing at a fair price. I had persevered in an unwanted career for twenty-seven years, saved; maintaining zero debt. I had sacrificed more than most Americans could have possibly imagined, working directly with forward-deployed military overseas. My net worth far surpassed almost all the home-owners around us, but it might as well have been zero. I found myself equity poor, in the biggest housing spike that America had ever seen.

Oh well. Sometimes you were the windshield, and sometimes you were the bug. It was time to give up The Dream.

In these days, emotion was driving a lot of people into insolvency and the slavery of debt. It was the emotion that told every American this was the country their parents grew up in, that they deserved to “own” a home instead of paying rent.

After all, why pay someone else’s mortgage? Paying rent was throwing money away, right?

Wrong. I did the math.


A Basic Necessity – Part 1

Eighty years ago, on December 7th, 1941, the median house price in America was ~US$7K, or around US$130K in 2021 dollars. Median, annual household income in 1941 was about US$2,500. That’s a ratio of 3.5:1, house price to household income.

In the 50’s the ratio evened out at around 2:1 in favor of buyers, and stayed that way for a couple decades, until it started ramping up in the 70’s, culminating at 4:1 in 2020 nationwide. However, in many American cities the ratio is more like 8:1 or above, even in the so-called fly-over states.

My family and I live in a fly-over state, and our house-to-income ratio is around 6:1, at least for houses we’re willing to consider a home. And even those houses aren’t that great, compared to the house I bought in Dallas in 2003 (which happened to be in line 1941 median house prices, around US$130K, as compared to the median price of $400K today).

Bottom line: housing is expensive as hell.

Welcome to the new normal. It’s probably not going down. My instinct tells me the whole market is rigged, but it’s hard to get solid facts on what’s happening because there’s high-dollar incentive to obscure the facts.

One thing’s for sure: we’re entering uncharted territory for the price of one of three basic necessities, a house.

Equity-poor, first-time house-buyers are screwed. (Including me, as I haven’t bought a house in the U.S. in over three years).

Note that I will never use real estate lingo like “home”. A cardboard box can be a home, as George Carlin once pointed out.

Residential real estate is property and a structure that supports living. If you pack emotion into what will most likely be the most expensive thing you ever buy, then you are a fool.

Like most people, I don’t want to be a fool. I want to understand the trends and new realities, because we are entering a new reality, for sure.

Is owning still a thing? In real estate lingo, “owning” means paying another landlord, the bank, with many more expenses tacked on (insurance, tax, maintenance, time). So how do these expenses compare to rent?

This is the first of a series of residential real estate explorations. At this point, I don’t even know where to start. But I’ll find out.

Oh, and December 7th, 1941, is a day that will live in infamy, as one of our greatest presidents phrased it. Having dedicated a decade of my life working with forward-deployed Navy in the Pacific (in Japan, no less), the day resonates with me.

In those days people had resilience. I will, too.