The House is Falling

Justin here. When my wife and I moved to Greensboro, we looked at 10 or 15 houses before making an offer on the cheapest one of the lot. After finding out there were two other offers, we paid the asking price ($129,900) for the 110 year old bungalow that had an abundance of charm and lead paint but skimped on the closet space and bathrooms.

Almost four years, one baby, 6 restored windows and a new paint job later, I’m still scurrying across the house at 6:00am to get to my closet, one that was made for a man with much narrower shoulders than me.

Anyway, when the stock market is moving like it is now, we’ve found it helpful to think about stock prices in terms of home prices. We’ve often asked clients, “What if you had a ticker running across your screen telling you what your home was worth? What if Jim Cramer screamed about your home price on TV? What if Barron’s did a story about how overvalued your house was?” You’d start to believe everything they say.

Enter Zillow, a website that is supposed to track the daily price of your house. Zillow has been out a while, but I only got around to looking up my house in the last few months (below is the 5 year chart, that circle withe the $ is where I bought the house.)

And when I looked at it, do you want to know what I felt? Regret. Seriously. I regretted buying it for more than zillow said it was ‘worth’ ($115,000) and regretted not selling it in May 2008 when it was ‘worth’ $164,000.

But, you want to know what else I felt? Relief. Seriously. I was relieved to not have gotten the email, seen the quote, or heard the news that my house was ‘worth’ only $120,000 in February of 2007. Relieved that I didn’t panic and sell out after it “when down” 15% from my purchase price. Relieved that I knew what my house was really worth and didn’t sell for less.

And then I realized that looking at Zillow is no different than reading a stock analyst report, listening to a talking head, or checking your stock portfolio daily. The analysts and talking heads might sound slick and have a clean looking chart, but chances are they don’t know the real value. And your stock portfolio today is only a snapshot of what someone will pay you right now, not a true measure of what is is worth. We think the prices we’ll see in 6, 12, 18, 24, heck even if it takes 36 months (which is still long before the bulk of us will need to use our investments) will tell a much different story that the ‘quotes’ we’re getting today.

Try telling the seller of my house that it was only worth $115,000 the day before he sold it – that’s what Zillow said it was worth. I think he’d argue that my bank’s check to him for $129,900 is a lot more accurate than Zillow’s “quote.” For him, his house ended up being worth about 13% more than Zillow quoted. Would it surprise you if we had the same thing going on in the stock market today, but on a much larger scale?

Ben Graham, the father of value investing, Mr. Market, and Warren Buffett’s investing career, once said:

“The investor who permits himself to be stampeded or unduly worried by unjustified market declines . . . would be better off if his stocks had no market quotation at all, for he would then be spared the mental anguish caused him by other persons’ mistakes of judgment.”

Words worth remembering, especially now.

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2 Responses to The House is Falling

  1. Roch101 says:

    Hey, we looked at that house when it was on the market!

  2. justin smith says:

    want to buy it? (wink, wink)

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