Real Estate and the Efficient Market Hypothesis

Editor’s Note: A version of this appeared in the San Antonio Express News. Dignowity Hill is a historic neighborhood in San Antonio balanced precariously – for the moment – on the cusp of hipsterism, about to fall into the ‘gentrified’ category. For anyone who has strongly held opinions about gentrification, let me assure you this post has nothing to do with Dignowity Hill, or gentrification. Thank you.

dignowity_hill

My friend recently asked me what I thought about his idea of buying a small plot of land he saw for sale in Dignowity Hill, as a short-term investment. Less than $10,000.

“The East Side is getting ready to boom,” he tells me. Agreed.

“Dignowity Hill has so much charm and a ton of new investment activity nearby, with the Hays Street Bridge and Brewery, and prices will be going up.” Yup, probably.

“I like the idea of investing for a couple of years, then cashing out.” Ok, now I knew he was on the wrong track, and I told him so.

Markets are more efficient than you think

What I believe my friend did not take into account is the idea that he has hundreds – actually make that probably thousands – of competitors for that single parcel on Dignowity Hill. Those competitors mean he will not likely get a bargain.

Most middle class people, certainly most homeowners, understand the basics of real estate investing. That means hundreds of thousands of people – in San Antonio alone – have the knowledge necessary to buy that parcel, and certainly tens of thousands of people in the city have available cash to pick up a plot of land at less than $10,000.

Of those tens of thousands, I’d estimate many hundreds to a few thousand San Antonio residents actively look for real estate opportunities. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that hundreds of San Antonians have seen this exact parcel, and up until now, have not made a bona fide offer to purchase it, at, or very near, the listed price.

This is not to say definitively that the parcel is a bad investment. Frankly I have no idea. I never looked at it. But I do know that markets with hundreds of potential buyers are pretty efficient at price discovery, and the parcel will not be a screaming bargain for my friend.

Will the East Side boom? Sure. Is Dignowity Hill totally cool? Yeah. Could prices double in a few years? I wouldn’t be surprised.

But the current offering price of the parcel will take into account all of these factors. Any reasonably efficient market aggregates opinions and is forward-looking – meaning my friend would have to pay now for the likely boom, the coolness, and the chance of doubling.

My entire point with this anecdote is this: although we may not see the competition in front of us, many markets are extremely efficient at reflecting all the unseen competition for investments. Real estate is less efficient than some markets, but it’s really not so inefficient that a part-time speculator like my friend will grab a great bargain.

Before concluding, I want to point out two other reasons my friend should be cautious.

Short-term time horizons

If you need to sell any investment within five years, then I don’t call that an investment, that’s something like a speculation. There’s nothing inherently wrong with speculating, only that it tends to work up until the point when it doesn’t any more, and then it ends up looking a lot like gambling in retrospect.

Real estate inefficiency

Real estate – as a speculation or as an investment – is terribly inefficient to buy and sell. Most real estate transactions require you to get an appraisal, do a title search, pay a realtor, and possibly an attorney, all of which add up quickly.

To invest $10,000 in the stock market, for example, will cost you less than $20 to do the transaction at an online discount broker. To invest $10,000 in real estate – unless you have distinct professional discounts or built-in advantages – might run you 1,000 in fees, easily.

dognowity_hill_property

I’m not saying I don’t love real estate as a long-term investment. I love real estate. Most of my non-retirement net worth comes from real estate ownership, of my home. But for small, short-term investments, I would rarely recommend real estate, much less real estate speculation.

Even in wicked cool Dignowity Hill.

 

See related posts:

Nate Silver’s 7 Levels of the Efficient Market Hypothesis

Guest post by Lars Kroijer – The Simplest Investment Approach Ever

 

 

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