Should You Buy a Home This Festival Season?

In the last decade, afternoon naps have become a very important part of my life. In fact, it is safe to say that I live so that I can have the pleasure of taking afternoon naps and reading crime fiction. (Imagine all the economics I have to break my head on, for such simple pleasures in life).

After taking an afternoon nap yesterday I was trying to get my brain going again by drinking a cup of overboiled masala tea. At around 4.54 pm, a mail titled 10 Reasons to Buy a Home This Festive Season, hit my mailbox. The headline ensured that my brain was back to functioning at full strength.

In the economic environment that currently prevails, only someone closely associated with the real estate business could come up with a headline/title like this. Not surprisingly, this piece was written by someone working at a senior position for a real estate consultant, whose well-being depends on the sector doing well. His incentive is clearly misaligned with that of a prospective buyer looking to buy a home to live in.

Also, the festival season sales pick up is something that the real estate sector has been trying to sell for more than half a decade now. This tells you that bad ideas rarely go out of circulation.

This headline motivated me to write this piece titled should you buy a home this festival season, which you are currently reading.
Let’s take a look at this pointwise.

1) One of the reasons offered to buy a home in the mail I got, is the oldest cliché in the game, which goes like this: “Living in a rented house is a recurring financial drain without returns on investment”. This reasoning is bought by one too many people even though it is the rubbish of the highest order.

Let me explain through an example. I stay in central Mumbai, in what is euphemistically termed as a studio apartment. My monthly rental outgo is Rs 23,000. What sort of a home loan will I get if I am willing to pay the same amount as an EMI? At an interest rate of 7% per year on a home loan to be repaid over twenty years, I will get a home loan of around Rs 29.67 lakh. On this loan, the EMI works out to Rs 23,003.

Let’s say to this home loan I add my own savings of around Rs 10.33 lakh and I have a total of Rs 40 lakh, with which I can buy a flat. I will not get anything at this price around where I live unless I am willing to move into a shanty.

To get an apartment at this price I will have to move 35-40 km or even more from where I stay. And that will beat the entire idea because I like staying where I do and renting is the only way I can afford it. I am not looking to build an asset here. I just want to stay bang in the middle of the town.

2) Also, the rental yield typically tends to be 1.5-2% (annual rent divided by the market price of the house) or slightly higher. Even the cheapest home loan is 7%. Plus there are other costs associated with owning a home. When you a buy a house a stamp duty has to be paid to the state government. A property tax needs to be paid every year. Then there is the maintenance charge that needs to be paid to the housing society. On top of this there is the general risk of owning property in India.

3) Further, if I go and live 35-40km from where I am, I will end up paying for it in terms of the time I will have to spend to get anywhere. And time ultimately is money. So, yes one might end up building an asset but with almost no control over one’s time.

Hence, equating living in a rented house to a financial drain is top class rubbish which only someone working in the real estate industry can come up with and propagate  over and over again. This argument starts to make sense only when the rental yields and home loan interest rates are in a similar sort of territory. For that to happen, rental yields need to double and home loan interest rates need to halve (both will then be around 4%).

4) Another reason offered in the mail, to buy a house is: “Buying now equals buying at the lowest possible price.” Lowest possible price, vis a vis what? Entry level flats in the biggest cities, where the bulk of the demand is, cost at least Rs 40-50 lakh. Let’s consider a flat which costs Rs 40 lakh. A 20% downpayment works out to Rs 8 lakh. This means a home loan of Rs 32 lakh. The EMI on this works out to Rs 24,809 (7% interest, 20 years repayment period).

A bank typically assumes that around 35-40% of the after tax take home salary can go towards paying this EMI. If the assumption is that around 35% of the salary goes towards EMI, the total after-tax take home salary works out to around Rs 8.5 lakh. The pre-tax salary has to be even higher, more than Rs 10 lakh. How many people make that kind of money in a country where the per capita income is just over Rs  1.5 lakh, is a question well worth asking. This very conservative example explains why real estate in India remains beyond the level of most Indians.

5) There is another problem with the lowest possible price argument. Given the opaqueness surrounding the real estate sector in India, there is nothing like a market price at any given point of time. So how do you even know that the price offered to you is the lowest possible price? Do you just believe what the builder or his broker are saying? Do you have any idea what the price was last year or the year before that?

6) Also, we are told that “home loan interest rates are at 15-year low”. Hence, you should buy a house. The economy during the period April to June contracted by a nearly fourth. It is expected to contract by 10% this year, a level of contraction never seen since Indian independence. Just because home loan interest rates are low should you go out and buy a house? The more important question to answer as always is whether you are in a position to pay the EMI payable against the low interest rates. No wonder this very important point has been missed out on.

It is worth remembering that home loans are floating interest rate loans and interest rates can keep changing in the years to come. If you take on a 20-year home loan now, it doesn’t mean that interest rates will continue to remain low for the next 20 years.

7) And then there is this, my absolute favourite, which I have been hearing for years now: “The property market is poised on the cusp of a full-fledged revival. Once the revival kicks in, property prices will harden and asset appreciation begins in all seriousness.”

This statement reminds me of the different chairpersons that the State Bank of India has had in the last twelve years. Starting with 2009, each one of them has said at some point of time that when it comes to the banking sector in India, the worst is behind us. Well, it’s 2020, the banking sector still has official bad loans of close to Rs 9 lakh crore and they are expected to go up dramatically post-covid.

Every festival season for the last six years the real estate sector has been talking about an impending revival. This revival did not happen when the Indian economy was growing.  And now they expect the revival to happen in a year when the economy is contracting big time. The size that the Indian economy achieved in 2019-20, will now most likely be achieved again only in 2022-23. Jobs have been lost. Incomes have fallen. Small businesses have shut-down or are on the verge of shutting down and the real estate sector is talking about asset appreciation beginning in all seriousness.

I mean all selling involves some amount of fibbing but if you keep doing it all the time and it doesn’t turn out to be true, it loses its power. People start believing in the opposite narrative. As the old fable of the jackal shouting sher aaya sher aaya goes.

8) Here’s another reason the mail offered, to buy a house: “After a protracted period of financial upheaval, it has become necessary to revisit all expenses which represent undue pressure on personal finances. Living in a rented house is a recurring financial drain without returns on investment [emphasis added].”

The part italicised in the above paragraph I have already dealt with in the first point. Nevertheless, the above paragraph needs to be tackled on its own as well. What is the writer saying here? Given the tough economic conditions created by covid, it is time to revisit all expenses. Yes, that makes sense.

But then he goes on to say that renting doesn’t make any sense and you need to make an even bigger expenditure in buying a house and paying an EMI. Buying a house would involve running down savings to make a downpayment and paying a stamp duty. Then there would be moving charges.

At the same time an EMI would have to be paid on a home loan. The chances are that the EMI will be much more than the rental.

Why would anyone who is in financial trouble and trying to cut down on his expenses, be expected to take on higher expenses by buying a house? What’s the logic here? There is no logic to this except to confuse the prospective buyer.

Essentially you are being asked to be penny wise and pound foolish.

9) In the last couple of weeks, the real estate industry has been trying very hard to convince us that the buyers are back in the market and they are lining up to buy homes. Like the mail I got put it: “The best home options are being snapped up at a rapid pace.”

Similar stories have been seen in the media as well. Like the Mumbai edition of The Times of India points out today: “Unlocked MMR shines with 60% rise in home sales in Q2”. Only when you read the story carefully you realise that sales in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) during July and September were 60% higher than sales during April to June. And that’s hardly surprising. There were barely any sales in April and May, due to the lockdown. Hence, this was bound to happen.

The real question is how do things look in comparison to July to September 2019. This reveals the real story. Sales between July to September 2020 are 40% lower than the same period last year. Of course, the newspapers are trying to project a real estate revival story given that they are dependent on huge advertisements from real estate companies. Also, it is worth remembering that a lot of home sales that happened in July to September must be pent up demand from April to June, which has spilled over.

10) Another tactic being employed here is to project a lack of supply. As the mail I got puts it: “Developers have curtailed new supply”. Maybe they have. But the larger point here is that lakhs of apartments were bought as an investment in the decade leading to 2015. Many investors are still sitting on it, hoping for a better return. But now due to covid, there are bound to be quite a few distress sales going around. So, it’s a matter of hanging around and looking for one.

As I have said in the past, the real estate market right now is going through a weird low supply low demand situation. There is low demand for real estate (given the high price) and there is low supply as well (given that real estate companies and individual owners are unwilling to cut prices). I may want to buy a home but unless I have enough money and the ability to borrow to do so, I am really not adding to demand. Just wanting something, without having the money to finance it, doesn’t really add to demand.

This situation can only turnaround if the demand improves or if the supply improves. The demand will improve only when the economy turns around and India grows at 7-8% for a sustainable period of time, leading to increased incomes. The supply will improve if prices fall (which means more people are willing to sell the homes they own), of course, that will lead to an increase in demand as well.

Dear reader, you must be wondering by now, itna gyan de diya, now tell us if we should buy a home or not. First and foremost, what does buying a house have to with one year’s festival season or for that matter any other’s? You are not buying a mobile phone, which you buy almost every couple of years and wait for the best deal during the festival season. A home is only bought once or twice during a lifetime.

You should buy a house if you want to live in it, can afford to make the downpayment and most importantly, have a stable income which will allow you to keep paying the EMI on the home loan in the years to come. This also includes the idea of buying a bigger home to adjust to the new reality of working from home.

As mentioned earlier, the most important part here is stable income. If your job or business is on shaky ground, now is not the time to buy a house. If you want to continue living in the posher area of the city, but can only afford to pay a rent for it, then now is not the time to buy a house.

Remember, while you might be building an asset by not paying a rent but by paying an EMI, you are probably also making a compromise in terms of the time you have at your disposal to live the life you want to. If you are comfortable with the idea of a daily rat race then please go ahead and buy a house.

On the flip side, there are advantages to owning a home. One is the fact that you don’t have to change homes frequently, like you have to if you are living on rent. Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that this fear is oversold. The days when landlords used to be only landlords are gone (of course a lot of such people do survive).

Now there are many landlords who have full-fledged corporate careers and are more interested in a regular rental than changing people who they rent out their homes to, every 11 months. Remember it’s a pain for them as well. Also there is the risk of not finding a tenant on time and losing out on a month’s rent. And any sensible landlord will want to avoid that.

The biggest advantage to owning a home is that it tends to make your parents happy (in terms of getting settled in life). Also, the kids can have a slightly stabler life. But it all boils down to whether you can afford to buy a home. On this front, every individual’s situation is different and you need to figure that answer out for yourself. If you feel comfortable with buying a house right now then please go ahead and do that. Don’t wait.

As far as investing in real estate is concerned so that you can flip it later, that idea went out of style in 2013 or 2014 at best. If you still believe in it then either you deal in a lot of black money or probably don’t realise that the times have changed.

Raghuram Rajan’s 10 Solutions to Get Economy Going Again


Summary: This one is for all of you, where are the solutions wallahs. Of course, I have offered many of the solutions that Rajan has offered in a column, but never put them together in one place.

One of the perils of writing on the Indian economy in the last six years has been the repeated comment from a few, don’t tell us about the problems, but give us the solutions. I mean how do you discuss solutions without highlighting problems. How do you come up with a prognosis without coming up with a diagnosis in the first place?

It’s not that one hasn’t highlighted solutions in what one has written over the years, but it’s just that where are the solutions wallahs, don’t seem to notice them. This belief that economics has solutions to everything (particularly among the non-economists, which means most of us), is very strong.

Over the years, I have come to believe that this is primarily because almost all of us are brought up writing exams where every question has an answer and every problem (in the mathematical sense of the term) has a solution. Life and economics don’t work like that. If everything had a solution, the word problem wouldn’t exist in the first place.

Nevertheless, this piece is all about solutions; things that the central government can do right now (and should have been doing by now) to get the economy going again. I have just finished reading Dr Raghuram Rajan’s piece on the Indian GDP (Gross Domestic Product) collapse. GDP is a measure of the economic size of a country.

Dr Rajan, who was the governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), has offered many solutions. These are things that the government can do to get the economy going again. I have offered many of these solutions in my writing as well, though never gotten around to writing about all the solutions together at one place.

Let’s take a look at these solutions, one by one.

1) The government needs to expand its resource envelope in every way possible, Rajan writes. At the cost sounding like a broken record, it needs to sell its stakes in many public sector enterprises (how many times have I said this). In fact, in a sense it has already missed out on the current buoyant state of the stock market. The total amount of money collected through the disinvestment route during this financial year, remains close to zero.

Rajan also suggests that the government should be ready for on tap sale of its stakes in public sector enterprises, to take advantage of every period of market buoyancy.

2) Many public sector enterprises own land, in prime areas of India’s cities. And this land needs to be sold (Again, how many times have I suggested this). In fact, in a city like Ranchi, where I come from, the Heavy Engineering Corporation (a public sector enterprise) sits on acres and acres of government land. All this land across all these companies needs to be sold and money be raised. Of course, this isn’t going to happen overnight.

But that’s not the point here. If the government shows serious intent on this front by announcing a time-table to do this, as well as making preparations for the sale, this is something that the bond market will notice and be happy about.

3) Why is it important to keep the bond market happy? With tax collections collapsing by 30%, between April and July 2020 in comparison to the same period in 2019, it is but natural that the government will end up borrowing more. This is likely to push up the return (or the yield) that the market demands on the government borrowings, given that there is only so much financial savings going around. Other factors that will give confidence to the bond market is the publishing of the correct fiscal deficit numbers unlike the massaged numbers that are currently declared (well, well, well, I have been saying this for a couple of years now). Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends.

Another important reform suggested by Rajan is the setting up of an independent fiscal council, which can keep an eye on the deficit numbers (This is something that the former deputy governor of the RBI, Viral Acharya, has also been suggesting).

All in all, the government should seem like making serious moves towards restoring fiscal stability, which is currently lacking.

4) The world will recover faster than India, given that the covid-curve has been flattened across large parts of the world. Given this, economic demand in many of India’s bigger trading partners will recover faster than in India (Again, a point I made in a piece I wrote for the Mint on September 7, 2020). This means that faster exports growth can be a way for India to recover, suggests Rajan. But the trouble is that we are looking at import substitution as a policy more and more and imposing tariffs on imports. This raises the cost of inputs that go into goods that are ultimately exported.

Of course, the intermediary goods that go into the making of goods that are exported, can be produced in India, but this will happen at a higher price. Hence, this makes us uncompetitive at the global level (A point I made in a piece I wrote for the Mint in February). Also, reversing the entire import substitution bogey will mean going against the current atmanirbharta campaign, a very successful perception management campaign. (In economics, just because something sounds good, doesn’t mean it is necessarily good). Economics is not the only thing that any government is bothered about.

5) Rajan suggests that the focus on Mahamta Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) as a way of putting money directly into the hands of the poorest, should continue. If this means spending more money under the scheme, then so be it. (Okay, I had suggested this as far back as March in a piece I wrote for the Mint, even before the government had taken this route.)

6) While, MGNREGS takes care of the lack of economic activity in rural areas, the urban areas get left out under the scheme. Hence, the government should be making more efforts to put money into the hands of the urban poor, suggests Rajan.
One of the things that the government has done is to put Rs 1,500 over a period three months into female Jan Dhan accounts. This cost the government around Rs 31,000 crore. I think it is time to put money into male Jan Dhan accounts as well (Again, I have been saying this for months now). This will take care of the urban poor to some extent. I know this isn’t the perfect solution because proper targeting will continue to remain a problem, but it is better than doing nothing.

7) Rajan further suggests that the government and public sector enterprises should clear their dues as fast as possible. This will put more money into the economy and particularly into the hands of corporations and help them survive. (Something I had said in March). A newsreport in The Financial Express today points out that the total amount of money owed by the central government and the public sector enterprises, amounts to Rs 9.5 lakh crore, or a little under a third of the Rs 30.4 lakh crore that the central government plans to spend this year. Of the Rs 9.5 lakh crore, Rs 2.5 lakh crore is owed to the Food Corporation of India (FCI). The remaining Rs 7 lakh crore is a large amount on its own. Even if a portion of this is cleared, the economy will get some sort of a stimulus.

As far as a real stimulus goes, focusing on physical infrastructure is the need of the hour, leading to creation of demand for everything from steel to cement. One area that can really get the Indian economy going again is real estate. I have discussed this so many times before. But for that to happen, so many other things need to happen, including many of the current real estate firms going bust and banks losing a lot of money. Creative destruction needs to be unleashed. Of course, the deep state of Indian real estate is not ready for something like this and will not let it happen.

8) Rajan also suggests that firms below a certain size could be rebated the income tax and the goods and services tax, they paid last year (if not the whole amount, but at least a part of it). This could be an easy and direct way of helping smaller businesses, which have faced the brunt of the pandemic all across the world. (Okay, I haven’t suggested anything like this anywhere, from what I remember).

9) Rajan recommends that public sector banks need to be properly recapitalised as the extent of losses due to covid are recognised. I feel that if the government doesn’t have the money to do so, then it needs to let these banks raise money from the market and in the process, the government should be okay with the idea of diluting its stake. (I have written a book on this )

10) And finally, as the moratorium on repaying loans taken from banks and non-banking finance companies has come to an end, there are bound to be defaults. Here, the government should have a variety of structures in place to deal with the emanating problems, and not have a one size fits all approach. Also, in my opinion, dilution of the entire insolvency and the bankruptcy process, is really not the right way to go forward.

So, to all the where are the solutions wallahs, these were 10 solutions that Dr Raghuram Rajan has offered to the government (Actually, there are more solutions in the piece he has written, but I have stopped at ten. Some of these solutions are about land reforms, labour reforms, genuine ease of doing business reforms, etc., to improve India’s competitiveness, which keep getting made endlessly over and over again). Rajan has also said that the time to do these things is now and not wait for things to get worse.

In my writing over the last few months, I have recommended eight or nine of these solutions as well, though never put all these solutions at one place. One important solution that I think needs to be quickly implemented, is a reduction of the goods and services tax on two-wheelers.

The trouble is that most of these solutions need money to start with. And for that the government needs to come out of its comfort zone and start raising money in ways that it has never done before (like selling land). Also, all reforms need intent and communication clarity to be able to explain these things to the junta at large. Plus, they may not lead to electoral gains immediately, something like a focus on an actor’s suicide may.

You see the government just doesn’t have the incentives to do the right things.

PS: I sincerely hope this should satisfy the appetite of all the where are the solutions wallahs, out there.

If Home Loans Are Growing, what is the Problem with Real Estate?

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The government shared some data earlier this month in the Lok Sabha, which has led to this column. Take a look at Table 1. It gives us the total home loans given by public sector banks and housing finance companies over the last few years.

It was further pointed out as a part of an answer: “As per the data compiled by National Housing Bank, the growth in housing loans of public sector banks and housing finance companies during the six month period from 1st July, 2017 to 31stDecember, 2017, has been about 34% as against 12% during the corresponding previous half year.”

Table 1: Total amount of home loans given by public sector banks and housing finance companies.It would have been great if the government had shared the total amount of home loans given out between July 1, 2017 and December 31, 2017, instead of just sharing percentages.

Also, on a slightly different note, the National Housing Bank needs to share home loan lending data (both banks and housing finance companies) on a regular basis, which it currently doesn’t. While, the Reserve Bank of India shares the total amount of home loans given out by banks, no such data is regularly available for housing finance companies.

Anyway, getting back to the point. Between July 2015 and June 2016, the home loan disbursement grew by around 25%. Between July 2016 and June 2017, it grew by around 13%.

Since then, growth rate has improved considerably, which tells us that the ill-effects of demonetisation which plagued the sector, are on their way out to some extent.

Now contrast this to data recently released by property consultant JLL. As of December 2017, a total of 4.4 lakh housing units remained unsold in seven major cities. Delhi along with the National Capital Region came on the top with 1.5 lakh unsold homes. Mumbai, Delhi-NCR, Chennai, Hyderabad, Pune, Bengaluru, Kolkata were the seven cities covered in this survey.

How does one contrast the JLL data with the increase in home loans being disbursed, is a question worth asking. There are several explanations. One is that homebuyers are no longer buying under-construction properties. Take the case of the JLL data, only 34,700 units are ready-to-move-in flats. Hence, people are not interested in buying properties which aren’t totally ready. Why?

The answer for this is very simple. Many builders in the last decade have taken money from prospective buyers and not delivered homes. And the prospective buyers have seen what has happened to the earlier set of buyers, and does not want to make the same mistake again. Nobody wants to get into a situation where the biggest investment of their life gets stuck and doesn’t go anywhere.

Given that many people bought real estate as an investment over the years, and kept those homes locked, my guess is, it is that inventory which is now being cleared, to some extent.

This loss of trust between the real estate companies and the prospective buyers, is the basic problem at the heart of India’s real estate crisis. And the data suggests, the lack of trust continues to prevail.

Further, the growth in home loans is basically coming in the affordable housing segment. As the Affordable Housing Report released by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) in January 2018, points out: “Affordable housing is currently driving home loan growth in India… Housing loans up to Rs 10 lakh recorded robust growth in 2016-17, primarily driven by the public sector banks.. While the number of beneficiaries for loan amounts up to Rs 10 lakhs has increased sharply in 2016-17, the number of beneficiaries for higher value loans of above Rs 25 lakhs has, in fact, declined marginally during the year.”While the bulk of the lending still happens in the greater than Rs 25 lakh category, the growth actually is coming from the sub Rs 10 lakh segment, which is where the real market for homes in India is. Of course, much of this growth is being pushed by the government (which is why the government loves public sector banks) and is not happening in the top seven cities that JLL covers.

What this again tells us is that if home ownership in large cities has to pick up, the prices need to still fall from where they are. Also, buyers are not interested in buying under-construction property and that is something that the real estate companies need to realise and do something about. But that would mean a substantial change from their current way of operating. It hits at the heart of their current business model. And all change is a slow process.

This appeared on Equitymaster on March 22, 2018

The Javed Akhtar Syndrome in Real Estate

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Poets usually write poems on love, breakups, betrayal, friendships, alcohol, the women serving alcohol, the world at large, politics and so on. But very rarely does a poet write a poem or a couplet on the unaffordability of real estate in India. But Javed Akhtar has done that:

sab kā ḳhushī se fāsla ek qadam hai.
har ghar meñ bas 
ek hī kamra kam hai

A loose translation of this in English would be as follows: “Everyone is just one step away from happiness; Every house has just one room less”.

Given the fact that Akhtar has spent a large part of his adult life in Mumbai, the above couplet reflects or rather captures the sensibilities of the city that never sleeps, very beautifully.

Dear Reader, you must be wondering, why am I talking about a couplet written by Javed Akhtar on a rather muggy Tuesday in Mumbai. Allow me to explain.

Over the weekend, I met a friend who wants to sell his one-room-kitchen (a very Mumbai thing) apartment and buy a one-bedroom-hall-kitchen (one BHK) apartment. Basically, he feels his current apartment has one room less and he wants an apartment which has one room more than his current one.

Of course, the transaction cannot be carried out, unless he is able to sell his current apartment. The money generated from that will partly be used to pay off the current home loan. The new apartment will be bought with whatever remains after selling off the current apartment and repaying the home loan; along with this a fresh larger home loan will have to be taken. Over and above this, some financial savings accumulated through investing in mutual funds through the SIP route, will also have to be used.

My friend had bought the apartment for Rs 50 lakh, nearly three years back. He is looking at a price of at least Rs 60 lakh. In fact, more than looking, he is specifically anchored on to that price and won’t sell for anything less than that price.

As Garly Belsky and Thomas Gilovich write in Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes and How to Correct Them: “Anchoring is really just a metaphoric term to explain the tendency we all have of latching on to an idea or fact and using it as a reference point for future decisions. Anchoring can be particularly powerful because you often have no idea that such a phenomenon is affecting you.”

This is not the first time I am discussing the phenomena of anchoring in real estate, nevertheless, this example is interesting and different, because anchoring, as we shall see, is happening at multiple levels.

My friend is anchored on to a price of Rs 60 lakh because he feels that at that price he will be in a situation of no-profit no-loss, while selling his current apartment. The extra Rs 10 lakh, over and above the price he bought the apartment for, should take care of the home loan EMIs and the maintenance charges paid, over the last three years. This is his logic for being anchored on to a price of Rs 60 lakh.

The trouble is that at that the few buyers who have approached him do not want to pay more than Rs 55 lakh, while my friend remains stuck on the Rs 60 lakh figure.

In this case, the transaction is what we can call a relative transaction. The money that my friend gets for selling the current apartment will be used to buy a bigger apartment in the same locality that he lives in.

If he waits too long to get a price of Rs 60 lakh, chances are that the price of the bigger apartment that he wants to buy will also go up. Currently, the bigger apartment is available for a price of around Rs 80 lakh.

I tried explaining this point to him without much success. In fact, after I explained this point to him, my friend told me that he had a buyer who was willing to pay Rs 60 lakh. The trouble was that this prospective buyer needed to sell an apartment in another city to be able to raise the amount.

This buyer, because my friend had become anchored to a price of Rs 60 lakh, was also anchored to that price. Given that he was a senior citizen, he was not in a position to raise a home loan. Hence, he needed someone to pay Rs 60 lakh for his flat to be able to purchase my friend’s flat.

No one was willing to pay Rs 60 lakh for the flat. In this case, the prospective buyers were willing to pay anything in the range of Rs 55-60 lakh. But that was clearly not enough. And given this, the sale of both the flats remained stuck.

This example clearly shows as to how anchoring works at multiple level and not just at one level, as is often believed. This anchoring essentially stops the market from working. The more general conclusion from this example would be that anchoring working at multiple levels, is one of the reasons why the buying and selling of real estate has slowed down majorly.

The sellers (not necessarily the builders) are still expecting prices that their homes were worth until a few years back. But the buyers, who have paid more than their fair share over the years, are currently not willing to pay the price that the sellers want.

Ultimately, this anchoring on to a specific price will break down. It’s just that it won’t happen overnight and will take some time.

Until then writers like me will have enough masala to keep writing on real estate.

Keep watching this space!

The column originally appeared on Equitymaster on November 14, 2017.

India’s Real Estate Conundrum

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Economic forecasting is a difficult business. It is even more difficult when one has to answer something as specific as: “when will home prices become affordable?”

Almost, anyone interested in buying a home currently knows that home prices are expensive. This, despite the fact that homes aren’t selling, and builders are sitting on a large number of unsold homes. But, they don’t seem to be in a hurry to cut prices.

Conventional economic theory suggests that when something is not selling, prices need to be cut, to attract prospective buyers.

But this does not seem to apply in the case of Indian real estate. Why? In the period between 2002 and 2012, real estate prices in India went up at a break neck speed. A significant portion of the real estate transactions was carried out in black.

Hence, while buying a home 20-30 per cent of the price had to be paid in black (i.e. in the form of cash). The money that the builders made in this form, has ensured that they continue to be liquid i.e. they have enough cash going around to meet their day to day expenses.

In the process, they are in no hurry to cut prices. But builders are not the only one who have a stake in this real estate game. Over the years, many individuals have become real estate investors as well. ”

Real estate returns across the country have either been very low or in negative territory, over the last few years. Also, once we take the risk involved in owning real estate and inflation, into account, investing in real estate starts to make financial sense only when the returns are greater than 10 per cent per year. Now that kind of return has been elusive on this investment.

Hence, the question is why are real estate investors holding on to the homes they bought as an investment, even when that investment is really not throwing up any return. It would simply make more sense for them to sell the home and invest the money somewhere else. Even something as simple as a fixed deposit is likely to earn more.

But before we figure out why these investors are not selling, let me tell you a little story. Recently, I was in Bali for a small family holiday. I wanted to buy a wooden carving, which I had taken a fancy to. The seller’s asking price was 6,00,000 Indonesian rupiah (around Rs 3,000). I started at 2,00,000 rupiah (Rs 1,000) and stuck to it. The seller kept dropping his price, till he came down to 2,50,000 rupiah (Rs 1,250).

After that we kept haggling for a good five minutes, but he stuck to his price. He wouldn’t drop it further, come what may. He had become “anchored” to that number, due to some reason. And this anchor ensured that finally I had to up the price I was willing to pay to 2,50,000 rupiah and seal the deal.

Anchoring is a very important concept in real estate. In his book A Man for All Markets, Edward O Thorp writes: “Anchoring is a subtle and pervasive aberration in investment thinking. For instance, a former neighbour, Mr Davis (as I shall call him), saw the market value of his house rise from his purchase price of $2,000,000 or so in the mid-1980s to $3,500,000 or so when the luxury home prices peaked in 1988-1989. Soon afterward, he decided he wanted to sell and anchored himself to the price of $3,500,000.

Mr Davis became anchored to this price of $3.5 million. The trouble was that home prices started to fall pretty soon. But Mr Davis had become anchored to the high price and he wouldn’t sell.

The Indian real estate investors are going through a similar phase right now. They are anchored on to the high real estate prices they saw nearly five to six years back. The trouble is no buyer is willing to buy at that kind of price.

In fact, this psychological dimension in real estate, makes it even more difficult to predict, when home prices will become affordable, despite it being very clear that real estate prices are due for a huge correction.

The column originally appeared in Bangalore Mirror on October 25, 2017.