Ten Things to Remember While Buying a Home

This piece emerged out of a couple of WhatsApp conversations I had over this weekend, along with a few emails that I have received over the last few months.

From these conversations and in trying to answer the emails, I have tried to develop a sort of checklist of things to keep in mind, while buying a home. Of course, as I have said in the past, when it comes to personal finance, each person’s situation is unique, and which is why it’s called personal finance.

Nevertheless, there are a few general principles that can be kept in mind. Also, this list like all checklists, is complete to the extent of things I can think of.

So, let this not limit your thinking and the points that you need to keep in mind.

Here we go.

1) If you are buying the house as an investment (not in my scheme of things, but nonetheless), please learn how to calculate the internal rate of return on an investment. Believe me, you will thank me for the rest of your life.

Also, keep track of the cost of maintaining a house and other costs that come with it. Only then will you be able to know the real rate of return from investing in a house.

Otherwise, you will talk like others do, I bought it at x and I sold it at 2x, and get lost in the big numbers, thinking you have made huge returns. While this sort of conversation sounds impressive, it doesn’t mean anything.

2) Don’t buy a house to generate a regular income. The home rentals in the bigger cities have come down post covid. Even if they haven’t, the rental yields (rent divided by market price) continue to be lower than what you would earn if you had that money invested in a fixed deposit (despite such low interest rates).

Of course, the corollary here is that as a landlord you choose to declare your rental income and pay an income tax on it. Many landlords prefer to be totally or partially paid in cash and choose not to pay any income tax. 

3) From what I have been able to gather from my conversations, people in a few cities are still flipping houses. In fact, the trick is to invest before a project gets a RERA approval and then sell out as soon as the approval comes through. This reminds me of the old days when the builder never really knew the people who ended up living in the homes that had been built.

Anyway, if you are flipping homes, do remember that many people caught in the real estate shenanigans of 2009 to 2011, are still waiting for their homes. Many of them are investors. So, if you are flipping homes, do take some basic precautions like not betting your life on any one deal. As the old cliche goes, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. 

4) Also, do remember that you are an individual and the builder is a builder. While many stories of David beating the Goliath have come out in the media, many more stories of Goliaths having crushed Davids, never made it to the media.

It was, is and will remain, an unequal fight. Do remember that. For a builder this is the life that he leads, you, dear reader, on the other hand, have many other things to do. And you are looking for a home to live in, not a builder to take on. So, be careful.

5) One question that I often get is, which bank/housing finance company should I take a loan from. I don’t think this should matter much. Most big banks and housing finance companies charge similar interest rates. As we say in Hindi, bus unees bees ka farak hai.

So, go to the financial institution which seems to be the most convenient to you.

6) One story being pushed in the media is that you should buy a home now because interest rates are low. Among many dumb reasons for buying a home, this is by far the dumbest. Interest rates on home loans are not fixed but floating interest rate loans. If the cost of borrowing for banks and housing finance companies goes up, so will the interest rate on floating rate home loans.

No one can predict which way interest rates will go in the medium to long-term (That doesn’t stop people from trying. Many economists build careers around this). So, currently, the interest rate on a home loan is around 7% per year or thereabouts. If you are buying a home, make sure that you have the capacity to keep repaying the EMI even at an interest rate of 10% per year. This is very important.

7) How do you structure the amount you pay for the home? What portion of the home price should be a downpayment? What portion of the home price should be your home loan? These are very important questions. The answer varies from person to person. Nevertheless, the one general principle I would like to state here is that don’t dip into your retirement savings as far as possible to pay for the downpayment.

It might seem like a good idea with retirement far away and your parents encouraging you to do so because they did the same and it worked out fine for them. Nevertheless, do remember that on an average the current generation will live longer than its parents, and the family support that your parents had or will have in their old age, you may never have.

8) Also, from the point of diversification, it makes sense not to bet all your savings on making the downpayment for a home. Do remember, no job or source of income is safe these days. Further, do ensure that at any point of time you have the ability to pay six to 12 EMIs, without having a regular source of income.

Other than being able to continue repaying your EMI, it will also help you have some time to look for a job or another source of income, if the current one goes kaput.  Money in the bank, buys you time, which helps you make better decisions in life.

And most importantly, if your EMI is more than a third of your take home salary or monthly income, rest assured you are in for trouble on the financial front.

9) If you want to buy a home to live in, go for a ready to move in home. I have seen completion dates for RERA approved projects going beyond 2025 in Mumbai.

The other advantage with a ready to move in home is that some people are already living there and if there is some problem with the building (not a huge deal in India) then there are many more people who have a stake in solving the problem (as convoluted as this might sound). As always there is strength in numbers. 

10) Finally, be sure why you are buying a home. You want to live close to your place of work. You want your child to have some stability in life. You don’t like the idea of moving homes, every couple of years. And so on.

But please don’t buy a home because your parents, in-laws, extended family or relatives, expect you to do so and it gives them something to chat up on or some meaning to their lives. These are financially difficult times and making the biggest financial decision of your life to impress others, isn’t the smartest thing to do possibly.

To conclude, as I said in the beginning this isn’t a complete list by any stretch of imagination. Each person’s situation is unique. Also, you may not end up with a tick mark on all these points mentioned above and you may still end up buying a home. But the advantage will be that you will know clearly where you are placed in the financial scheme of things.

The points essentially help you think in a structured way to arrive at a decision. They do not make the decision for you. That you will have to do.

PS: Don’t know if you noticed that the terms house and home, have been used at different places. Hope you appreciate the difference between the two. 

On Homes and Home Loans

Yesterday evening I had gone to meet a cousin who lives in the Western suburbs of Mumbai. All along the way, there were billboards of Kotak Mahindra Bank advertising its home loans, which are available at an interest rate of 6.65%.

While the interest rate of 6.65% comes with terms and conditions, such low interest rates have rarely been seen before. It is possible to get a home loan these days at an interest rate of 7%.

A few things have happened because of these low rates. There have been scores of stories in the media citing surveys where everyone from women to HNIs to NRIs to millennials seem to want to buy a house and they want to do it right here and right now. 

Of course, these surveys have been carried out by real estate consultants, whose very survival depends on the real estate sector doing well. Incentives as they say.

Low interest rates on home loans also have led to stories in the media suggesting that this is best time to buy a house. The other thing that has happened is that analysts have been recommending stocks of home finance companies (HFCs).

The logic being that at lower interest rates people will take on more home loans. This will help the loan book of HFCs grow, making them good investment bets. How easy all this sounds? But is it?

All this stems from the flawed assumption that people borrow more at lower interest rates and live happily ever after. Let’s see if that is true or not.

Take a look at the following graph. It plots the increase in home loans outstanding during the period April to January, over the years.

 Source: Author calculations on data from Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.

What does the above graph tell us? It tells us that despite very low home loan interest rates, the increase in home loans given by banks between April 2020 to January 2021, stood at Rs 78,577 crore. This was around half of the increase of Rs 1,56,362 crore between April 2019 to January 2020.

Even between April 2018 and January 2019, the increase stood at Rs 1,46,227 crore. Clearly, people borrowed much more when interest rates were higher. Hence, the logic that people borrow more when interest rates are lower, basically goes for a toss.

In fact, the increase between April 2020 to January 2021, was the second lowest in six years in absolute terms. The lowest increase of Rs 74,837 crore was between April 2016 to January 2017. This period included demonetisation when banks had more or less stopped doing everything else and concentrated on taking back the demonetised notes from the public.

If we look at the period between April 2016 to October 2016, before demonetisation happened, the increase in home loans had stood at Rs 64,501 crore. Clearly the disbursal of home loans slowed down in the post demonetisation months.

There is another point that needs to be made here. Other than banks, HFCs or home finance companies, also give out home loans. Typically, banks give out two-thirds of the home loans and HFCs, the remaining third. Nevertheless, the last couple of years haven’t been good for a few HFCs. This has meant that some of the business of home loans has moved from HFCs to banks.

Once we take these factors into account then we can conclude that the increase in home loans during this financial year, has been the worst in six years. And this despite the extremely low interest rates. In percentage terms, the increase in outstanding home loans during this financial year has stood at 5.97%, the lowest in six years, and the only time the increase has been less than 10%. 

Why is that the case? For economists and analysts, the interest rate is the most important parameter that people look at while taking a home loan, nevertheless, a little bit of common sense tells us that this isn’t the case.

Let’s try and understand this through an example. As per HDFC, India’s largest HFC, their average home loan size is Rs 28.5 lakh. Their average loan to value ratio at the time of giving the loan is 70%. This basically means that HDFC on an average gives up to 70% of the price of the home as a home loan.

This basically means that the average price of a home in the books of HDFC against which they give a home loan, stands at Rs 40.7 lakh (Rs 28.5 lakh divided by 70%). Let’s round this to Rs 41 lakh, for the sake of convenience.

What does this mean? It means that in order to buy a home, other than taking on a loan of the buyer first needs to make sure that he has savings of around Rs 12.5 lakh (Rs 41 lakh minus Rs 28.5 lakh) to make the downpayment on the home loan. Even if the money is available, he or she needs to make sure that they are in a position to spend that money.

This is not where it ends. In many parts of the country a portion of the real estate transaction is still carried out in black. Money needs to be available for that. Further, a stamp duty needs to be paid to the state government. Then there is the cost of moving into a new house (everything from transport to perhaps new furniture).

Once we factor these things into account, we can conclude that the home loan forms around 50-60% of the overall cost of buying a house. Further, in a time like present, any individual thinking of buying a house will have to weigh the decision against the possibility of losing their job or facing a drop in income in their line of work.

Now let’s consider the average home loan of Rs 28.5 lakh. At 7% interest and a tenure of 20 years, the EMI on this amounts to Rs 22,096. At 9%, the EMI would have worked out to Rs 25,642. Hence, the EMI is Rs 3,546 lower.

So, yes, the EMI is lower. But what will the buyer first look at? The lower EMI or the ability to be able to pay the lower EMI and be able to continue paying it in the days to come. Of course, the buyer will look at his ability to pay the EMI and be able to continue paying it. Also, it needs to be remembered that the interest rate on the home loan is a floating one, and can rise in the years to come.

Hence, this decision will be based on the confidence that the buyer has in his or her own economic future. This is not something that can be measured at an aggregate system level and varies from buyer to buyer. The point being that everything that is important cannot necessarily be measured in numerical terms.

Having said that, the confidence in the economic future will be currently low, with many individuals losing their jobs or seeing their friends, relatives and acquaintances lose jobs. Hence, other than losing a job, there is also the fear of losing the job. There has also been a drop in their income or in some cases small businesses have been shutdown. 

Also, whether it is the best time to buy a house or not, like most things in personal finance, it depends on your finances and more importantly your mental makeup of what you want from life. If you want to settle in life and make your parents and relatives happy, and have the money to do so, then now is as good a time as any to buy a home.

Please keep this in mind at every point of time in life when some expert tells you that this is the best time to do this or the best time to do that.

So, right now if you think you have enough money and enough confidence to keep paying the EMI, and want a home to live in, then please go ahead and buy one. Also, make sure that you have enough savings to pay the EMI for at least six months to a year, even without your main source of income.

To conclude, buying a home is not just about low interest rates. There are several other factors, which people who are in the business of selling real estate, seem to conveniently forget about.

Then there are surveys in which a high proportion of people end up saying they want to buy a home to live in. Of course, they do. But just wanting to do something doesn’t add to demand. I mean, I want to buy a house in central Mumbai, but I also know that ain’t going to happen. My finances don’t allow it.

On Confidence

Around mid-November 2020, I spoke to a bunch of macroeconomics students at IIM Ahmedabad on data in economics. After I had spoken, one of the questions asked was how can we use data to say things with absolute certainty (or something along similar lines).

My simple straightforward answer to the question was that we can’t. Over the years, economists had ended up portraying their subject as a science simply because it has a lot of mathematical equations built into it. But macroeconomics was always more of an art. Hence, we could say things with a reasonable amount of confidence, but never with total confidence.

I don’t think the student was convinced about what I said. And I don’t blame him for it because in the world that he lives in, economists, investors, analysts, politicians and just about everyone speaking to the world at large, is saying things with total confidence.

Let’s take the case of economists. Their economic growth forecasts are made to the precision of a single decimal point.

If we talk about investors, they forecast a stock market index reaching a particular level in a certain amount of time, with total confidence.

Analysts forecast the price of a stock or a commodity reaching a certain level at a certain point of time.

And let’s leave politicians out of this. Untangling their confidence levels will take a book.

The trouble is all this confidence comes in a world that keeps rapidly changing, where if we stick to our ideas all the time, we will largely turn out to be wrong.

As Dan Gardner writes in Future Babble—Why Expert Predictions Fail and Why Believe Them Anyway:

“The simple truth is no one really knows, and no one will know until the future becomes the present. The only thing we can say with confidence is that when that time comes, there will be experts who are sure they know what the future holds and people who pay far too much attention to them.”

And people pay far too much attention to experts who predict/forecast/comment confidently simply because confidence convinces. The audience is looking for a buy in and nothing helps get that more than the confidence of the expert talking.

Also, in these days of the social media, many a time we are simply looking for a confirmation of something that we already believe in. If the expert ends up saying something along those lines, he tends to become our go to man. Our echo chambers are really small.

Let’s take the case of the investor Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, a man known to make confident bold statements when it comes to the Indian economy and the stock market. He recently forecast that India will overtake China in the next 25 years. As he put it: “You may call me a fool… but I can tell you one thing – India will overtake China in the next 25 years.”

The media and the investors as usual lapped it up, without putting that simple question to him: How?

The Indian gross domestic product (GDP) in 2019 was at $2.94 trillion. And that of China was at $11.54 trillion (World Bank data, 2010 constant US dollars). What this means is that if Chinese GDP stagnates at its current level for the next 25 years, India still needs to grow at 5.62% every year for the next 25 years to get where China currently is.

So, the chances of something like this happening are minimal, given the current state of things. But Mr Jhunjhunwala might know something that ordinary mortals like you and I, probably don’t.

The funny thing is that the Big Bull, as the media likes to call him, has made similar such forecasts in the past, which have gone horribly wrong. In October 2007, he had forecast that the Sensex will touch 50,000 points in the next six to seven years.

And he is not the only one making such forecasts. In June 2014, the domestic brokerage Karvy had forecast that the Sensex will touch 1,00,000 points by December 2020.

People making a living out of the stock market (or any other market for that matter) have an incentive in saying that future will be better than the present is. Many analysts make a living by simply doing this on the business news TV channels, on a regular basis.

The media looking for bold headlines to run, laps it up. And the investors who are more like sheep ready to be slaughtered, follow the sheep in front of them.

In fact, the trick is to make bold bigger forecasts and not small ones. I mean, if you currently forecast that Sensex is going to touch 55,000 points this year, no one is going to pay interest. But if you say Sensex is going to cross 1,00,000 points by 2023 or 2024, everyone is going to sit up and take interest.

An excellent example of this is Jhunjhunwala’s 2014 forecast on the stock market index Nifty touching 1,25,000 points by 2030.

Of course, if he turns out to be right, everyone will be dazzled by the forecast he had made. If he turns out to be wrong, no one will remember. Did you remember that Karvy had forecast the Sensex touching 1,00,000 points by December 2020? That’s how the game is played.

Big investors are trying to drive up stock prices, so that their investment portfolios can also gain in the process, which is why they publicly need to be seen as being confident.

A similar game is now played on the social media where traders claim to have generated a humongous amount of return in a short period of time. Of course, there is no way to verify this, except believing him or her.

This is accompanied by other confident predictions of how the future is going to be. The idea is to sell some training programme that they are offering. And no one is going to buy a training programme from a trader who doesn’t sound confident.

For the economists, the game is a little different. They tend to treat their pet theories as gospel. So, an economist who believes in free markets will keep parroting the free market line on everything.

As Scott Galloway writes in his excellent book Post Corona—From Crisis to Opportunity:

“The libertarian argument… is that…regulation and redistribution is inefficient, that left to its own devices the market will regulate itself. If people value clean rivers, the argument goes, they won’t buy cars from companies that pollute. But history and human nature shows that this does not work.”

An excellent example of this is the river Ganga in India, which people keep polluting despite the fact that at the same time they look it as a holy river.

Galloway offers a few more examples. “Nobody wants to see children working eighteen hours a day in a clothing factory, but at the H&M outlet, the $10 T-shirt is an unmissable bargain… Nobody wants to die in a hotel fire, but after a long day of meetings, we aren’t going to inspect the sprinkler system before checking in.” The point being that some sort of regulation is necessary.

There is economic theory and then there is how things play out in real life. As Adam Grant writes in Think Again—The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know: “In theory confidence and competence go hand in hand. In practice, they often diverge.”

Other than continuing to believe in their pet theories, there is one more reason for economists to portray confidence. Over the years, they have sold their subject as a science, if not to others, at least to themselves in their heads. I mean the first step before convincing anyone else is to convince oneself first.

Hence, the economic growth figure is forecast to the precision of one decimal point. I have always wondered about how economic growth, which is something very complex and is impacted by so many factors, can be forecast in such a precise way.

Now, this is not to say that the forecasting economic growth is not important. It is very important, simply because without that governments and corporations won’t be able to plan for the future.

Without knowing the economic growth number for the next year, a government wouldn’t be able to forecast its fiscal deficit or the difference between what it earns and what it spends expressed as a percentage of the country’s GDP. Without forecasting the fiscal deficit, the government wouldn’t know what kind of money it has to borrow in order to meet this gap. Without the government knowing the government’s borrowing target, the country’s central bank won’t be able to set the country’s monetary policy. And so on.

Nevertheless, the world would be a much better place if the economists started forecasting in ranges. Like, in 2020-21, the Indian economy is likely to contract by 8-10% or even 8-9%, rather than saying something as specific like the Indian economy is likely to contract by 8.3%.  In this scenario, the governments could also forecast a range when it comes to their fiscal deficit.

As John Maynard Keynes is said to have supposedly remarked: “It is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong.”

Hence, forecasting ranges and pointing towards the right direction is more important than being extremely precise about the economic growth.

As Tom Bergin writes in Free Lunch Thinking—How Economics Ruins the Economy:

“If economic models or theories can point us in the right direction and give us a reasonable estimate of the scale of a force or impact, they’re helpful. For example, if consumers are building up levels of personal debt that will require ever-rising house prices and wages to sustain – think the United States in 2006 –economists don’t need to tell us exactly how much a drop in GDP this situation will likely result in. If they can simply show the risks are unsustainable and material, this can prompt and inform government action and protect society.”

I learnt this the hard way. In 2013, when I first started writing about real estate, looking at the situation at hand, I started predicting a real estate bust very confidently. In the years to come, I turned out to be partly right, with parts of the country seeing a substantial fall in prices.

But the deep state of Indian real estate (the bankers, the builders and the politicians) essentially ensured that a real bust never really came. Of course, having learnt from this, now I point out more towards the perils of owning real estate at a price you cannot really afford because that is point people looking to buy a house to live in, essentially need to understand.

Also, one can more confidently say that the real estate sector will continue to remain moribund in the days to come, than confidently predict a bust. As far as investors are concerned, the real estate story has been over for a while.

Sometimes the confidence of economists comes from the prevailing narrative. As Daniel Acemoglu and James A Robinson write in Why Nations Fail – The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty:  

“The most widely used university textbook in economics, written by Nobel Prize-winner Paul Samuelson, repeatedly predicted the coming economic dominance of the Soviet Union. In the 1961 edition, Samuelson predicted that Soviet national income would overtake that of the United States possibly by 1984, but probably by 1997. In the 1980 edition, there was little change in the analysis, though the two dates were delayed to 2002 and 2012.”

Of course nothing of this sort happened, and the Soviet Union broke up in December 1991. But those were the days, and the narrative framed around the success of the Soviet style of economics, driven by its Five-Year Plans, was very popular. Samuelson was not the only one to be seduced by it. In fact, an entire generation was.

Interestingly, the economist Phillip Tetlock has carried out extensive research on experts and their predictions. Gardner, from whose book I have quoted above, documents this in Future Babble.

As he writes:

“Tetlock recruited 284 experts— political scientists, economists, and journalists—whose jobs involve commenting or giving advice on political or economic trends…Over many years, Tetlock and his team peppered the experts with questions. In all, they collected an astonishing 27,450 judgments about the future.”

It turned out that the expert predictions were no more accurate than random guesses. As Gardner writes: “Experts who did particularly badly… were not comfortable with complexity and uncertainty. They sought to “reduce the problem to some core theoretical theme.” This means that they had this one big idea and they stuck to it, without trying to realign their view to the new information coming in.

An excellent example of this is all the gold bulls who came out of the woodwork post the financial crisis of 2008. They talked about gold reaching very high price levels (The highest I encountered was $55,000 per ounce).

As a journalist I interviewed many such individuals and the confidence they had in their forecasts was amazing. In that round, gold didn’t even touch $2,000 per ounce. But the audience lapped the interviews I did. Why? Because these experts exuded confidence in their interviews, even though they eventually turned out to be wrong.

In 2012, when I turned into a freelance writer, I exuded the same confidence on gold while writing about it. And when the prices actually started to fall, it sort of struck at a core belief I had developed over the years and it took me a couple of years to get around to the whole thing.

As Grant writes: “When a core belief is questioned… we tend to shut down rather than open up. It’s as if there’s a miniature dictator living inside our heads, controlling the flow of facts to our minds.” This is referred to as totalitarian ego and a decade later I can see this ego among many bitcoin experts, whenever one questions the entire idea of bitcoin as money, and that has me worried.

Now getting back to Gardner and Tetlcok. Experts who did better than the average of the group that Tetlock had recruited had no template or no big idea. They tried to synthesise information from multiple sources.

As Tetlock writes: “Most of all, these experts were comfortable seeing the world as complex and uncertain—so comfortable that they tended to doubt the ability of anyone to predict the future. That resulted in a paradox: The experts who were more accurate than others tended to be much less confident that they were right.”

This explains why most business TV news anchors, podcasters, YouTuber, social media influencers, etc., who are popular, sound very confident. They believe in this one big idea, which sounds sensible to people, irrespective of whether it is right in the real world or not, and they keep hammering it over and over again, to their audience.

It also explains why guys who are normally right about things aren’t really popular with the media or the public at large. This is simply because they are not totally confident about what they are saying. They have their ifs and buts built into what they say and are constantly revising the information in their heads. And as and when they feel like it, they are ready to revise their views as well. This constant revision comes across as lack of confidence to the world at large. Tetlock called such experts foxes and experts who believed in that one big thing as hedgehogs.

The categorisations were from an essay written by political philosopher Isaiah Berlin, in which Berlin had recalled a small part of an ancient Greek poem. “The fox knows many things… but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” After knowing this, it is easy to figure out who is a fox and who is a hedgehog.

As Gardner writes:

“If you hear a hedgehog make a long-term prediction, it is almost certainly wrong. Treat it with great skepticism. That may seem like obscure advice, but take a look at the television panels, magazines, books, newspapers, and blogs where predictions flourish. The sort of expert typically found there is the sort who is confident, clear, and dramatic. The sort who delivers quality sound bites and compelling stories. The sort who doesn’t bother with complications, caveats, and uncertainties. The sort who has One Big Idea.”

Hence, the kind of expert found in the media is the kind of expert who is more likely to be wrong. One of the key findings that emerged from Tetlock’s data was: “The bigger the media profile of an expert, the less accurate his predictions are.”

In a world filled with confident forecasts, this is a very important point that needs to be kept in mind. If we really need to make sense of the world we are in, we need to figure out who the foxes are and follow them, however mentally disconcerting it might be. The hedgehogs need to be discarded.

Modi’s Rs 2.5 lakh cr Asset Sale Plan Needs a Transparent Approach

The Prime Minister Narendra Modi has set a target of monetising 100 government-owned assets across sectors. As he said: “We have a target of 100 assets from oil, gas, airport, power, which we plan to monetise. This has the potential for investment opportunities of Rs 2.5 lakh crore.”

This is in continuation of the idea that the finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman had presented in her budget speech on February 1, 2021. As she had said:

“Idle assets will not contribute to Atmanirbhar Bharat. The non-core assets largely consist of surplus land with government Ministries/Departments and Public Sector Enterprises. Monetising of land can either be by way of direct sale or concession or by similar means.”

Hence, a lot of this idle assets are government owned land or will involve land in some form or other. This is a good and an innovative idea which some of the previous budgets lacked.

Many large Indian cities have a lot of government land lying idle while the cities on the whole are stretched for land. Hence, freeing up some of this land and earning some money in the process is a good idea.

Let’s look at this greater detail pointwise.

1) If you are the kind who likes walking around India’s big cities, you would definitely see a lot of government land lying unused bang in the middle of cities. Close to where I live in central Mumbai is the Bicycle Corporation of India, in one of the by lanes of Worli. In the one and half decades I have walked past the company, I haven’t seen any economic activity happening. Peepul trees now grow from the walls.

This is land bang in the middle of Mumbai, some of the most expensive real estate in the world, lying unused. This is criminal to say the least. Another great example of unused real estate are all the MTNL offices, all across Mumbai and Delhi.

The Heavy Engineering Corporation (HEC) in the city of Ranchi where I was born and raised, has acres and acres of land lying unused, while the city itself hardly has any land going around. This is land that has been lying unused for decades and needs to be put to some use.

2) It’s not just the big cities that have all this excess land lying unused. Even a place like Ooty, has acres and acres of land lying unused thanks to the Hindustan Photo Films Manufacturing Company Ltd., which is largely not functional. There are quite a few such public sector enterprises which are no longer relevant, all across the country.

Given this, one of the first things that the government needs to do is to make an inventory of all this land and put it up in the public domain on a website. It needs to do so with all the other assets that it plans to monetise as well.

Of course, this inventory is not going to be made overnight and will take time. But it is important that this is done in the most transparent way, given that corruption/crony capitalism and land/asset sales, almost go hand in hand.

This is even more important because the government considers this route as an important source of revenue in the years to come. As the finance minister said in the budget that over the years the government hopes to earn more money “by increased receipts from monetisation of assets, including Public Sector Enterprises and land”. Hence, getting the process right is very important.

This becomes even more important given that there will be great opposition to the process from those who benefit from the status quo and even otherwise. The government selling its assets to raise money to do other things is not seen as a good thing. Hence, even a hint of corruption or any other controversy can threaten to derail the entire process, something the government cannot afford at this point of time.

3) In cases where the land was taken from state governments to start a public sector enterprise, it is important that the land be returned to the state government and let the state government decide what it wants to do with it. In the years to come, state governments will also be running short of money to meet their expenditure.

Also, this is the right thing to do. The state government can also use the land to attract more investment into their state. In some cities where there aren’t enough public parks, some land can even go to develop such infrastructure. The aim shouldn’t be to maximise the money earned all the time, but maximise the general well-being.

Again, this is something that will need some amount of thinking and the government’s thinking on this should be clear and out in the public domain.

4) There is another factor that needs to be kept in mind here. Real estate prices in most big Indian cities have remained and continue to remain high. One of the major reasons for this lies in the fact that the land prices remain expensive across Indian cities. Hence, it is important that some of this land be sold to build affordable housing. Only if land prices come down, will home prices come down.

And by affordable housing I mean homes which can be sold profitably in the range of Rs 10-20 lakh per unit and not affordable housing as the way the RBI defines it, which isn’t really affordable housing at all, but just a fancy moniker to help banks meet their priority lending targets.

Other than helping people buy affordable homes to live in, the real estate sector has the ability to create a large number of jobs very quickly. It also has the capability to have a multiplier effect across many other sectors. Building real estate requires cement, sand, steel, bricks, pipes, etc., and so on. Once real estate has been built in, moving into a home requires its own set of purchases. Buying homes also gives a fillip to the home loan business. And of course, people living in homes they own, enhances general well-being.

5) Finally, it is important that the money earned through this route be used for a specific purpose and not just for bringing down the fiscal deficit, which has ballooned to Rs 18.49 lakh crore or 9.5% of the gross domestic product (GDP) this year. Even in 2021-22, the fiscal deficit target has been set at a high Rs 15.07 lakh crore or 6.8% of the GDP. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends and is expressed as a percentage of the GDP.

It is important that money coming from land sales be allocated towards specific infrastructure projects, preferably in the very state where land is being sold. This will make it easier to sell this idea to the state governments, whose cooperation is very necessary to make this idea a reality.

To conclude, the monetisation of excess government land in particular and other assets in general, is a good idea. Having said that, it needs to be executed in a proper process driven and transparent way.

This is an updated version of an article that first appeared on Firstpost on February 2, 2021.

In a Country of 10 crore Urban Households, Builders Sold 2.62 Lakh Homes Last Year  

I recently wrote a column in the Mint newspaper titled India and China: A tale of ghost towns in two gigantic countries. This piece is an extension of a small part in that column. Ideally, you should read the column before reading this piece, nevertheless, this piece stands on its own as well.

The real estate rating and research firm Liases Foras recently put out some interesting data in a report titled, Residential Real Estate Market Report. Let’s look at this pointwise.

1) The home sales in the top 60 cities in India in 2020 stood at 2.62 lakh units. This was down 31% from 2019, when it had stood at 3.77 lakh units.

2) The sales in tier I cities (Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Mumbai Metropolitan Area, National Capital Region, Pune) stood at 1.85 lakh units in 2020, down 32% from sales in 2019 when 2.75 lakh units had been sold.

3) The sales in tier II cities in 2020 stood at 76,603 units down 25% from 2019 when 1.03 lakh units had been sold.

4) The overall unsold housing inventory was down 6% to 12.52 lakh units in 2020, against 13.32 lakh units in 2019. The value of homes sold in 2020 stood at Rs 1.73 lakh crore, whereas the value of the inventory outstanding is at around Rs 8.65 lakh crore. At this rate, it will take five years to sell the current inventory (Rs 8.65 lakh crore divided by Rs 1.73 lakh crore).

Of course, this does assume that no new construction will happen over the next five years, which is a wrong assumption to begin with. Hence, the current inventory will take longer than five years to sell, unless sales pick up at a dramatic rate, which as far as I see it is unlikely to happen, given the state of the economy and the general purchasing power of Indians, which the real estate industry never seems to take into account.

Let’s use this data and make some assumptions to explain all over again why the Indian real estate industry is in a mess and what can be possibly done to revive it.

1) In 2020, a total of 2,62,055 homes were sold across the top 60 cities in India with the total value of these sales being Rs 1,72,770 crore. This means that the average price of a home sold stood at Rs 65.92 lakh (Rs 1,72,770 crore of sales divided by 2,62,055 homes sold). In comparison to 2019, the average home price has barely fallen. In 2019, the average home price was Rs 65.96 lakh (Rs 2,48,861 crore of sales divided by 3,77,295 homes sold).

Let me not analyze this number further and make a few adjustments first.

2) Let’s consider the tier I and tier II cities separately. The average home price in tier I cities in 2020 was at Rs 74.37 lakh (Rs 1,37,921 crore of sales divided by 1,85,452 homes sold). The average home price in tier I cities in 2019 was Rs 73.57 lakh (Rs 2,02,089 crore of sales divided by 2,74,680 homes sold).  In tier I cities, despite home sales crashing by 32% in terms of number of units sold, the average home price has gone up marginally. There can be various local reasons for it which the overall average won’t reveal, but on the whole it is safe to say that real estate sales don’t seem to follow the basic law of demand in India. They never have and which is why the sector has been in a mess for more than half a decade now.

3) Within tier I cities, let’s make one more adjustment by first checking what was the average home price in Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), which tends to be higher than other parts of the country, simply because prices in Mumbai city tend to be very high. The average home price in MMR in 2020 was Rs 94.98 lakh (Rs 46,043 crore of sales divided by 48,479 homes sold). The average home price in 2019 had stood at Rs 99.11 lakh (Rs 67,938 crore of sales divided by 68,543 homes sold). Hence, the price in MMR has come down by 4.2% on an average between 2019 and 2020.

4) Now let’s calculate the average price of a home in non MMR tier I cities. The average home price in a non MMR tier I city in 2020 stood at Rs 67.07 lakh (Rs 91,878 crore of sales divided by 1,36,973 homes sold). The average home price in a non MMR tier I city in 2019 had stood at Rs 65.08 lakh (Rs 1,34,151 crore of sales divided by 2,06,137 homes sold). Hence, the average home price in non MMR tier I city in 2020 has gone up by a little over 3%.

5) Now finally let’s look at the average home price in a tier II city. The average home price in a tier II city in 2020 stood at Rs 45.49 lakh (Rs 34,849 crore of sales divided by 76,603 homes sold). The average price in 2019 had stood at Rs 45.58 lakh (Rs 46,772 crore of sales divided by 1,02,615 homes sold). Given this, the average home price in tier II cities has barely moved between 2019 and 2020.

What does all this data tell us?

1) At the risk of sounding as cliched as I can sound and have been sounding for years, the price of real estate in India is too high. Of course, we are looking at average prices here, but do take into account the fact that even in tier II cities the average home price is close to Rs 50 lakh.

In a tier I city without Mumbai, the average home price is close to Rs 67 lakh. Of course, there are tier I cities, like Pune and Ahmedabad, where the average price is closer to Rs 50 lakh. But even that is very high when one takes into account the fact that the per capita gross national disposable income in 2020-21 is expected to be around Rs 1.46 lakh.

Thus, the per capita household disposable income amounts to Rs 7.3 lakh (given that there are five people in an average Indian household). What needs to be kept in mind here is that this is the mean income of a household or the average income of an Indian household and not the median income or the income of an average Indian household. Hence, the income of the an average Indian household must be much lower than Rs 7.3 lakh per year.

2) Clearly, the real estate builders are building homes only for a certain section of the population, the very rich. And that has limited their market. In 2001, the number of urban households had stood at 5.58 crore. In 2011, this had jumped by 41.3% to 7.89 crore. Looking at this data, it is safe to say that by 2021, the number of urban households would have crossed 10 crore. Let’s assume it is at 10 crore households, which I think is a reasonable assumption to make, given that the number of actual households should be much greater looking at the past trend and increasing urbanisation.

3) A bulk of these 10 crore households would be living in the top 60 cities of urban India. In these cities, in 2020, a total of 2.62 lakh new homes were sold by builders. In 2019, the number was at 3.77 lakh homes. Let’s further assume that Liases Foras probably does not capture all the new homes being sold by builders across these 60 cities. Even if the homes sold were double of this number, they are barely a very small fraction of less than 1% of the total number of households in urban India. And this is true not just about 2020, it is equally valid for 2019, a non-covid year.

Of course, not all homes sold are new homes. People who have bought homes as an investment in the past and are now selling them, also need to be considered. There is no data available for this, but even if there was, the prices at which these homes were sold couldn’t have been significantly different from the new homes being sold by builders, hence, limiting their affordability.

4) As I had said in my Mint piece earlier this week, India needs real affordable housing, homes which can be built and sold profitably in the range of Rs 5-20 lakh in Indian cities. Of course, these homes will be smaller in size, but they will be definitely much better and more humane than living in slums. And imagine if something like this takes off, what it could do to economic activity in a post covid world. Building of real estate leads to a lot of economic activity. Every apartment requires, cement, bricks, sand, steel, pipes etc. It also requires people to take on home loans.

The real estate sector has forward and backward linkages with 250 ancillary industries. This basically means that when the real estate sector does well, many other sectors, right from steel and cement to furnishings, paints, etc., do well. The multiplier effect is huge.

Also, real estate is one sector which can create a lot of semi-skilled and unskilled jobs, very quickly, thus help people move away from agriculture, which tends to employ more people than is economically feasible.

5) Of course, this is easier said than done. First, it needs the real estate industry to consider the idea of doing business profitably at a much lower price, which it currently doesn’t seem to have got its head around to. Over the past few years, the real estate industry has maintained that it is difficult to cut prices given that input costs have gone up over the years.

It recently blamed the steel and the cement sector for driving up real estate prices. The cement industry has responded by saying: “only Rs 150/sq. ft of built up area constitutes cement costs. The amount being so low … is this not hoodwinking gullible consumers?”

I am no civil engineer and have absolutely no idea about what it costs to build a building, an apartment and so on. But what I do understand is that if real affordable housing has to become the order of the day, home prices need to come down and come down dramatically.

6) One thing holding back affordable housing is the cost of land in and around big cities. At the heart of this is the issue of Change in Land Usage (CLU). Agricultural land beyond a certain size cannot be owned, as per the land ceiling regulations. This limit varies from state to state. What this does is that it limits the amount of land available in cities unless the state government intervenes. And the moment that happens, the cost of the land starts to go up.

7) The central government and the state governments own a massive amount of land in Indian cities, which is lying unused. Over the years, some of it can be made available for real affordable housing. Of course, wherever there is land and there are politicians, there is scope for corruption (I really have no answer for this, honestly).

8) In a recent research report, IIFL securities looked at the cost of redevelopment projects in Mumbai. The figure that caught my eye is that the construction cost is 30.8% of the total cost. So, whatever the real estate industry might say, the construction costs forming less than a third of the overall cost, are really not the problem. I guess in non-redevelopment projects the construction cost as a proportion might be more, but even with that the problem is somewhere else.

It is the remaining charges that need to be brought down. Interestingly, charges related to the government in different ways (everything from floor space index charges to staircase premium to taxes to liaison cost) made up for around 40% of the overall cost. Clearly, the government is the problem here. The dependence on revenue from real estate for state governments needs to come down.

9) I am not an expert on this, but I do feel that this is an idea that needs to be made to work and there are experts out there who can look at it in a more detailed and feasible way.

To conclude, the problems holding back Indian real estate are huge and it will be very tough to sort them out. But as the corporates like to say in adversity there is opportunity. And real affordable housing is a huge opportunity, only if someone can figure out how to run a profitable business at lower costs. As the late Professor CK Prahalad would have said there is a fortune to be made at the bottom of the pyramid.