A big lesson from the Great Recession to the pandemic is that surprise is endemic to the economy and households. Finances should be managed so that your household can weather the inevitable unexpected twists and turns.
"We don't know what's going to happen with anything, ever, over any period. And so it's inevitable that a certain percentage of our decisions will be wrong," mused Peter Bernstein, the late philosopher of financial risk in an interview with the Wall Street Journal in 2004. "That doesn't mean you're an idiot. But it does mean you must focus on how serious the consequences could be if you turn out to be wrong."
I reread the Bernstein interview after looking into the hot residential real estate market. Home prices for Minnesota were up 11.9% year-over-year in January, according to real estate brokerage Redfin. The number of homes sold rose nearly 17% while homes for sale fell by about 46%. More than 42% of homes sold above the list price.
Bidding wars are so common these days that some frustrated buyers have said they will waive inspections to get to the top of the list. It's a worrisome trend for buyers, especially first-time home buyers.
My caution doesn't reflect any particular forecast about home prices. The underlying economics of the current housing market strongly suggest that a reprise of the Great Recession's housing bust isn't in the cards. Homeownership remains a sensible long-term investment and attractive lifestyle choice for many, especially now that working from home (at least part time) will be an option for growing numbers of employees after the pandemic threat fades.
The concern is really about timing and financial fragility. The home buying narrative points toward too many home buyers willing to stretch finances to own.
The risk is becoming house poor, which is emotionally stressful and financially precarious. There are many ongoing and unexpected expenses that go with homeownership, including repairs and maintenance. There are also the everyday perils we face whether we own or rent, from getting laid off to an unexpected illness. The purchase price matters.
The experience of the past decade-plus is that household finances should be run with a margin of safety mind-set. A healthy financial buffer offers shelter against economic downturns and life's inevitable setbacks. Potential home buyers should check the numbers, maintain their financial discipline and stay patient.
Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor, "Marketplace;" commentator, Minnesota Public Radio.