Shares beat housing, even in Blighty

You’re a lone voice in the wilderness if you favor shares over property in the UK. UKVI calls out  five family members who are of the ‘property is my pension’  school of thought with him being the odd one out. Me too – BTLers to the left of me, housing rampers to the right of me – a cynical Ermine feels stuck in the middle with Stealer’s Wheel

on the subject of property, specifically residential property. It’s an asset class I loathe, and yet everybody else in Britain is in love with it. There is, apparently, no more sure-fire route for an ordinary middle-class Brit to financial Nirvana than a nice li’l buy-to-let or two, preferably bought with the magic of other people’s money.

In the limiting case, we will have everybody over 45 ‘owning’ two houses renting one of them to people under 45. Britain’s factories and service industries can lie shuttered, and we will have a perpetual motion machine when all the old ‘uns can retire at 50 and throw parties where they moan about their children not being able to afford to buy a house. Presumably the proceeds of their BTL will be handed down to their children when they reach the allotted hour, hopefully when said children get to around 451, and so the circle turns again.

So I was pleased to see on Monevator’s 10’th anniversary post  a copy of this chart from This is Money

Where it appears that shares beat residential property by about 30%. With shares at very high valuations at the moment that is comforting – if we have an average sort of crash2 soon then that 30% differential could easily be given up at the low water mark, but UK house prices are also at all time highs. It is not entirely clear to me on what basis This is Money computed the TR data for housing – by rights they should include rents, less maintenance and less mortgage servicing costs, conveyancing, SDLT and agency fees for the average BTL hold period whatever that is.

Perhaps the BTL boosters were right, provided they could raise the capital to go all-in in June 1995. That’s a yes for Fergus Wilson but perhaps a no for pretty much everyone else, because of the lumpiness of property you need to time your entry into the market very, very carefully, and the slow cycles mean entry points are few and far between. If ever there was a call for an investment trust3, residential property would be an obvious asset class, presumably the reason there isn’t anything like this says something about the aggregate returns on offer.

UK real house prices – 1995 was a barnstorming year to start your property-owning journey. The downturn at the end has tipped up again – KPMG have a report from 2017 for those wanting more

Stock market cycles are shorter than housing cycles, and 1995, the datum reference, was an absolutely great time to buy UK property, as twits like me who had bought property in 1989 started to capitulate and actually pay down the excess rather than hoping that it would ever come good again in any useful period of time. KPMG tell us 2009 was the second time house prices crashed since the second world war, while there have been 15 stock market crashes and bear markets since the war, counting US and UK ones, the sort that would bother somebody holding VGLS100 in the UK if it had been available in Macmillan’s time.

Ever the contrarian, Merryn Somerset-Webb tells us that these days houses are cheap in terms of gold, and I didn’t do so badly compared to people who bought between 1997 and about 2003.

All I can say is that she didn’t live the decade when my mortgage was higher than the value of the house or pay the difference down from earnings… KPMG have a chart of mortgage interest versus income which highlights that I drew a particularly short straw in 1989

Mortgage interest as a proportion of wages

Although the recent highlighting of mortgage plus repayment shows servicing costs are at historic highs relative to the early 1990s. Presumably KPMG is of the opinion that previous generations paid down their mortgages with fairy dust rather than real money.

I am all for buying the house you live in – pretty much for the converse of the reasons Joe Public gives for landlordism. Renting is evil in the UK and residential tenants have very little security of tenure. This is what makes landlords rich. You want to free yourself from the ministrations of Britain’s army of amateur landlords, because what’s good for them is not good for you. After that’s done, residential property is a shockingly illiquid lumpy asset class compared to the average Brit’s net worth, with serious costs of carry and transaction costs, because a house is a physical object subject to entropy; it’s always trying to fall down. As an asset class it stinks on the convenience front because of its indivisibility and illiquidity.

Unlike gold, it is at least productive, inasmuch as it provides a service that tenants will pay for. It’s not tremendously scalable, you’ve got to save up a lot of rental profits before the deposit on the next place, unless you are a Fergus Wilson, who happened to start in the early 1990s of knockdown house prices.

Stocks you can buy bit by bit at average prices. Houses, not so much

There are other shockingly toxic issues to do with residential property. You can invest regularly into the stock market, it’s called pound cost averaging. I do this still now – I think the stock market is ridiculously overvalued, and I hate myself for buying into it regularly. But it is remotely possible that it will go up for a couple of years, in which case I will lose out by diddling on the sidelines even after the inevitable crash, although I am reducing my contributions and holding more cash than is probably good for me.

You just don’t get to do that with residential property, you go all in with borrowed money when you buy your first house, somewhere in your thirties is the place in the normal human lifecycle. Vendors will laugh you out the door if you ask to buy that house over the next ten years in instalments with it marked to market each time.

Since you can’t raise the money you buy with a mortgage. That works like gangbusters when the housing market is going up, but it’s total misery when it’s going down. Because housing cycles are slower the misery persists longer, too. So not only do you not get to ramp your way into this market in a measured way, you get to do it at a time not particularly of your choosing – the time you need to engage with it was determined by la petite mort nine months before you were born, although it only comes to fruition after three decades pass.

My experience matches the chart. For sure, I was whacked around the chops with a wet fish by the stock market in the dotcom boom and bust as I learned the ropes, particularly in what not to do.

what not to do – contract notes from my dotcom days. Do. Not. Churn.

But it served me far better since then, and most of the gains I have made were from a combination of saving hard and the stock market. The hit I took was all money I had earned and could afford to lose, whereas with the house I hadn’t earned the money that I lost and could only just afford the loss. If I scale the money I stupidly paid for that house in 1989 and adjust it for inflation then it is only 20% less than my share of my current house, perhaps 40% less if I allow for the amount of equity I released along the way, which went into the stock market. I’d have been better off with gold, although the utility of a house in defending myself against the depredations of BTL landlords has great value of its own.

So it’s good to feel vindicated, despite all the property clowns to the left of me, joker landlords to the right of me. Those results have integrated several stock market cycles including one near death experience in 2008, but perhaps two housing market cycles and no catastrophic events like the early 1990s housing price crash. Reversion to the mean, clowns and jokers… In your favour, the illiquidity of your assets mean you escape some pathologies of the stock market investor, as UKVI went on to say, but you don’t have to be a stock market muppet!


  1. the implication is that they have these kids no earlier than when they are about 35, else the kids will be too old by the time the parents cark it 
  2. The credit crunch was a non-average crash – from the UKX high of 6732 in Jun ’07 to a low of 3800 is a suckout of 44%, it took to July 2009 to recover to only a fall of a third. But then unlike you do with a house, you’re a bit dippy to save up in cash for years and make a single humongous share purchase, so your average purchase price is unlikely to capture only the peak 
  3. You get plenty of investment trusts in commercial property in the form of REITs but despite the generally believed sure-fire one-way money-tree nature of UK residential property I know of no residential property REIT. You get oddball companies like Grainger PLC, and Castle Trust bastardised their Housa index product into bonds, presumably because they couldn’t turn a profit on it. Such a product would greatly help first-time buyers by allowing their deposits to track house prices. The closest I could find to a res property REIT is Hearthstone, but another problem for buyers is they need to track prices in the region they want to buy, since nobody buys the average UK house in reality. IG Index used to have regional house price indices, but the problem with spread betting is that the cost of carry is high for periods longer than about six months. 
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