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Homes: Cashing out might freeze you out
Is it ever a good idea to try to time the real estate market?
August 2, 2005: 8:20 AM EDT
By Les Christie, CNN/Money staff writer

NEW YORK(CNN/Money) - In the minds of many Americans, the parallels between the present housing-price boom and the tech-stock market of the late 1990s are striking.

The more home values leap -- like tech stock prices during their run -- the more the term, "bubble," is thrown around.

And many homeowners wonder whether the market is peaking and ponder how to take advantage of that. They're turning their home equity into real money by taking cash out during refinancing, taking on second mortgages, and arranging for home equity loans.

The biggest gamblers are even attempting an extremely tricky maneuver, according to Christian Coleman, district director for Zip Realty, a publicly traded real estate broker with offices in 10 states.

They're selling their houses with the intention of buying back into the market at a lower price in a couple of years or so -- after the bubble bursts, they believe.

The advice from the real estate industry pros is: Resist this temptation. It's almost impossible to time this market.

Bucking the market in San Diego

"I had clients in San Diego two years ago who knew emphatically that we'd reached the top of the market," remembers Coleman. "They said, 'we'll sell our home and rent, and then buy back into the market after prices drop.'"

But instead of crashing, median home prices in San Diego continued to climb, nearly 21 percent for the 12 months ended March 31 2005.

The couple got $850,000 for their house. Now, it's worth $1.2 million. They can't afford to buy back in.

It's not just about the money, according to Pamela Liebman, CEO of the Corcoron Group, a real estate brokerage with offices in New York City, Florida, and Long Island.

"To make a decision on your home on a purely financial basis makes no sense," argues Liebman. "Will your kids have to change schools? Will your rental have enough room for all your things?"

Flatter prices but no downturn

Anyone even considering it should take heed that many experts predict that the strength of the housing market will continue for the near term.

The latest forecast from chief economist Doug Duncan of the Mortgage Bankers Association, for example, is that the price of a median house will rise a total of 6.8 percent in 2005 and between 4 and 5 percent in each of the two following years.

Remember, too, that there are big hurdles to overcome before accruing any profits on a cash-out-and-buy-back deal.

Unlike stocks, which are cheap to trade, there are high costs involved with buying and selling houses. You have to deduct real estate commissions, attorney's fees, moving expenses, rent, closing fees, and other expenses before you can even start to make money.

The market would have to drop a good 10 percent for you just to break even.

That's not even taking into consideration the tax implications. As housing prices have soared to seven figures and more in many housing markets, it has pushed more homeowners up into the price levels where they would have to pay capital gains taxes when they sell.

The first $500,000 of profits ($250,000 for a single person) are exempt from this tax if they've lived in the house for at least two out of the last five years. Most others will pay 15 percent on any profits above that.

High risk, low reward

Drops of more than 20 percent in local real estate prices have never been common and the worst falloffs are almost always related to reversals in the economic fortunes of an area.

Coleman says, for instance, that after the 1990s hot real estate market in Seattle ended with the tech meltdown, housing prices did not crash.

"They just flattened out," he says.

Most of the places that have experienced frothy prices have limited room for further housing construction, increasing the demand for existing homes.

In Manhattan, the saying is, "They're not making any new land," but that's also true for a place like San Diego, which, as Coleman points out, is hemmed in by Mexico on the south, the Pacific on the west, the desert and mountains on the east, and Camp Pendleton on the north.

Who should cash out?

Is cashing out ever a good idea?

Only if you're planning a move or a change in lifestyle, according to Coleman. Empty nesters and retirees can downsize or move from high-priced markets to lower-priced ones and pocket the difference in price.

Workers being transferred out of high-priced areas can also benefit. Of course it works against those going from low-priced markets to high. Tech engineers and managers being transferred from Texas to Washington and California in the 1990s found that out

"They'd have these 6,000 square-foot houses on an acre of ground in Texas that they would sell for $500,000," says Coleman. "They could only afford a 2,000 square-foot home on a small lot in Seattle for that money."

"I wouldn't advise anyone to cash out," he says. "Real estate is for the long haul. Over a 25 to 30 year period, it has never gone down."

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