The 7 new rules of financial security

In a world turned upside down, you must re-examine some basic assumptions. A good place to start: understanding the true nature of risk.

5 of 7
Rule No. 5: Housing
Old thinking: You can expect your house to appreciate handsomely over the long run.
New rule: Your home won't make you rich. But it is an important savings tool.

If you live on one of the coasts, you probably guessed sometime around 2005 that home prices couldn't keep rising the way they were. But the severity of the crash was still a shock: You heard a lot about how the market would have to "cool off" or "get back to normal" - the implication being that slow but steady appreciation was the future.

But the long-run data always told a different story. Yale University economist Robert Shiller looked closely in 2005 at the history of home prices since 1890, using a database he constructed. What he found was surprising. Except for two spectacular booms - the first after World War II and the second starting in 1998 - real estate appreciation has been unimpressive after figuring in inflation. As Shiller wrote in "Irrational Exuberance," technology has allowed builders to nail up more houses faster, ensuring that supply never gets too far behind demand (and often gets ahead of it).

Even when prices are rising, gains on real estate aren't as dazzling as they look, once you account for expenses. Maintenance costs typically run at about 1% of a home's value annually, in addition to insurance and taxes. If you remodel, the most you can expect to recoup is about 80%. You have to pay steep fees when you buy (up to 3% in closing costs) and sell (up to 6% for realtor fees).

What to do: This doesn't mean you have to rent, just that you should have modest expectations for your house as a wealth builder. There are still financial pluses. First, owning a house gives you a hedge against rising values in your own community so that you don't risk being priced out as rents go up. (Ask a New Yorker about that.) Second, a traditional 30-year mortgage acts as what economists call a "commitment device," or a tool that forces you to save. Instead of writing a check to a landlord, you gradually pay off principal. At the end, you own a house. Aside from your 401(k), no other asset enforces such discipline.

NEXT: Rule No. 6: Diversification
Last updated April 13 2009: 6:02 PM ET
More Galleries
8 great summer vacation deals Want the perfect summer getaway? MONEY searched for destinations with balmy weather, unique attractions, fun stuff to do, and great deals from four different categories: beach, mountain, culture and city. More
Best ways to catch up on your retirement savings Even the most financially responsible people make a few mistakes or run into obstacles along the way. These tips -- from cutting taxes to selling securities -- can preserve a safe retirement. More
Nearing retirement? Fortify your finances Your financial goals are within reach. Here are tips and tools to make sure you achieve them. More

Special Offer

Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2018 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2018. All rights reserved. Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor's Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2018 and/or its affiliates.