How much income paid for rent?

Intrigued by an MSNBC’s article titled Americans becoming increasingly house poor, Golbguru recently write an post inquiring people’s expense on housing. The MSNBC article only revealed that an average homeowner spends nearly 21% of their household income on housing, up from under 19% in 1999. Percentage-wise, Californian spend the most, 25.4% in 2005. The data includes many homeowners who bought their houses before the boom, thus, the 2 to 3% increase does not seem very dramatic. For more recent buyers, I do not know any friends who spend less than 25% (one couple bought earlier with 200K annual income) of their income on housing, most between 30 to 40%!

However, I did not find any percentage for renters. My further research found that the ratio really depends on the locality. In Golbguru’s case, he was able to pay only 11% of his gross household income (mainly two graduate students’ stipends) on rent, likely around $500 in a University subsidized apartment. Yes, an excellent job of Golbguru!

New York City is likely the other extreme, high rent and low vacancy. People not only need to get in line to rent an apartment, but also need to hire a professional broker for apartment hunt. According to New York City’s Economic Snapshot July 2006, the average monthly contractor and increased by 25% after adjusting for inflation, from $767 in 1991 to $956 in 2005. From the following picture, we can see average rent as % of average renter’s household income has also swelled from 34.4% in 1991 to 36.7% in 2005. It seems that not only the housing price soared, the rent was raised significantly too! I hope no one pay so much to stay in NYC. Of course, if you’re earning more than average renter’s household income and live under your means, you can beat those ratios.

I attended graduate school on the west coast, where rents are high. University housings are both cheaper and more convenient compared to local rental market. I was earning 23K annual stipend, but paid about 28% of my gross income for one room in a 2-bedroom university dorm. Despite the small annual raise of 1-3% of my stipends, when I finally graduated, I was paying 39% of my gross for the same room. A very good strategy to move out PhD students faster!

Right now, with 2 full-time job income, Jacqui and I are paying about 7% gross including cell phones and utilities, not much better than Golbguru, but way better than people in NYC and myself before. However, we’re looking for a reasonable upgrade in the next few months to have more space.

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How to better measure home prices?

As shown in the previous post, the median price is far from an ideal measure of home prices. In this softened housing market, a change in the types of houses sold may give people a deceiving picture of increasing prices. Here is an article titled The Follies of Measuring Home Prices from Rich Toscano.

In short, the median house is really a moving target, and the “median price” does not account for the difference in these houses and is therefore subject to the following follies:

  • Changes in who’s doing the buying
  • . If only the rich are still buying the beachfront properties, we may see the median price increasing sharply in a declining housing market.

  • Changes in what buyers are getting for the money
  • . “During the boom, as buyers reached the upper limit of what they could spend, they compensated for the lack of affordability by lowering their standards and buying less desirable homes. So for a couple of years, there, changes to the median price actually understated the extent to which individual home prices were increasing. Since the boom ended, the opposite has happened. Now, the extent to which buyers have been able to get more and more bang for their homebuying buck has not been entirely reflected in changes to the Median purchase price.”

  • Home improvements
  • Seller concessions
  • . The above two have been covered well in the Media, which may value tens of thousands of dollars but not included in the median price.

One of the best solutions lies in the Case-Shiller Home Price Index (HPI), which measures market price changes based on repeat sales of individual homes. Here is a graph featuring a comparison between Median Price and Case-Shiller HPI on San Diego’s housing market.

Looking at the Median Price (the red bars), you may think that San Diego’s Housing market hit the bottom b/w 09/2006 -11/2006 and rebounded back this year. However, CS HPI (the blue bars) shows a consistent decline throughout. Which one is correct? Correlating with sales volumn, we known the latter is the true picture.

For more metro areas and longer periods, you can plot graphs on the http://macromarkets.com.

To get individual home value and neighborhood demographics, I found http://www.cyberhomes.com/ very useful.

Housing Market Is On The Move In Southern California II

Nice excerpt from Ben’s Housing Bubble Blog:

The California realtors report on April sales. “Home sales decreased 27.8 percent in April in California compared with the same period a year ago, while the median price of an existing home increased 6.2 percent, CAR reported today. ‘April sales fell in part because of tighter credit standards and growing concerns about the impact of subprime loans on the market,’ said C.A.R. President Colleen Badagliacco. ‘Throughout the state inventory levels have increased to their highest levels in recent years, giving buyers more time to view a greater variety of homes and sellers who set realistic prices an edge in the market.’”

“‘Although the median price of a home in California continues to rise, this reflects the fall-off in sales in the lower-priced markets of the state where new home inventories and foreclosures are competing with the existing home market,’ said C.A.R. Chief Economist Leslie Appleton-Young. ‘Fewer sales from these regions coupled with modest gains in some of the stronger coastal markets are pushing the median price for the state up slightly.’”

This supports the analysis that this latest drop is worse for low-end markets suffered from the woes of sub-prime loans. A change in the mix of houses sold really skewed the median price data.

Housing Market Is On The Move In Southern California

According to Union Tribune “DataQuick expects to report today that the six-county Southern California region saw defaults rise nearly 159 percent last month to more than 9,200, compared with 3,562 in April 2006, and that foreclosures skyrocketed from 311 to more than 2,800 over the same period. San Diego’s defaults rose from 554 to 1,346, and foreclosures increased from 85 to 525, April to April.”

“But San Diego was painted as an area less vulnerable to any further major downturns, contingent on the health of the general economy. Reasons include relatively few unsold, newly built homes and new projects; steady if not improving job growth; and an earlier end to the housing boom than other markets where sales and prices are now in decline. … Prices, which had peaked at $517,500 in November 2005 and lately dropped to as low as $472,000 in January, have recovered somewhat to stand at a median $490,000. But they remain 10 percent or more below where they stood a year ago in many neighborhoods”.

As I remember, the housing market in San Diego headed south earlier than Los Angeles and San Francisco. The current slide was only from the drain of cheap money, which means that the market is vulnerable to further slides resulting from rising foreclosures and the weakening of local job market. Unfortunately, with depreciating housing value, foreclosures are rising really fast. With economy growth significantly slowed down, the job market is unlikely to absorb the loss in housing related jobs. So there are certainly more drops to come.

Tips on finding a competent real-estate agent

With a burst of U.S. housing bubble, affordable housing may finally come in a few years. I started to learn some knowledge on real estate investment a while ago. From what I learn, a competent real-estate agent is invaluable. Here is one interesting article from MSN titled Find a superstar real-estate agent.

Besides referral, the article listed eight questions to ask your candidate agents:

  1. May I see your resume? This is an interesting one. I have been interviewed by many people, and didn’t expect that I can interview agents this way. I’ll take this advice.
  2. What’s your commission? Only relevance to a seller?
  3. What makes you special?
  4. How often will I hear from you?
  5. What’s your plan for marketing my home? Seller only.
  6. How many transactions did you complete last year?
  7. What do you know about the neighborhoods where I want to live? I’m surprised that information on crime and school performance are not allowed to be disclosed by real estate agents. Again, asking for information sources such as Sperling’s Best Places may come in handy.
  8. Are you a solo agent or part of a team? This may impact how you evaluate the performance of this agent.

Where to put my savings, house, IRA, 401K or regular trading accounts?

When I finally earned more than what I spent, I asked myself this question. Due to the time I already squandered, there are so many places need my money badly:
Emergency fund and cash savings
Individual retirement accounts (IRA) such as Roth and traditional IRA
Employer sponsored retirement accounts 401k, 403b (non-profit organization and education institutions)
A house
A regular brokerage account to invest in the stock market

My order is the following:
1. Roth IRA
You may be surprised that I put to Roth before emergency fund. The reason was not only that Roth is one of the best places for young professionals and graduate students’ money, but also that you can withdraw your contributions (the money you put into such an account) any time without incurring any penalty or taxes. So your contributions can serve as your EF. It is so nice that no wonder you can only contribute $4000 a year.

2. 401k or 403b and a lull with employer matching
Many people have this on the top of their lists. The argument was simple, you can get free money. Many people contributed to their 401K and got those employer matchings. However, because they do not have enough liquid asset (contributions in Roth or emergency fund), they were forced to get the money out in case of urgent financial needs, which leads to taxes and penalty.

3. Emergency Fund
The contributions in Roth is not a perfect emergency fund, because you will not be able to put contributions back after withdraws, which leads to the loss of opportunity for tax-free earning growth. I have shared my experience in a recent post. The good news is that you do not need to constantly put new money there. After you find out how much to put in, and fund it, then you are mostly done. Also as Moomin Valley commented, after you accumulate more assets, you can get away without a real emergency fund since it’s very likely you’ll have very liquid assets because of asset diversification.

4. 401k or 403b remaining portion
You can decide for a self how much you want to put into your retirement account, because this portion is not liquid-able. However, if you want to invest in the stock market, the advantage of text deferment cannot be understated. As two late-starters, Jacqui and I are maximizing this part. Another late starter moom shared his experience.

5. Savings as in savings account, CD or regular brokerage:
You do want to enjoy your life before retirement also, right? However, I do not over-save for this part as I think my future income is good enough to cover my future expenses.

6. House:
We do not own a house yet and are saving for a down payment. Normally, it should be listed as 5. However, the more I learn about the housing market and the unprecedented housing boom, the more I realized that how over-valued the current housing market is. I guess it will be number 6 for the next two years at least.

What’s your list like?

Salary survey for H1B — Are you getting there?

Yannick and I are struggling with Green Card application. We (mainly Yannick) were (was) so lazy and did not bother to work on our immigration stuff and now we had to pay a little cost — Yannick may now have to decline a job offer because of the H1-B. The H1B quota was used up on the very first day!

I am worried, but can’t really push him too much on things he does not like to do. Besides, he has picked up things that I do not like to do — tax, asset allocation… So, it is my turn now.

I can apply for green card through PERM with my company’s sponsorship now. For perm, salary is a key factor–you have to have a salary higher than the average salary in your area to get your visa. So, I found this H1B salary survey.


Surprisingly, Washington has the highest median annual salary of $76K. The average annual salary is usually close to the median value. New York has a very high average of $74k compared to a median value of 55k. I suppose that’s because many were
earning well above 100k. In any case, the good message is that my salary is higher than the median or average in my state. At least, I have met one important condition in getting PERM approved.

The data is a little old, but it tells more than just H1B salary. The most interesting thing to PF bloggers is average household income and house value. California has the highest average house value, but its average household income is actually lower than NJ and CT, or even Maryland!

The average household income in CA is 30% higher than that in Texas, the rent is 40% higher that that in Texas, but the average house value in California is 157% higher than that in Texas! MA is comparable to CA in this respect. So, if someday Yannick and I have to work in CA or MA, I will have a rational plan in head– rent, rent, rent, till we retire in TX and Florida!

BTW, I found it interesting that the average H1B’s salary in New York state is $74K, higher than the average household income ($69K). NYC is really single man’s paradise.