Is Imputed Rent Income?

This continues the series on homeownership and investing. Last week’s post The Difference Between Asset And Investment was fairly straight forward. We concluded that whether your home is an investment or not depends in part on whether your living in it rent-free is income or not.

In-Kind Subsidy = Income

A penny saved is a penny earned. With taxes, a penny saved is more like one-and-half or two pennies earned. Leaving taxes aside, if I get something for free, it’s the same as getting cash and paying for the same item with that cash.

Some employers subsidize the employee cafeteria or even let employees eat free. Economically it’s the same as giving the employees some extra income per month for them to buy lunch. Some employers give employees a free gym membership. You just buy it and then expense it. Except the sequence, it’s the same as getting paid and then buying the gym membership.

Only If You’d Buy It Anyway

A subsidy is worth the full market price only if you’d buy anyway when you get cash. Free lunch that costs the employer $10 is worth $10 to you only if you’d pay $10 for lunch when you get a corresponding bump in pay instead. If you would brown bag otherwise, then maybe it’s only worth $3.

Redeeming airline miles for a business class ticket to Europe isn’t worth $4,000 to you if you would just pay $800 for an Economy seat when you get $4,000 in cash. The added comfort is worth something but not nearly as much as the cash price tag.

Prepaid Expenses

You can also prepay expenses. Buying in bulk is one example. If you want TiVo, you can buy the lifetime service for a few hundred dollars or you can pay $10-15 per month. If expense savings are the same as income, is TiVo’s lifetime service an investment that earns $10-15 a month?

By this standard every purchase is an investment. My car is an investment because it saves me the cost of renting a car from Hertz every day. My furniture are an investment because otherwise I’d have to rent them from CORT Furniture or Aaron’s.

Prepaying expenses is just a different way to buy stuff. In many cases it’s a better way, but in the end you are still buying stuff, whether you are paying upfront or paying over time.

Buying a Home To Save On Rent

How do you reconcile buying a home with all these? Again, if we only look at not having to pay rent, is it more like free lunch in the cafeteria or is it more like buying the lifetime service for TiVo?

Whom do you get it from seems to make a difference. If I get a free or subsidized apartment from an employer, that’s non-cash income. If I have to buy the apartment myself, it feels like just prepaying rent.

Even if you see rent savings as income, you also have to consider whether you’d pay the full market rent if you didn’t buy. If a home similar to yours rents for $3,000 a month, would you pay $3,000 to rent your current home? I wouldn’t. I would rent a smaller place for less.

So is buying a home an investment? The expected appreciation part is an investment for sure. Home prices may only track inflation over the long term. That doesn’t make it not an investment. Over your holding period of say 10 years, your home’s value may go well above inflation or well below inflation or it may go down. Home prices going below inflation or going down makes buying a home a poor investment. A poor investment is still an investment.

The rent savings part isn’t an investment. It’s just a different way to pay for an expense. It may be more cost efficient, as in buying a car versus renting from Hertz every day. It’s still just paying for an expense. At best your “return” is only the rent you would actually pay when you rent, likely far lower than your home’s full market rent, as in the business class air fare example.

Note I didn’t introduce mortgage into any of these. A home would appreciate the same and it would save you the same amount in rent whether you buy it with a mortgage or not. We will look at mortgage in the next article – Having a Mortgage and Buying Stocks On Margin – to see whether it’s a negative bond and whether you are buying stocks on margin when you have a mortgage.

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Comments

  1. Steve@EscapeVelocity2020 says

    Wow TFB, this post contained a lot of the ways that my mind works. I would chastise my employer for giving me an overpriced ‘perk’ in exchange for the equivalent in pay. But to cut to the chase, after being an expat twice, I have really appreciated the generous housing allowance, even if there was some foregone income, because it is temporary and you can leverage your companies good credit… Also, I’m going to say that buying a house is an investment, even if it matches inflation, because it gives you control over the outlay (fixed term mortgage or planning via ARM). It has only recently come to the fore that people can get screwed by this investment (a la 2008 NINJA loan) , but for the most part, you are at least ‘putting money in the bank’ with a little tax advantage to help incentivise it… BTW, keep up these thought-provoking posts! Look forward to the comments

  2. Jeff says

    Why would it not be both an investment, and a different way to pay for an expense? For example, If I buy a bunch of bonds or REITs and use the income from them to pay my rent, that is both an investment and a way to pay for an expense.

    Also, why did you buy a house much larger than you would rent if you rented? You seem like the kind of guy who thinks these things through carefully, so you must have thought there was some value to it–either as an outright investment or as valuable consumption (which suggests the imputed rent is higher than you think). I know some people enjoy the knowledge that they can customize an owned house however they want and that the rent can’t go up at the market’s whim, but that enjoyment is a thing of value to be counted as part of the imputed rent.

    • Harry Sit says

      Because by that logic every large purchase is both an investment and a different way to pay for an expense. Buying a car is the same as buying a bunch of [premium] bonds and then using the income to rent it.

      I would rent a smaller place because renting my current home would cost more than my budget for housing. The rent-to-price ratio makes it so. If the ratio is much lower then I would rent it. Many households have two cars. If they must rent from Hertz I’m sure they will try to make do with one.

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