It is difficult to run into somebody in Delhi you know and not have them confess that they too are caught with their money stuck in stalled real estate projects in the suburbs of Noida and Gurugram. The bankruptcy process in the Jaypee Infratech Ltd case got the headlines, but the number of large developers in jail is not small. It includes companies such as Unitech, SRS Group and DB Reality, showing how deep the rot in real estate goes because rich people in India seldom go to jail for breaking the law.
Stuck in the still-to-be-Italian-marbled buildings are the savings of the urban mass affluent Indian who thought she was investing smartly in the property boom. Investors bought into the good deals offered by builders who offered to pay their first few EMIs (equated monthly instalments), who offered post dated cheques for those EMIs, who offered a free car if you booked a flat above a certain value. Real estate investors who bit the bait allowed themselves to believe deals too good to be true, to be true. They refused to listen to sane counsel of friends and newspaper articles that warned them against such deals.
Should you rent or buy a house? Many young families face this decision when they move out of the joint family to be on their own or when they shift to a new city for work. Notice that this is not an invest-or-not question, to which the answer will be very different. This is a should-I-rent-a-house-that-I-will-live-in or should-I-buy-now question. For others already on rent, the family conversation about ‘rent or buy’ comes up each time the math is done on how much rent flows out of the family budget each month. “If we had bought our own house, we’d be owning it soon rather than all this money getting wasted in rent” is something most renting families stress over. I’ve had this conversation at home many years ago; especially when money is tight and the growing family’s needs are many, the rent vs buy decision seems even more crucial. Why not put money down for something you will own rather than down the drain in rent?
If real estate markets were efficient, there should be almost no arbitrage between the decision to rent a house or buy it. The rent and the equated monthly instalment (EMI) would be not all that far away and you would be able to stretch just a bit to compensate for the mortgage cost to turn the rent into an EMI. But real estate markets in India are far from this utopia and follow no rational rules for valuations for residential real estate. At current market prices where the rental yields (annual rent divided by value of property, or the return you get from the asset if you were to rent it out in percentage terms) are just 1-2%, renting is clearly better than buying. Look at it this way— what you can rent for Rs25,000 a month will cost you at least Rs1.2 lakh in EMI in Delhi and Mumbai.
How do we know when a market is overvalued? The equity market looks at price: earning (P-E) ratios, book value, price earning to growth (PEG) ratios and valuations to see if stocks, or entire markets, are overpriced or underpriced. Is there a similar metric for real estate, a rule of thumb that tells you when a property, or the whole real estate market, is overpriced or underpriced? Mature markets use some rough rules of thumb to decide over- or under-pricing in real estate. The first is the ‘gross rent ratio’. Divide the sale price of a property with the gross annual rent it will get. Gross rent does not account for costs of the loan, maintenance or society fees. If a flat sells for Rs1 crore and can be rented for Rs50,000 a month, or Rs6 lakh a year, the gross rent ratio is 16.6. Real estate investors use a rough rule of thumb that says: buy at 10 and sell at 20. Buy when the rent ratio is 10 and sell when it touches 20 because the property is overvalued. The second metric is the yield which just switches the two numbers. Divide the gross annual rent by the sale value of the property. The annual rent of Rs6 lakh divided by a capital value of Rs1 crore gives a yield of 6%. Mature market thumb rules say buy at a yield of 5% and sell at 10%.
Getting those real estate itchy fingers? Stock markets have been on a roll and the upswing in markets is usually a precursor of a jump in real estate prices as investors book profits and sink their money in land. The breathless expectations from a new real estate regulator, combined with an overall upswing in the mood of the economy, is making people begin sniffing the air for real estate deals one more time. One more time I write to caution real estate aspirants, specially those who cannot deal with the clunkyness of the asset, against jumping in. Of course, it still remains a really bad investment at current prices when you compare it to alternatives.