Some Americans believe that buying their own house is the best and smartest investment they'll ever make.
There are several valid reasons for buying a home. But buying as an investment or as the cornerstone of your long-range financial plan should not be one of your primary motivators. If your home doubles in value over the next few years, then great! Consider it a bonus. There are several reasons you shouldn't look at your home as an investment, especially in today's economy.
An inefficient investment
The main reason not to buy a bigger or fancier home simply because "it's an investment" is that there are much better ways to put your extra dollars to work. Real estate has generally appreciated around 4% to 5% per year on average, and this can be higher or lower depending on your specific location. Depending on what statistic you look at, home prices have historically appreciated at 3.4% to 5.4% annually over the past 20 years.
Compare this with an average annual return of 9.1% for an S&P index fund, 7.2% for the average mutual fund, and 7.16% for the ultra-safe 30-year Treasury, although it pays less these days, around 3.65%.
Simply put, the risks are not worth the rewards.
Don't forget about mortgages
Your mortgage will cause you to pay much more for your home than the agreed-upon price, which also will eat away at your returns. Let's say you buy a $300,000 home and put 20% down, so you finance the remaining $240,000 at 4.5% (about today's rate for a 30-year mortgage). If your home appreciates at 5% annually, by the time your mortgage is paid off, it should be worth around $1,296,583.
However, because you are paying interest on your mortgage, when you add up all of the payments, you're really "paying" a total of $497,794 for the house. This implies a total return of $798,809 after 30 years, or just 3.2% per year on an annualized basis.
Poor risk/reward ratio
When you consider the risks involved with owning a home, it is not really a prudent long-term investment. In fact, the risks associated with owning a home are quite comparable to the level of risk associated with investing in an index fund. From top to bottom, the S&P lost 58% of its value before bottoming out. It has since recovered to a level that is 13% above its pre-crisis peak.
In contrast, the U.S. real estate market fell about 35% from its peak and is currently well below its pre-crisis peak.
There are good investments in real estate, but your home isn't one of them.
If you really want to "invest" in real estate, the only worthwhile way to do it is to buy an actual investment/rental property. These can be very lucrative if done correctly. In theory, an investment property should be a house (or apartment building, commercial space, etc.) that you buy and someone else pays for over time.
To sum it up, there are several ways of putting your investment dollars to work that simply make more sense than buying your own home. It just doesn't make sense for "investment" to be the reason to spend more on a house in the hopes of producing long-term gains.