The ROI On A House Probably Isn't As High As You Think

Once you factor in taxes, insurance, maintenance and mortgage interest, you may be lucky to break even.
Ariel Skelley via Getty Images

When Mahi Amaha’s parents immigrated from Ethiopia to the United States during the 1970s, they saw homeownership as the path to achieving the American dream. They finally bought a home during the ’80s when interest rates were at their peak, and the terms of their loan weren’t great.

“Financially, it really put them in a bad place. And I saw that growing up,” Amaha said. “I told myself I would never buy.”

Even so, the 35-year-old ER physician-turned-investing coach and founder of Black Womxn Are Wealthy followed in her parents’ footsteps and gave homeownership a shot. She bought a home with her husband five years ago, but the couple quickly realized it wasn’t for them and ended up selling during the pandemic. They decided that they would be “renters for life.”

Amaha said society often views renting as “throwing money away” since you don’t own anything at the end of the day. Although that’s somewhat debatable, considering the time and money it takes to own a home and the particular market a would-be buyer lives in, home buyers do often believe they’ve made more than they have when they sell their property. And they may operate under the same misapprehension when they make the decision to buy.

“I often hear from members who greatly exaggerate the returns they’ve experienced on real estate, especially their primary residence,” said Lauren Anastasio, a certified financial planner at SoFi. For example, if someone bought a house in 2015 for $500,000 and sold it in 2020 for $600,000, they might assume they received a 20% return on their investment.

That’s not accurate, Anastasio said. For one, they’re not accounting for inflation. “Each dollar is worth less in 2020 than it was in 2015,” she said. (In this case, that theoretical $100,000 gain is already down to about $91,500.) Second, they’re not factoring in all the other costs they dumped into the house during that time, such as closing costs when they bought the property (and again if they refinanced), interest, taxes, insurance, maintenance and more. “If we add all of that up, the actual profit is actually much, much less.”

Here are the hidden costs to consider when deciding to buy for short-term value or evaluating the profit you’ll make on a potential sale.

The Math Is Much Tricker Than Sale Price Minus Purchase Price

While it’s possible to earn a decent return on a primary home, it probably won’t result in the ROI you imagine. Often, you have to stick around a long time before the investment begins to pay off.

While home prices have been surging lately, a look at the Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index over the last 20 years shows prices increased just 3.8% on average. That’s not much over the rate of inflation, which was 2% annually for that same period.

Add in maintenance costs, insurance and property taxes, and you’re lucky if you break even, according to Joseph Hogue, a certified financial analyst and founder of My Stock Market Basics and the Let’s Talk Money channel on YouTube.

At best, a home is a forced savings account, he said. That’s because you’re paying into an asset that you can later sell. “It’s fine for those that can’t seem to budget for saving if they aren’t paying a mortgage, but the returns lag other investments significantly over the long-run.”

Let’s take a closer look at the numbers.

Say that today, you buy a home for $250,000. You contribute a 20% down payment ($50,000) and finance the remaining $200,000 with a 30-year fixed rate loan at 4% interest. You also have to pay closing costs of $4,000, which you roll into the loan balance.

As of 2020, the average homeowner holds on to their property for eight years. So let’s say you do the same. As mentioned above, home values tend to appreciate with the pace of inflation. But let’s be a little more generous and assume your home appreciated 5% a year.

At this point, your home would be worth $369,364 when you sell it in 2029. That’s a gain of $119,364. Not bad, right?

Except that’s not pure profit. Consider these costs associated with owning a home:

Mortgage Interest

Since you had to take out a loan to buy your home, you’ll be paying interest on it, including the $4,000 in closing costs you rolled into the principal. After eight years at 4%, you will have spent about $60,877 in interest charges.

Previously, a big incentive to buy a home was the ability to write off the mortgage interest on your taxes. However, thanks to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that went into effect in 2018, only 13.7% of people now qualify to itemize their taxes. The rest will take the standard deduction, making this potential savings opportunity irrelevant for most homeowners.


Homeowners are also responsible for the upkeep of their properties. There’s no landlord to call when the roof leaks or the water heater needs to be replaced ― that’s on you. In fact, homeowners should budget about 1% of the home’s purchase price for maintenance each year. For our $250,000 example, that means $20,000 in home repair costs at the end of eight years.

Home Insurance

You are also required to purchase insurance for your property. The average premium is $1,477, based on a home with a dwelling coverage amount of $250,000, according to 2020 data. Multiply that by eight years and you have another $11,816 in added costs.

Property Taxes

Finally, one of the major expenses that homeowners can expect to face each year is property taxes. Your home’s value is used to calculate property taxes, which are assessed each year, though the actual rate you pay will depend on where you’re located. Nationwide, the effective property tax rate is 1.1% of the average home value. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll estimate your taxes based on the original purchase price without factoring in appreciation, which means you can add another $22,000 to the cost of owning your home over eight years.

Let’s add up all those expenses:

    • Closing costs: $4,000
    • Mortgage interest: $60,877
    • Maintenance: $20,000
    • Home insurance: $11,816
    • Property taxes: $22,000
    • Total: $118,693

That leaves you with a profit of $671 after eight years.

But let’s not forget that we’re assuming you’re going to sell your house after those eight years. If you work with a real estate broker, you can expect to pay a commission of 6% on the final sale price. If you sell your home for its current value of $369,364, you’re now in the hole for $21,491.

Even if you decide to sell without a broker, there are a number of potential expenses associated with selling your home, including land transfer taxes, closing costs and perhaps even capital gains taxes.

You may be wondering, what if you held onto your home for the full 30-year mortgage term instead of selling? That’s a much better outlook in this case.

If we keep the same assumptions outlined above, your home would have appreciated to $1,080,486. You would have paid a total of $150,614 in closing costs and mortgage interest (assuming you never refinanced). Another $75,000 would go toward maintenance. Assuming your rate was never increased, you’d spend $44,310 on home insurance. And assuming your property taxes were capped at a 2% annual increase, you would have paid about $182,707 in taxes.

A property worth $1,080,486 minus expenses totaling $452,631 leaves you with a profit of $627,855 over 30 years.

Other Factors To Consider Before Buying Or Selling

One catch with viewing your home as a short-term investment is that your wealth is tied up in the property. Your home may be worth a certain amount on paper, but you have to sell it to actually access your accumulated wealth. Not only does selling a home cost money, but you aren’t guaranteed to sell for what you believe the home is worth. And you have to wait for a buyer to come along, which could take months or even years if it’s not a competitive market.

One option for getting access to the cash tied up in your investment is to take out a home equity loan or line of credit. However, this option limits how much of your home’s value you can actually leverage. Plus, you need to qualify based on your credit and other factors, and it once again puts you back in debt.

That’s why Amaha prefers to rent while putting her extra cash in the market. It offers much more flexibility. “It’s such a relief to rent,” Amaha said. “If anything breaks down, if there’s any issue at all, it’s not on us.” She added that renting allows her family to plan out the next few years of their wealth-building strategy knowing that there’s no house to hold them back or derail their plans.

Of course, the unique real estate market where you live will make a big difference.

“When considering the financial benefit of purchasing a home, the often-used phrase ‘location, location, location’ comes to mind,” said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at Bankrate. “If looked at across the expanse of the U.S., and across markets and locations, there are widely varied outcomes over long periods of time with respect to the levels of home price appreciation or lack thereof.”

In fact, Hamrick said that his parents’ house that they purchased 50 years ago in his hometown along the Kansas-Oklahoma border is worth about the same amount today. That’s probably a much different experience from someone who bought in California several decades ago.

Ultimately, the decision to rent or buy is deeply personal. One important factor to consider is whether it’s cheaper to buy vs. rent in your desired neighborhood (it’s cheaper to own in 24 of 50 major markets, according to one study).

Also consider your desired lifestyle and values. There are other good reasons to buy a house besides the modest financial gain. For one, owning a home provides a sense of security and a feeling of belonging. Homeowners contribute directly to their communities by paying property taxes. Maybe you want to get your kids into a particular school district.

A home is also yours to design and maintain however you wish. If you’re the type of person who loves spending Saturday at Home Depot gathering supplies for another DIY project, homeownership may be for you.

Homeownership is also a key path to generational wealth-building. It’s an asset that you can pass down to your children, giving them a leg up. Amaha noted that’s particularly important for people of color, who have historically been barred from owning homes, stunting economic mobility and contributing to the racial wealth gap.

As with investments of any types, Hamrick said, your results may vary. “But banking on a solid return on a home purchase is very risky indeed.”

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