What’s in a house price

All we’ve heard for the last several years is how the price of housing is going up. Up. UP! And for the most part that is true. Whether it is because Millennials are finally getting on their feet and need a place to have their own families, or whether the baby boomers are not moving to the lower priced condos and giving up their family homes, there is no doubt that there is a housing squeeze.

But seriously, for as long as I can remember, except in deep recessions, people have thought housing is expensive. Because it is! It is the largest portion of people’s monthly budget. And this distraction about the cost of a home is the most uninteresting fact one can take away from home prices. House prices are a rich reflection of the revealed preferences of a community.

An economist in the early part of the twentieth century by the name of Paul Samuelson came up with the idea that when consumers chose different products, they reveal what best suits their needs. This differed from theories up to that point which placed the burden on policy makers to decide which goods provided the greatest utility to consumers.

Samuelson’s relationship with economics is lengthy. This excerpt paints the broadest brush of his brilliance. “In receiving the Nobel Prize in 1970, Mr. Samuelson was credited with transforming his discipline from one that ruminates about economic issues to one that solves problems, answering questions about cause and effect with mathematical rigor and clarity.”

One economist, his junior by twenty years, heard the clarion call for greater mathematical representation of economic theory. Zvi Griliches contributed to a publication called Economic Statistics and Econometrics published in 1968. In a paper called Hedonic Price Indexes for Automobiles: An Economic Analysis of Quality Change, Zvi pulled apart the prices for automobiles so that he could show how much consumers were paying for improved engines or length of the vehicle or other features. By comparing the components of the cost of vehicles he distinguished between inflation and consumers revealing a preference for higher quality provided by advanced technology.

But back to real estate. The economist credited for using this statistical method (taking the price of a complex product and using data to divvy out the weighted values of its various components) was Sherwin Rosen in his 1974 paper Hedonic Prices and Implicit Markets: Product Differentiation in Pure Competition. Now this is exciting! The price of a house can tell you how much one school district is favored over another. It can tell you the value effects of violent crime, or proximity to mass transit.

The implicit prices tell us that we trade in public goods as well as private goods. We shop for city services and good roads, for youth programming and parks, as well as for good schools and safe streets. The implicit prices tell us how groups of people choose bundles of public goods. Real estate prices are incredibly rich with feedback.

So can we stop with the “They are so expensive.”

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