O’Connor: Actress’ beach bonanza isn’t good investing

Brian J. O'Connor
Detroit News Finance Editor

On the “Brady Bunch,” Marcia was always the golden girl, but is it middle sister Jan who’s scored the big bucks?

The Intertoobz were abuzz last week with the news that actress Eve Plumb from the 1970s sitcom sold the Malibu beachfront house she bought for $55,300 in 1969 for $3.8 million.

So it’s the story of a savvy lady, right?

On the face of it, Plumb’s $3.8 million profit has some of you saying, “See, Mr. Funny Money — buying a house CAN be a good investment! You’re probably also wrong when you say my Pets.com stock won’t bounce back!”

All right, calm yourself and stand back — this is a job for math.

Yes, math, the spoil sport with a secret power that makes all those $3.95 lattes and $72 monthly credit card interest payments drain your checking account to leave you overdrawn, even though, yes, you do have checks left.

Coasting to a real estate profit

Highlighting the power of math today is my college pal Geoff Beckman, a communications, strategy, political and technology consultant in Cleveland. Geoff points out that inflation makes that $55,300 purchase price the equivalent of $362,610 today, shrinking Plumb’s profit to $3.5 million. That’s still very good but, Geoff notes, investing that money in stocks would’ve been a better bet. Dropping $55,300 into the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index in 1969 would, with dividends reinvested, give you more than $4.6 million today.

In addition, Plumb also paid carrying costs for the home, such as insurance, taxes, mortgage interest and maintenance. And she was able to move this cramped, 850-square-foot beach bungalow only after paying the cutting-edge architect who designed the Los Angeles Staples Center to craft blueprints that will replace the beach shack with a luxury seaside home. Finally, she’ll cough up commission to a realtor, plus fees and closing costs.

So, it’s hardly a great investment but don’t blame me — blame math.

And blame something else, too: it was the family home and Plumb’s parents continued to live there after she grew up. They had to live somewhere, so putting all the money into stocks wasn’t an option. The bottom line is that the actress got someplace for her and her parents to live and still made a tidy sum.

But that isn’t enough to make buying a house a good investment. It makes buying a Malibu oceanfront house in 1969 a good investment. So run out and warm up the time machine.

Home sweet investment? Nope

Plumb’s big gain didn’t come from any typical housing appreciation, but because the house came with 47 feet of Pacific coastline. Move inland, and from 1969 to 2015, the median price of an existing home gained 5.47 percent a year. If Plumb’s house backed up to a shopping center in, say, Kansas City, it would be worth about $640,000 today.

Which, according to math, is less than $3.8 million.

In most cases, the money you’ll make selling your house more or less beats inflation, after you subtract mortgage interest, carrying costs, maintenance and fees. That’s it.

If you could rent something comparable to the home you want — the same quality school district and neighborhood, enough bedrooms and a garage, privacy and so on — you’d likely do better investing the cash you put into the down payment, appraisal and other costs. Plus, you wouldn’t be paying mortgage interest and could invest that money, as well.

But finding the perfect rental at a lower price rarely happens, so we buy houses. It’s best to think of it as a roof over our heads that gives us some inflation protection. If you want an investment, invest in properties where people will pay you rent.

Still, I can’t deny that even when you crunch the numbers, Eve Plumb’s house turned out to be a pretty nice investment. So nice, in fact, that maybe she ought to go back on the tube and join HGTV — she’d be a natural on “Beachfront Bargain Hunt.”


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Twitter: @BrianOCTweet

Brian O’Connor is author of “The $1,000 Challenge: How One Family Slashed Its Budget Without Moving Under a Bridge or Living on Government Cheese.”