I’m leaving England. Should I sell up?

16th May, 2009

Dear Economist,
Should I sell my home and liberate cash? If I sell today I will have made a 400 per cent return over 12 years. I am not English and will be leaving the country for an extended period, perhaps for ever. However, I don’t have to sell and I love my home dearly.
Max Mulhern

Dear Max,

You need to move away from qualitative pros and cons, especially since few of the ones you give stand up to scrutiny. A quantitative estimate of costs and benefits is more useful.

Let’s start with your estimate of a 400 per cent return over 12 years. You do not state whether this is before or after inflation, but who cares? It is the likely future return that matters for your decision. You do not know that and neither do I, but I suspect it will be poor.

Make a guess, and add the income you would expect if you let out your house – assuming this is what you would do. Those are the financial benefits of keeping the house.

On the other side of the equation, make a guess as to the return you could earn if you simply sold your home and invested the cash in the best available prospects. Bear in mind that you might even buy a home overseas; this would have the distinct advantage that you could live in it. These are the opportunity costs of retaining your existing house.

So, yes – the opportunity costs will outweigh the likely financial benefits of keeping your home. Fine. You imply that you are wealthy and declare that you love your home. Perhaps this affection is strong enough to outweigh the financial loss, but I doubt it. Behavioural economists warn of the “endowment effect”, in which people irrationally overvalue what they already have – the “bird in the hand” maxim inflated to unwise proportions. So make your choice: but first, figure out how much your sentimentality will cost you.

Also published at ft.com.

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