Q: If I buy a home that previously sold for more than $400,000, but I pay only around $200,000, doesn’t that mean I have instant equity?
A: In a word? No.
Here’s the deal. In real estate, we think of equity as the difference between what your home is worth and what you owe on it. It’s the amount of your home’s value that you actually own, after any mortgage or other debts that are secured by the property.
Historically, the way homeowners hoped to build equity in their homes was primarily by paying off their mortgages. However, over the last decade or so, this evolved so that many homeowners expected their primary means of building equity would be by the stratospheric appreciation in home values. If homes simply kept growing in value, then equity would continue to build, as a matter of course.
Given these definitions, technically, the phrase “instant equity” should refer to the difference between what your home is worth at the time of closing and your mortgage balances — i.e., what you owe on it. For most buyers, that would mean their instant equity was the amount they had put down on the home.
However, people typically use the phrase “instant equity” to mean that you’ve bought a home that is worth more than you paid for it (not what you owe on it). It is this use of the phrase that you’re likely getting at.
The fact that the home sold for more than $400,000 at some time in the past (a time near the top of the market six years or so ago, most likely) is entirely irrelevant to your equity position on it now. You might indeed be closing this transaction with instant equity, but if so, that would be because the property is currently worth more than the $200,000 purchase price, not because of what it was worth in a time that is long gone — a mystical fairyland in which banks lent mortgage money without checking on borrowers’ ability to repay it, which ultimately led to a dramatic climb in home prices.
Some would say that whether or not you have instant equity, the fact that the property once sold for $400,000 shows that (a) a buyer was once willing to pay that, and (b) that the property could climb to that price again. These facts are both true, strictly speaking, but do not in any way help you determine whether this particular property is the windfall opportunity that you seem to think it might be.
Here’s why: A home’s value at any given time is what a willing and qualified buyer would be willing and able to pay for it at that time. Today’s market dynamics are simply not comparable to those of yesteryear, so you cannot assume that a buyer on today’s market would pay a top-of-market price for the place.
A buyer could not and would not pay $400,000 on today’s market for that home; if he needed a mortgage to fund the purchase, the bank and appraiser would simply not allow him to do so. And if he were a cash buyer, it just wouldn’t make sense for him to pay such a price, presuming that he could buy another, similar home in the area for closer to $200,000 than $400,000.
The only way for you to know whether you have instant equity in this home, and how much, is to figure out what you believe the property is worth on today’s market, and calculate the difference between whichever of the following you find to be the most relevant for your purposes: (a) the amount of loan indebtedness you have on the property or (b) the amount you paid for the property.
Tara-Nicholle Nelson is an author and the Consumer Ambassador and Educator for real estate listings search site Trulia.com.