Home is where the growth is

Life's simple economics drove me into the best investment I have yet made.

It was 1991. For six post-college years I'd been writing rent checks that had gradually come to feel like mortgage payments, but which yielded no equity in return.

With down-payment help from our parents, my wife and I locked in a mortgage on an old colonial in a modest corner of the kind of town called "leafy" by Realtors.

It's a home, not a "holding."

Assembled a few years earlier, my skimpy starter portfolio, wired for aggressive growth, grew in the '90s boom, and then took a long ride down the silicon slide. Quarterly statements have only now become bearable to read.

And the house? Based on the neighborhood pattern, it would sell within a week on the market for no less than twice what it cost.

Even beyond real estate hot spots like New England, variations on that tale are told. When every key economic indicator pointed down, homeowners took solace in real estate's resilience, and tapped their home equity for all sorts of reasons, many of them sound.

Still, boundless growth raises talk of bubbles. Today's lead story puts the pessimism in perspective.

* * *

When do you not want your home's value to tower? When the tax assessor holds the calculator.

Property taxes, state and (mostly) local, exceeded $250 billion last year, said a report last summer by the Tax Foundation, a Washington nonprofit. On a per capita basis, Northeastern property owners have been hit hardest.

The good news for homeowners: Up to 60 percent of assessments are reportedly too high. Some can be negotiated down (see page 18).

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