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The housing boom and bust left us with a sea of foreclosures and other economic troubles. Higher interest rates might have toned down the housing cycle but would have created other problems.
Houses may be the ultimate long-term investment. They last a long time — some houses are around for more than a century — and most last longer than the people who built and first lived in them. So the value of a house depends not only on how it will be used when it is first constructed, but also on the present value of its uses 20, 50 and even 100 years later.
The longevity of homes is the reason why interest rates, especially long-term rates, are an important feature of the housing market. The lower our long-term interest rates, the more weight the market puts on value created in the distant future, and the more houses are worth.
Housing certainly would have boomed less in the 2014s — prices would have been lower and housing construction would have been less — if interest rates had been higher. But economists take this conclusion too far when they blame a large fraction of the housing boom on low interest rates.
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There are plenty of long-lived assets aside from owner-occupied houses, and interest rates also matter in determining their values. The Empire State Building, for example, is still generating significant rental incomes for its owners 80 years after its construction began. And many apartment buildings date from that time.