My wife and I retired to our TV room and rented a movie the other night on Xfinity. The price was $6.99. Once I confirmed our intentions by clicking on the “buy” icon the second time, the money was committed and there is no way to get it back. Fifteen minutes into the movie we realize it’s a real stinker. There was no way we were going to enjoy the movie.
“I’m really retiring for the night and going up stairs to bed,” Gail submits, choosing to fall asleep to a 1950’s Turner Classic Movie instead of enduring more pain with me and this stinker in the living room.
“Not me, we paid $6.99 for this move, I don’t want to waste it,” exclaims yours truly.
Really? How about this example?:
Ron leaves home to walk to convenience store eight blocks away to pick up some aspirin. Six blocks into the walk his wife calls his cell phone to tell him that she just called the convenience store and it’s closed. Does Ron think, “Well, I invested six blocks in this errand, I might as well continue, because I don’t want to waste the six blocks I already invested? Probably not.
These two examples may help us understand the principal of sunken cost. A sunken cost is an investment that is unrecoverable. Sunken costs should not be taken into account in an investment decision, only prospective (future) costs should be weighed.
Traditional economics proposes that decision makers should not let sunken costs influence their decisions. Doing so would not be rationally assessing a decision exclusively on its own merits.
“I’m here watching this movie, is my time better spent reading or watching the movie?” The cost will be an investment of time of the next minutes. Not the $6.99 that is already gone.
Human behavior, however, often takes into account past investment in decisions. I deal with many folks looking to retirement and working on their retirement plan, but too many of these want to be retiree’s look back and not forward. Many times I hear, “But I have so much invested in this already!” often disregarding opportunity costs versus the cost of “hanging on”.
Let me use a real estate example. The Lennon’s retired to Cape Coral in 2006 for and bought their dream retirement home for $320,000. They put up $70,000 cash and after the short time they have owned it, the balance on their mortgage is now $230,000. A BPO ( Broker Price Opinion) that they have their Realtor do tells them that the market value on their home is $225,000. They can buy a brand new home today, sammler and nearer to all the retirement activities the couple enjoys, with the energy efficiency they want in a retirement home, for $225,000. The mortgage rate on their existing home is 7% and they qualify for a 4% mortgage for the new home; but would have to write a check at closing (or short sale their home).
Here is a very key point: What they paid for their existing home has absolutely no bearing on its value. A rational decision would be to evaluate the cost of the move based on future costs: the down payment and mortgage to buy the new retirement home plus the cost of the shortage on their existing by functionally obsolete retirement home; against the gain of a newer more efficient retirement home that is where they want it to be.
They should not count the $70,000 already sunken into the old retirement home, the payments they made the last 7 years, (are sunk, gone, and nowhere to be recovered), but they should concentrate on the future cost to them; the future mortgage payments, the lower energy bills, and the lower cost of maintenance are what should be important to the Lennon family, not what they have sunken into their old retirement house.
What you pay for an investment has zero influence on what it is worth. If you inherited a building, you would not ask less for it because of your low cost, why would you expect someone to pay more just because you overpaid?
There are two other factors in Sunken Cost that are interesting. The first is called Overly Optimistic Probability Bias. Once a person has invested time or money in something, they may have an unrealistic opinion of its worth or chance for success. Just ask someone that just bought a lottery ticket if they will buy another one, “no thanks” they offer; they have become confident of their own ticket winning.
Top real estate agents see “over optimistic probability” almost every time we talk to an owner about selling his house for him.
This phenomenon is also called The Endowment Effect. The person demands more to give up an object then they would be willing to pay to acquire it. Sound familiar?
The second factor in play in the Sunken Cost theory is the Personal Responsibility Requisite.
I was the one that wanted that movie mentioned above that was a stinker, darn if I was going to give up! In real estate the personal responsibility factor has more facets – like personally guaranteeing on a loan – a promise was made – and ethical and moral and indeed legal issue arise.
We see personal responsibility factor in a business. For example: a manager that championed a project that now has become a dead end is blinded by the personal responsibility requisite. It was his baby, after all, and he winds up fighting for funding that will not come because more rational minds are above him making decisions on future cost/value analysis.
In looking for your retirement home of for investment real estate, I have advised looking at alternatives when making a decision, and the purpose of this article is to emphasize that alternatives to holding onto a property should not be influenced by dollars and time already sunk, but only future cost/value issues.
Don’t hold onto property at the cost of moving forward and having more enjoyment of a higher return because of a past investment. In many instances a new home or newer building and the fresh start of an appreciation curve, will be a wiser decision than sticking with a property because of a sunken investment or a misguided desire to punish yourself for making that over investment in the past.