At the Official Data Watering Holes
People tend to think an official stat is the answer. But is it? Is it accurate? Tainted by politics? Is the unofficial better?
March 25, 2016
Jeffery J. Smith

This article is part of a series by Jeffery J. Smith on the surplus—also known as “economic rent”—that exists in the economy. Currently, this surplus is hoarded; yet once shared, this surplus could generate undreamed of possibilities for the entire human population. To see the entire series, visit

Let’s drill down a little deeper. The authors of the popular articles (in normal English) based their claims about how much all American land is worth on the conclusions in the academic articles (in professional jargon). Those academics focused mostly on land beneath homes and devoted pages of formula to torture the raw data into totals that might reflect reality. They crunched their numbers in various ivory towers. We might glean other interesting tidbits re the worth of Earth by visiting their workplaces.

My list of entities to query has like 80 names on it. Given that phone numbers change and the person who answers typically transfers the caller to someone who may know the answer or transfer you yet again, that’d total well over 100 calls. I decided to rely on the new custom of email.

Who Got Queried

I asked all the departments of real estate in all the universities in the US (that I could find) for a figure on land value. Some are in the Ivy League, some are in business schools. I contacted all five dozen of them. So far, nothing of use to report.

Some think tanks that think about ground rent are around Boston (America’s college central)—the National Bureau of Economic Research and the Lincoln Institute—and in Washington DC—the Urban Land Institute, the Brookings Institute, the Tax Foundation, and the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

  • NBER, the granddaddy of them all, had scholarly attempts at totaling the worth of American land going back over a half century, but nothing current.
  • OTOH, the Lincoln Institute updates their database every quarter with the output from three deeper sources, one private, two public.
  • The Tax Foundation had lots of links to deeper sources.
  • CEPR, the young upstart, greets one with a site that looked the best.

Most of the federal agencies, of course, are in the nation’s capital. There is no service, office, department, bureau, board, or administration for private land or for tracking land rent. But there are several for what we put on top of land—houses.

Top 10 Answer-Agencies

1, Housing and Urban Development: Whereas the other federal agencies focus on houses, HUD focuses on apartment buildings. The upside of the that is that they give an annual figure—the building rent—but the downside is their numbers come from apartment owners merely filling in a survey. In 2012, HUD looked at 2 million properties (the National Apartment Association says there were 2.3 million back then). HUD found rental receipts to average over $100k, a total of $200b. Apartment sites would probably be $100b annually. BTW, the average selling price of a complex was a bit over $1 million, giving a ratio of price to rent of 10 to 1. The owners’ property tax was under 1.5%. The land half of that gets added to site rent, too.

2, Federal Housing Administration: Part of HUD, if the FHA has any unique data, they bury it somewhere.

3, Federal Housing Finance Agency: The FHFA have great, recent averages but no totals!

4, Freddie Mac: Like the FHFA, they too have great looking tables but no totals. At least they have an easy-to-use “ask us” form. We’ll see.

5, Fannie Mae: No tables, no current data, no easy contact. But they were kind enough to ask me to call. They told me that they don't even have the total for the land (and buildings) that they own! (Your tax dollars at nap.)

Non-Housing Agencies

The US Department of Commerce has three relevant bureaus:

6, Bureau of Economic Analysis: Americans’ spending by the end of 2015 (Table 2.3.5. Personal Consumption Expenditures by Major Type of Product) rose to over $12 trillion. About $2.2t was housing and utilities. That was the flow.

That number $2.2t is also what the BEA gives in its GDP breakdown for real estate in 2014, albeit a year earlier: $2.2t.

For the housing stock (Table 1.1. Current-Cost Net Stock of Fixed Assets and Consumer Durable Goods), for Residences and Structures the BEA gives a total price of $42 trillion.

7, Bureau of Labor Statistics: The BLS figures a “consumer unit” spends $54k annually and 1/3 of their outlay, $18k, on housing. The BLS number of CUs is a bit under 130 million. That times the average spending equals $7t—far off from the BEA’s $12t (#6 above). A third of $7t is $2.3t. That number is close to BEA’s GDP figure for residences above, $2.2t.

8, Census Bureau: They have all sorts of household data; how could they not have the number for household spending on housing? Somebody needs to shake some sense into them. On the plus side, their American Community Survey for 2010-2014 in their 5-yr profiles puts the total housing price at $23.3t.

Their State and Local Government Finances by Level of Government and by State: 2013 figured the property tax raised about $450 billion. If the average rate is 1.5%, then the assessed value of all buildings—not just homes—is $34.2t, under the BEA’s $42t. However at their Quarterly Summary of State and Local Government Tax Revenue for 2015: Q4, they say property tax revenue is only $200 billion. So property itself would be only $15 trillion—nowhere near correct.

The above are the eight federal agencies that deal with residential costs. There is a ninth organization that is not exactly a part of the government nor is it apart from the government. It’s in a limbo land—like NBER, which receives federal money and supplies government with many of its bureaucrats, both low- and high- level. I refer to the self-christened …

9, Federal Reserve: It’s a private corporation but at the same time was given Congress’ duty to regulate and issue new money (pretty tight, eh?). They keep a Flow of Funds which, despite its name, does not give a clear number for funds flowing out of households, into housing. While somebody shakes sense into Census, please don’t leave out the Feds.

Leaving flow for stock, their B.101 Balance Sheet of Households and Nonprofit Organizations (1) with a line for residence gives $25.3t at 2015 Q4, well under both the $42t (#6) and $34t above (#8), but close to #10 below.

In sum, those nine agencies, with different sources and different definitions, create tables nearly impenetrable—the old priesthood syndrome—and largely irrelevant, unless minutiae is your thing. They yield conflicting lump sums—from $25.3t to $42t! With such variance, those are not useful numbers. Nor are they good for the disposition of jargon-weary interlopers. It's shocking; this is the best the most powerful and most responsible public agencies can do? Those official number-crunchers might live off public money but they write and format for each other, like school kids sending notes in code to each other during class. How can they take our money for such a performance? The public needs to know and should demand better.

Unofficial Answers—More Accurate?

Let’s see if the private companies fare any better. They might have more incentive to nail down the data exactly. Investors like to know true yields. And, unlike officials, they have to be user-friendly. Or they go broke.

10, Zillow: I could not find the answer at the National Association of Realtors, the long-standing go-to group, and at CoStar, which a lot of researchers use, they charge users. But I did get a stat at the site of the new kid on the block. Their website—out of all the university, government, and realtor sites—was by far the prettiest and easiest to use. Zillow:  $27.3 trillion at the end of 2014. If their stat is accurate, by now the price tag for all housing could be up to $28t.

From that, figure out how much is the home-site rental value. Say the location constitutes half the total price; divide by two. Use the ratio for multi-family of 10:1 (#1 above). Then the annual rent for home-sites is $1.4t. Not much, but we still have a lot of ground (pun intended) to cover.

Lots More Land to Look at

Humans don’t just put houses on land. We also use land to erect other buildings, to farm, to graze, to log, to mine, to drill, etc. Plus we use other forms of “economic land”: water and airwaves. And land is not just acreage owned by individuals or households or families but also by nonprofits and for-profit businesses and corporations, plus governments.

When you look into the above tables for residential values, you see other big household expenses after housing (the biggest). There are: food (from farmland), utilities (delivering oil and water), transportation (consuming fuel and metals), taxes (on land), medical (nearly free patents), and entertainment (free copyrights). All those expenditures have portions that contribute to the total worth of Earth in America.

Wait, you’ll see.

This article is part of a series by Jeffery J. Smith on the surplus—also known as “economic rent”—that exists in the economy. Currently, this surplus is hoarded; yet once shared, this surplus could generate undreamed of possibilities for the entire human population. To see the entire series, visit

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Jeffery J. Smith

JEFFERY J. SMITH published The Geonomist, which won a California GreenLight Award, has appeared in both the popular press (e.g.,TruthOut) and academic journals (e.g., USC's “Planning and Markets”), been interviewed on radio and TV, lobbied officials, testified before the Russian Duma, conducted research (e.g., for Portland's mass transit agency), and recruited activists and academics to A member of the International Society for Ecological Economics and of Mensa, he lives in Mexico. Jeffery formerly was Chief Editor at