The same week legendary investor Warren Buffett put his California vacation house on the market, a friend told me her widowed mother had sold the family home in Cleveland.

Buffett bought his Laguna Beach place in 1971 for $150,000 and is asking $11 million. My friend’s parents bought their home for $24,500 in 1965 and just sold it for $104,000. Put another way: If Buffett gets his asking price, his house will have appreciated at an annual rate of 9.79 percent. The Cleveland house eked out a 2.82 percent annual return.

Neither buyer could have predicted what their homes would be worth now. One could score a healthy return, while the other didn’t even keep up with inflation. (If she had, her home would have been worth about $190,000.)

Homes are a big part of most Americans’ net worth. But whether a home purchase pays off huge, or pays off at all, is largely a function of geography. It’s a kind of wealth inequality that doesn’t get much attention but can have big consequences for your finances.

It means some people hit the real estate lottery, blessed with gobs of equity they can tap for spending or bailing themselves out in retirement even if they haven’t saved enough. Others can do everything right —buying homes they can afford and diligently paying down their mortgages—but have far less to show for their efforts.

The solution isn’t necessarily to buy into hot markets, since predicting which markets will outperform in the long run is pretty much impossible, says David Blitzer, managing director at S&P Dow Jones Indices, which publishes the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller Home Price Indices.

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