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… just paying the rent

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legal warning: The information here should not be understood legally as financial advice. If you believe anything on this site is in error, please contact me. I am always open to corrections, new ideas, and new opinions...

I was recently considering the pros and cons of buying and renting when I saw that Getting Rich Slowly, one of my favorite blogs wrote about the subject.  Here are some highlights:

“The housing industry is huge, and it spends a lot of time propagating certain myths about homeownership, myths like:

  • If you rent, you’re throwing your money away.
  • Owning your home is a forced savings plan.
  • Home ownership is a path to wealth.

In an editorial in the June 2007 issue of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, Knight Kiplinger wrote, “It often costs less to rent. The annual cost of owning a property, be it a house or a condo, is usually greater than the cost of renting, after taxes.” And there are other advantages to renting.

For one, you have flexibility; you can move at a moment’s notice. For another, you’re not responsible when things go wrong. If the shower starts leaking before you leave for your vacation in Duluth, you don’t have to worry about it — you call in the landlord.

Renting by the numbers
One way to tell whether it’s better to rent or buy is by checking out the price-to-rent ratio (or P/R ratio). This number gives you a rough idea whether homes in your area are fairly priced. Figuring a P/R ratio isn’t too tough. All you need to do is:

  1. Find two similar houses (or condos or apartments), one for sale and one for rent.
  2. Divide the sale price of the one place by the annual rent for the other. The resulting number is the P/R ratio.

For example, say you find a $200,000 house for sale in a nice neighborhood. You find a similar house on the next block for rent for $1,000 per month (which works out to $12,000 per year). Dividing $200,000 by $12,000, you get a P/R ratio of 16.7.

But what does this number mean? Writing in The New York Times, David Leonhardt says, “A rent ratio above 20 means that the monthly costs of ownership will exceed the cost of renting.” That’s \a little opaque, but what Leonhardt means is that the higher the P/R ratio, the more it makes sense to rent — and the less it makes sense to buy.

During the housing bubble, the national P/R ratio came close to 20 (and went far above that in some cities). In other words, you could rent a $200,000 house for $10,000 a year (or just over $800 per month), which is a pretty good deal.

Another way to gauge the cost of housing is to compare it to your family’s income. From 1984 to 2000, median home prices were about 2.8 times the median yearly family income. (In other words, the typical house cost about three times what a family earned in a year.) During the early 1970s, home prices were about 2.3 times median family income. During the housing bubble, this ratio jumped to 4.2.

These numbers may not mean a whole lot on their own, but they can give you some sort of idea whether housing is overpriced in your area. Plus, it seems safe to assume based on past figures that most families can comfortably afford a home that costs about 2.5x their annual income. (So, if your family makes $80,000 a year, you can afford our theoretical $200,000 house.)

Note: I’ve shared it before, and I’ll share it again: The New York Times has a great rent vs. buy calculator that can help you decide which is best for you. Just plug in the numbers for your situation, and the calculator tells you how long it would take you to break even if you bought a house.”

What do you think?


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