Should Housing Data Affect Your Stance on Homeownership?

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The media is abuzz with analysis of the latest housing data. Many outlets are running with the “housing tanks” headline, Slate pondered the benefits of renting’s increasing popularity, and our own bleary-eyed real estate guru Ali Rogers was up all night trying to poke holes in the data.

But here’s my question: If home prices continue to fall — and the days of steady, predictable appreciation are gone at least for the next few years — does that mean that owning a home isn’t such a good idea?

The answer, I think, is a resounding no. A few reasons:

  • Unless the home you’re buying now is the last home you will ever own, the costs and benefits of rising real estate values actually wipe each other out. Think about it: Most people buy a starter home and then trade up, and then maybe trade up again before downsizing later in life. If you’re in one of the early stages of what the Brits call the property ladder, all that housing appreciation means is that you’ll sell your current house for more — and pay proportionally more for the home you’re upgrading to. It’s a wash.
  • For the first time in a long time, the combination of falling home prices and low interests means that, in many markets, owning a home with a mortgage will actually cost you less per month than renting. In January, Inman News reported that it was now cheaper to own than rent in 72% of the 50 largest cities in the United States. And here’s the best part: The more out of fashion homeownership gets, the more sense it makes. As home values fall, rental rates are rising. Bloomberg reports, “For all the attention given to almost $4-a-gallon gas, the biggest threat to containing U.S. inflation may be the shift away from homeownership, which is pushing up the cost of leases across the nation’s 38 million rented residences.”
  • Homeownership has numerous psychic benefits. As Ron Lieber commented in The New York Times, it’s often easier to secure housing in a town with good public schools through owning; renter-heavy communities tend to have lower-quality public schools. Warren Buffett himself called his own home the third best investment he ever made, trailing only his wedding rings: “For the $31,500 I paid for our house, my family and I gained 52 years of terrific memories with more to come,” he wrote in Berkshire Hathaway’s shareholder letter earlier this year.
  • Finally, and maybe most importantly, the biggest financial benefits from homeownership, historically, have not come from appreciation. Rather, they’ve come from the forced saving aspect of mortgage amortization, and from the huge amount of money saved on rent over the long-term: While rental rates increase over time, buying a home with a fixed-rate mortgage locks in a huge chunk of your monthly housing expense. An excellent book on this is 2008′s Houseonomics: Why Owning a Home Is Still a Great Investment, which failed to register much of a sales impact because of its poor timing.

The bottom line is this: It’s really tempting to look at the headlines and follow the ever-increasing percentage of Americans who are opting out of homeownership. In fact, it’s just as tempting as it was to look at the headlines about soaring prices six years ago and jump on the bandwagon with a no-doc pay option ARM.

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