Rent or Buy?

June 8, 2011 by Lawrence Yun, Chief Economist & Senior Vice President, Research

The cliché says that there has never been a better time to buy. The hard data in the housing affordability index confirms that. The affordability index, which takes into account median income, median home price, and mortgage rates, has been bouncing around in the 180 to 200 range since the beginning of this year – the highest reading since the index was first used in 1971.

Yet, you still encounter consumers hesitant about taking advantage of possibly the greatest home buying opportunity of a lifetime. Should they buy now or not?

Let’s consider the situation in which a family earns $60,000, which is about the national average. They are renting at $1000 per month. They are considering buying a home that requires them to take out a mortgage of $170,000, which would be fairly close to the current national median home price.

At the current rate of 4.8 percent on a 30-year fixed rate mortgage, the monthly mortgage payment would be …(drum roll) … $891 per month. That’s not all. A measurable portion of the monthly mortgage payment is actually goes towards principal reduction on the loan balance. For example, in the first year about $215 of the mortgage is for the principal payment, which in essence is a forced-disciplined savings imposed on the home buyer. The remainder $676 ($891 minus $215) is the pure interest payment to the bank. So the $676 monthly mortgage interest payment looks a lot sweeter than the $1000 in rent that was being shoveled out the door. With each passing year, the principal portion gets larger while the interest portion declines because of a steadily falling loan balance.

That’s still not all. A fixed rate mortgage means the monthly payment is fixed and will not rise for the term of the mortgage. In this example, a person theoretically could be paying $891 in mortgage in the year 2041. What would be the cost of living at that time? Food price? Gasoline price? Also rent?

If rent was to rise by 3 percent a year, starting with the base $1000, the monthly rent will be $1344 in 10 years, $1806 in 20 years, and $2427 in 30 years. If rent was to rise by 5 percent, then it goes to $1628 in 10 years, $2526 in 20 years, and $4321 in 30 years. If monetary policy were to get of control, with too much money printing and inflation rose by 10 percent per year, then the rent becomes $2593 in 10 years, $6727 in 20 years, and $17,444 per month in 30 years. Many economists are expecting 3% to 5% annual rent growth over the next two years based on recent falling trends in apartment vacancy rates.

When rents rise, there is also a tendency for home prices to rise. Fundamentally, rent and home price would rise roughly in lock step – provided that home values do not contain bubbles and are back in line with their historical relationship to rents. The chart below shows the rent (based on rental rent component of the consumer price index) and NAR median home price trend with the index set at 100 in 1980. Well, today, home price and rent ratio are pretty much back to historically justifiable levels. So it is reasonable to presume that any rent increase will also at some point lead to equal gains in home values.

If home values were to rise 5 percent (under rent growth assumption of the same) then the home value would rise to $178,500, translating into a gain of $8,500 in housing equity in the first year. Subsequent cumulative gains over several years would be sizable, if the yearly 5 percent increases could be sustained. Nationally the annual average home price increases have been at around 4 to 6 percent each year. Even if by some strange event home value was not to increase one cent over the next 30 years, the home would be owned free-and-clear by the 30th year. (Or much sooner if the family makes additional principal payments)

One always has to mindful that all real estate is local. One cannot simply pick up a home from Detroit and plop it down in San Francisco to get a fast price appreciation. Therefore local conditions, figures, rent growth projections, and analysis will significantly vary.

Moreover, homeownership cost entails not only mortgage, but the additional costs in terms of property taxes, insurance, and money needed for maintenance and remodeling, though there are cost savings such as the mortgage interest deduction and property tax deduction for tax purposes that were not considered.

What is most important from my perspective is whether the family likes the home they are about to purchase and whether the family is willing to stay well within their budget. If these two criteria are met, then now may indeed be a good time to consider buying.

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