SmartMoney Blogs

Real-Time Advice
Our real-time advice on how market shifts and news impact you and your money

The Case for Remaining a Renter


The combination of super-low house prices and rising rents might raise the appeal of home ownership for some. But economists say there’s a strong case to be made for remaining a renter.

Real estate agent surveys suggest low prices are encouraging first-time homebuyers to take the plunge, the Wall Street Journal reports. Average apartment rents increased 2.7% in 2011 while the national vacancy rate dropped below 5% for the first time since 2001, according to a quarterly survey by real estate firm Reis. But some analysts remain skeptical. For many, they say it may never make sense to buy.

The U.S. government has long encouraged home ownership through tax breaks and other incentives. Prior to the housing bust, this led a generation of young Americans to invest their life savings in property, says Sheldon Garon, a professor of history at Princeton University and author of “Beyond Our Means: Why America Spends While the World Saves.” In other prosperous countries, renting is more often the norm, he says. “Americans should beware of the hype that they’ll get huge tax breaks for owning a home,” he says. Two-thirds of taxpayers don’t itemize deductions on their annual income tax returns “and, thus, benefit in no way from the vaunted mortgage deduction,” he says.

Would-be homeowners also may not want the added expense that comes with maintaining a house. As long as renters avoid real estate brokers – who can charge up to 17% in cities like New York – they only need a damage deposit, says Mark J. Perry, professor of economics at University of Michigan-Flint. Most banks require 10% to 20% of a home price for a down payment, and that doesn’t include legal fees, maintenance and plumbing repairs down the road. “Many people don’t have the credit to buy a house, but do have adequate credit for renting,” Perry says. But Pete D’Arruda, founder and president of Capital Financial Advisory Group in Cary, NC., says low prices are a big incentive for people to build their credit score.

There are, of course, plenty of reasons to want to own real estate. For one, D’Arruda says, mortgage interest is tax deductible. “Turn the tables on banks and lock them into a rate of below 4% for 30 years,” he says. “That’s a great protection against inflation. Does that mean house prices won’t go down again? Probably not, but it’s better to buy a low point.”

However, as the job market shows only tentative signs of recovery, financial advisers say there is still a big need for people to move for work. “Renting helps with that mobility,” says David Abuaf, chief investment officer at Hefty Wealth Partners in Auburn, Ind. “If you own a home, picking up and moving is a much more involved and expensive process.” Corbett says people who need to move because of a new job usually need to do so within 30 days. “Renting gives you that luxury and also protects you from having to sell a home that may not be valued at the price you paid,” he says. With prices still weak, he says homeowners will have to wait a long time for a return on their investment: “Renting will save you from incurring thousands of dollars of closing costs on selling.”

With 30-year mortgages and flat house prices, the accumulation of home equity happens slowly, so the historical advantage of ownership may no longer applies, Perry says. “The S&P 500 is up by about 12% so far this year, offering a much better return than home prices,” he says.


We welcome thoughtful comments from readers. Please comply with our guidelines. Our blogs do not require the use of your real name.

Comments (5 of 33)

View all Comments »
    • I have been exploring for a bit for any high quality articles or weblog posts in this sort of space . Exploring in Yahoo I ultimately stumbled upon this website. Reading this information So iЎ¦m glad to express that I’ve a very excellent uncanny feeling I discovered exactly what I needed. I most definitely will make sure to donЎ¦t fail to remember this website and provides it a look on a constant basis.

    • I have been reading out some of your stories and i can state pretty clever stuff. I will surely bookmark your website.

    • Personal preferences dictate whether renting or owning is better. Where folks have gone consistently wrong is letting their desire to own (perhaps abetted by a belief that renting is a sucker’s bet) get the better of them, when from a purely financial standpoint, they’d better off renting.

      My thoughts on owning are as follows:

      1. Owning requires a stable income that can be used to pay the TOTAL cost of ownership. Note that I said stable INCOME and not stable JOB. Witness what has happened to a lot of people with so-called good, stable jobs like government workers. Many of these people found themselves pink-slipped, or with falling earnings in the face of rising expenses. A good job alone no longer cuts in this day and age when pursuing home ownership.

      2. Owning also requires you to look at the total package, which many people consistently fail to do. I have always said that when given a choice to buy a house or buy into a neighborhood, always choose neighborhood over house. A bad house in a good neighborhood- one featuring good services, infrastructure, schools, shopping and most of all, residents with high disposable incomes- has the potential to be improved and retain its value. Going the other way- buying a the best house in a bad neighborhood- only leads to headaches and heartaches. You have control over the turnaround of a house; you have little or no control over the larger neighborhood. That said, it’s often easier to buy into a great neighborhood vicariously as a renter than it is to own in the same neighborhood. Plus, in the age of mobility, should the neighborhood turn to —t, it is much easier to pull up stakes as a renter than it is to do so as an owner. Those that pursue ownership should know well in advance that even so-called ‘good neighborhoods’ endure periods where home values decline; however, values tend to decline less than for the larger regional market.

      3. Ownership requires you focus on what you really need, now and in the future, versus chasing that trophy property that you really want. It might make better sense to purchase a property with room for expansion, allowing you to ‘age in place’ if necessary (something that has come to pass for many homeowners), than to chase properties that have all those lovely features- granite counter-tops, stainless steel appliances, brass faucets and Italian porcelain tile- which in turn fall apart in very short order. Besides, recent experience has demonstrated that folks pay through the nose, often with “creative” financing for these albatrosses, only to end up having to look to the government or rather, the taxpayer, for a bailout.

      A good rule of thumb is to pursue ownership in the manner most appealing to you when you have the means to pay for it with a dedicated income stream. Otherwise, you’re better off renting.

    • Rob. To each his own. I assure you, I know math and have a lot better understanding of the financial world then the drones that blindly follow Dave Ramseyn (ie…YOU).

      Pay your house off and then, when an emergency comes up and you need money, the bank won’t let you have your money back…Who is “dumb dumb dumb” now smart guy?

      I interview potential clients before even sitting down with them and I can assure you, I would never accept you as a client.

About Real-Time Advice

  • How breaking news — in the markets, Washington, and around the world — affects you and your money. Have a question about how current events may change your financial future? Email us at ask@smartmoney.com.