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As Home Prices Drop, a Committed Renter Decides to Buy

For the last few years, I have been an evangelist for renting.

I’ve told my sister-in-law and her husband that they would be crazy to abandon their reasonably priced one-bedroom rental in Brooklyn. When two of my colleagues were moving to Los Angeles, I e-mailed them a spreadsheet that helped persuade them not to buy a house there. That same spreadsheet was the basis for an article in 2005, when I argued that “renting has become a surprisingly smart option.” Last spring — like any good evangelist, comfortable with repetition — I wrote a similar article.

The case for renting has been simple enough. House prices rose so high in the first half of this decade that you could often get more for your money by renting. You could also avoid having a large part of your net worth tied up in a speculative bubble.

All this time, I have been a renter myself, first in the New York suburbs and then in Manhattan. But my wife and I will be moving to Washington this summer. And the housing market has, obviously, changed quite a bit since our last move, in 2005. Nationwide, prices fell 14.1 percent from early 2007 to early this year, as Standard & Poor’s reported Tuesday. Home prices almost certainly still have a way to fall, but they’re now well below their peak.

So my wife and I began our search with open minds, willing to consider renting or buying. We ended our search by signing a contract to buy a house.

This is the story of my conversion.

One of the big lies of the real estate business is the idea that renting a home is tantamount to throwing money away. It’s a useful fiction for real estate agents, because they make vastly bigger commissions on house sales than rentals. But the comparison isn’t nearly so straightforward for the rest of us.

Renting involves one obvious, recurring cost that can never be recouped: the monthly rent check. Buying, on the other hand, involves multiple expenses, some of which aren’t so obvious. On top of closing costs, there are repairs, property taxes, mortgage principal and mortgage interest. (The mortgage-interest tax deduction reduces this last cost but doesn’t eliminate it.) When you own, you also lose the ability to invest your down payment elsewhere, like the stock market.

Of course, owning also brings benefits that have nothing to do with money. You can settle into your home, confident that no landlord will kick you out. You can repaint the walls and redo the kitchen. All else being equal, owning seems far preferable to renting.

Knowing all this, my wife and I were willing to buy a house even if it was ultimately going to cost us a bit more than renting. We just weren’t willing to have it cost a lot more than renting.

Over the last several years, I’ve come to like a simple, back-of-the-envelope way to compare the costs of renting and owning. You find two similar houses, one for sale and the other for rent, and divide the sale price by the annual rent. You can call the result the rent ratio.

The concept will probably sound familiar to stock market investors. It’s the real estate market’s version of a price-earnings ratio — a measure of how expensive an asset is, relative to the underlying economic fundamentals. Like a P/E ratio, the rent ratio provides something of a reality check.

Throughout the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, the average rent ratio nationwide hovered between 10 and 14. In the last few years, though, it broke through that historical range and hit almost 19 by the time the housing market peaked, in 2006.

And while home prices — and rent ratios — have always been higher on the coasts, they reached whole new levels recently. In the Washington area, the ratio went above 20. In Boston, New York, Los Angeles and south Florida, it topped 25. In Northern California, it approached 35, higher than it had been in any city, at any point on record.

In concrete terms, a rent ratio above 20 means that the monthly costs of ownership well exceed the cost of renting. At current mortgage rates, for example, a $500,000 house would typically bring monthly expenses of about $3,000 (taking into account taxes, repairs, a typical down payment and, yes, the mortgage deduction). When the rent ratio is 20, that same house could be rented for only about $2,000 a month.

A house is more than just an investment

There are two problems with buying a house in this situation. The first, plainly, is the extra $1,000 you’re paying each month for the privilege of owning, on top of the thousands of dollars you spent on closing costs. The second problem is that a rent ratio above 20 is a good indication of a bubble. When the prices of houses get out of line with the competition’s prices — that is, those in the rental market — a correction is coming.

The question facing my wife and me was whether we were entering the market before the correction had gone far enough. I really didn’t know what the answer would be. So as we looked at houses, I started calculating rent ratios.

In the neighborhoods where we were looking, two-bedroom condominiums were selling for $400,000 and being rented for about $2,100 a month, which makes for a rent ratio of 16. Four-bedroom houses were selling for $700,000 and being rented for almost $4,000, which makes for a rent ratio of 15. No matter the price range, pretty much every apples-to-apples comparison produced a similar ratio.

Historically, this is still a bit high. But it’s very different from where the market was just a couple of years ago. With house prices having fallen over the last two years and rents continuing to rise, the decision became a much closer call. We would now have to spend only a little more each month for the privilege of owning.

This month, we found a house that we really liked, and we made an offer. It was accepted.

I’m still not sure how good our timing was. Based on the backlog of houses on the market, I fully expect that our new house will be worth less in six months than it is today. I’m also not sure that we would have been willing to buy in Boston, New York or much of California, where the rent ratios remain above 20, according to data from Moody’s Economy.com.

In fact, if you’re now renting — almost anywhere — and do not need to move, I’d probably recommend that you wait to buy. The market is still coming your way.

But it’s O.K. with me if our timing wasn’t perfect. After several years of reporting on the housing market, I’m convinced that the most common real estate mistake is viewing a house first as a financial investment and only second as a home. That’s one big reason we ended up in this bubble-induced mess.

Most of the time, the decision whether to rent or buy should be based above all on life circumstances. Do you expect to move again in a couple years? Or is there a good chance that you’re ready to settle in — and stop worrying about real estate for a while?

The housing bubble, unfortunately, forced a reconsideration of this standard, because houses became so overvalued. But they’re slowly coming back to reality, which means that buying has again started to make sense for more people. Apparently, I’m one of them.

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