Real Estate

Buy versus rent: Breaking down the pros and cons

No place like home

It appears Americans' confidence in the housing market is on the rebound. More than two-thirds polled by Fannie Mae said they think it's a good time to buy a home, while only one in four said they would rent.

Historically low mortgage rates should make buying attractive. But while borrowing costs are low, relatively few are taking the plunge. The National Association of Realtors found in August that total existing home sales remain more than 5 percent below the 5.33 million-unit level from the same period last year.

Many people may be uncertain whether they'd qualify for a mortgage—after all, even former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke said he was turned down when he tried to refinance recently—or unsure if they can afford it.

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Wondering whether you should buy now? If you meet these three criteria, you may be ready.

1. You plan to stay in the home at least five years. You often need at least that much time to recover closing costs associated with a home purchase. If you need to maintain flexibility for a better paying job, or to jump start your career and can't stay put, then you should rent.

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2. You'll spend less than 30 percent of your monthly gross income on housing expenses. Traditionally, lenders have used two debt-to-income ratios to determine whether you are a worthy borrower. One formula looks at housing expenses. Lenders figure your monthly mortgage payment (principal and interest), homeowners insurance, and property taxes should be no more than 28 percent of your gross monthly income.

The second formula considers your total debt obligations: mortgage payments, student loans, credit card bills, car loans and other oblligations. Earlier this year, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau adopted a new "ability to repay" rule for lenders to use that sets the total debt-to-income ratio at 43 percent.

That's the formula that banks will use, but housing and credit counselors usually advise sticking to the more stringent formula in their own assessment of affordability.

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3. Your after-tax mortgage payment is roughly equal to your rent. Primary housing expenses (your mortgage, real estate taxes, and homeowners insurance) may be greater than your current rent. But you should calculate the "after-tax" mortgage payment for a more accurate comparison to the rent you are currently paying.

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Mortgage interest and property taxes are tax deductible if you itemize on your federal return. However, keep in mind, if you have to pay the alternative minimum tax (AMT), you can't take itemized deductions for real estate taxes. Also, the rules for deducting mortgage interest are more restrictive for AMT than for regular tax.

If you aren't sure how long you'll stay put or you think the monthly payments on the homes your eyeing will be more than your rent or 30 percent of your monthly (pre-tax) income, keep renting.