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.