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What to consider when deciding whether to rent or buy a home

Making the leap from renter to homeowner isn’t as simple as deciding your rent is too high. You need to weigh the pros and cons of homeownership in the context of your finances and your future.
Making the leap from renter to homeowner isn’t as simple as deciding your rent is too high. You need to weigh the pros and cons of homeownership in the context of your finances and your future. (stephanie wunderlich)
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With months left on the lease for her two-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of Charleston, S.C., Amanda Nadel, 34, started weighing her options.

She could keep paying $1,200 a month in rent, but that would leave her with little money to care for her 11-year-old daughter. They could move into a less-expensive rental, but the only ones she found were one-bedroom apartments — not nearly enough space.

As a single mother, Nadel said she never thought she could afford to purchase a home. But after carefully reviewing her finances with the help of a housing counselor, she realized that ownership was within reach. But was it the right time?

Deciding whether to rent or buy a home requires soul-searching. Not only is homeownership one of the biggest financial investments most adults will make, but it also can be a major lifestyle adjustment.

Owning a home can tie up a lot of your money and limit your flexibility to move. On the flip side, you don’t have to worry about rent hikes, your home can increase in value, and you can take advantage of tax benefits.

“There are a lot of questions you have to ask yourself before making a decision,” said Kelly Lannan, director of the women and young investors program at Fidelity Investments. “Are you financially ready? What do you want out of a home? How long are you planning on living there?”

To buy or to rent: The decision requires care and planning

If nothing else, exploring homeownership can be a financial checkup, an opportunity to assess your income, credit, savings and debt, Lannan said. Banks look at those factors when determining whether you qualify for a mortgage.

Plenty of online calculators let you plug in your finances, current rent and intended length of stay to figure out whether you should stay put in your apartment.

It’s important to know how long you plan on staying in the area. When buying and selling a home, the fees — including appraisal, inspection and mortgage origination — can add a few thousand dollars to the price. The longer you remain in the house, the better your chances of your home’s value appreciating enough to offset those costs.

According to Trulia, homeownership is less expensive than renting in the 100 largest metropolitan areas — assuming you stay in your home for seven years, can afford to put 20 percent of the purchase price down and secure a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage.

Nadel did not have a lot of money to put down, but she qualified for assistance on her down payment and closing costs through the state. But does the financial advantage of owning still hold up without a 20 percent down payment?

“In most places, even if you put 10 percent down or 5 percent down, it still is going to be a better deal to buy,” said Ralph McLaughlin, chief economist at Trulia. “Even if you have to pay private mortgage insurance and even if your interest rate is higher, the equity you gain from paying down principal and appreciating house prices means that at the end of seven years, you come out ahead.”

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That calculation doesn’t hold up, he said, if you are buying in an expensive market such as San Francisco, where it’s only slightly cheaper to buy with 20 percent down.

As mortgage rates creep up and rent prices plateau in some markets, the financial advantages of buying can change. But McLaughlin said mortgage rates would have to soar to 8.3 percent before it becomes as costly to buy as it is to rent. If you live in San Jose, San Francisco or Honolulu, mortgage rates have to be between 4.6 percent and 6.8 percent for the cost of buying to equal the cost of renting.

Nadel found a three-bedroom, three-bathroom townhouse where her mortgage is almost $500 less than her old rent. Because her home was recently built, Nadel said it’s energy efficient, and her utility bills are less expensive as a result.

“My daughter was able to stay in the same school. We have more space for less money,” Nadel said. “The moment I walked into the house for the first time, I was just taken by the realization that it was ours — it was an investment, and I could pay for her college with the money I’m saving.”

Sticking to a budget is key to reaping many of the financial rewards of homeownership, said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He recommends people stick to houses that are no more than 15 to 20 times their annual rent to get a fair value. If your rent is $1,200, then homes in the range of $216,000 to $288,000 would be ideal.

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For Andrew Miner, 31, buying a $95,000 apartment building in Utica, N.Y., meant a place to stay and a place to earn. He lives in one unit while renting out the other three. As long as two of those apartments remain occupied, all his housing costs are covered.

Buying an income property for your first home, however, does come with a unique set of headaches. Miner is responsible for fixing not only problems in his home but also those that arise for his tenants. He has spent $5,000 on remodeling one of the units.

“It’s really self-managed for the most part,” Miner said. “I knew going in that it would take some work, but I accepted that challenge.”

On average, Baker said you should anticipate that annual repairs and maintenance will cost at least 1 percent of your purchase price. There are years when it could be more and others when it could be less.

It’s not that renters don’t incur maintenance costs, but those typically are built into their monthly payments. Renters also can have a landlord repair or replace anything that breaks, a luxury that Nadel says she misses.

“I have become a Pinterest junkie, trying to figure out how to do things around the house,” she said. “I’ve also come to rely on other women who are homeowners. We’re all in the same boat right now, so we swap advice.”

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