The choice between buying a home and renting one is among the biggest financial decisions that many adults make. But the costs of buying are more varied and complicated than for renting, making it hard to tell which is a better deal.
Reasons to Rent
Flexibility. Renting allows you to explore an area before making the longer-term commitment to homeownership. Unless you are certain about a specific neighborhood, renting allows time for research and discovery.
Career uncertainty. If you think you might need to move in the near future, or are mulling job changes that span several areas of town or are located elsewhere in the country, you might want to rent. Buying ties you down to a greater extent.
Income uncertainty. If you expect a pay hike or cut in the near future, that can change your borrowing ability as well as impact your ability to pay a mortgage.
Bad credit. Creating a history of on-time rental payments can help you build the sort of credit you'll need to qualify for a mortgage.
No maintenance expenses. When a pipe leaks, you don't head to the store; you head for the telephone and call the landlord.
Utilities (sometimes) included. In some instances, the landlord may pay for many utilities such as water, sewer, garbage, and, in some cases, even heat and hot water.
But there is a downside, too: You may have no control over the fluctuation of your rent, a big-budget item that can change often. Long-term budgeting becomes more difficult.
Reasons to Buy
Equity. When you pay rent, you are paying your landlord's mortgage or adding equity to his or her bank account. However, when you have a home mortgage, you increase your degree of ownership in your home with every payment. A general rule is that if you intend to stay in your property for at least five to seven years, the costs of purchasing the home are more likely to be offset by accrued equity and increased housing value. In the event that equity in the home grows to more than a 20-to-80 percent loan-to-value ratio, you will be able to borrow against your equity in the home. This can be cautiously used should you need capital to pay for major purchases. If interest rates drop, you can refinance your mortgage at more favorable rates, or, once you've paid the entire mortgage off, borrow against the equity in your home to fund major purchases such as a second home or your child's education.
Tax deductions. You can deduct mortgage interest as well as your property taxes. Uncle Sam doesn't give renters this bonus. Not only that, but if you meet certain requirements the IRS won't apply a "capital gains" tax on your profits from the sale of your home. You can keep the first $250,000 in profit you make when selling the home if you're single, or the first $500,000 if married. In addition, those who work from home may be eligible to take deductions for their home office and portions of utilities.
Creative control. You like dozens of pictures on the wall? Well, hammer away -- they are your walls now. Go ahead and paint them mango! Wish you had another room? Go ahead and add one.
Maintenance choices. If you live in a house, you can decide how to approach maintenance, either doing it yourself or picking your own contractor. If you live in a condominium or homeowners' association, you may pay a monthly fee to have maintenance work covered by the association's contractors.
While a home is a good investment -- and let's face it, you have to live somewhere -- many financial experts caution against purchasing a home simply as an investment. Historically, real estate market increases have been slow and steady, not the meteoric spikes seen between 1998 and 2008, when the economy buckled. Some experts like to point out that while housing prices and declines are cyclical, the stock market, on the other hand, had generated average annual returns of between 8 and 10 percent pretty steadily for decades. While those stock market gains may be less secure now, even conservative money planners try to deliver 5 to 7 percent returns, which is better than home value increases in many U.S. housing markets.