Answer: It depends on rents and interest rates.

Rent and interest are the same kind of thing. They are what you pay to use

something -- either to use a house, or to use money. Interest is the rent paid on

borrowed money. To know whether to buy, you just have to compare one rental

option to the other.

Even if you use your own money to buy a house outright, you're still in the

rental game -- you are renting to yourself. Even though all the rent goes to

yourself, owning is still a lousy investment if you overpay for a house.

Say you can pay cash for a $250,000 house that would rent for $1,000 per month.

Should you buy it? That depends on current interest rates.

$250,000 invested at the current interest rate will produce a certain amount of

income for you each year. Ignoring taxes for now, say you can get 5% by

investing in bonds with no risk of loss. This means that $250,000 will return

$12,500 per year, since $250,000 x 5% = $12,500.

So if you have $250,000 and need a place to live, your choice is between these

two options for the coming year:

- Buy the house for $250,000 and don't pay any rent.
- Invest the $250,000 at 5%, and pay $1,000 rent per month to live in a house.

Which one is better? In the first case, you're not getting any investment

income, but not paying any rent either. Owning outright means giving up

interest rather than paying interest, a different kind of loss, but a loss

nonetheless. In the second case, you're getting $12,500 in interest income from

your bonds, but paying out $12,000 in rent. $12,500 income - $12,000 rent =

$500

So you would be $500 better off in the coming year as a renter.

"But I don't have $250,000 to pay for a house. I would have to borrow it."

In that case, it's an even worse deal to buy a house. Let's start with the

simplest case: an interest-only mortgage. To borrow $250,000, say you'll have to

pay 6%. If your credit is bad, you'll have to pay more. Let's assume you have

good credit and get a 6% interest-only mortgage.

The interest on $250,000 at 6% is $15,000 per year. In effect, that's the yearly

rent you have to pay to use the money. These are now your two options for the

coming year:

- Buy the house for $250,000 in borrowed money, and pay $15,000 in interest.
- Pay $1,000 rent per month to live in a house, so $12,000 per year.

Buying would cost $15,000 in interest, but you could pay only $12,000 in rent.

So you would be $3,000 better off per year as a renter.

"What if I put down 20%? Would that help?"

Not much. That's just a combination of the two cases above, both of which show

it is worse to buy than to rent. So it would still be worse to buy.

If you have 20% of $250,000, that's $50,000. If you could get 5% by putting that

$50,000 in bonds rather than in a house, that would be $2,500 per year in interest income.

These are now your two options for the coming year:

- Buy the house for $200,000 in borrowed money plus your $50,000 downpayment,

and pay 6% interest on the $200,000, which is $12,000. - Pay $12,000 rent per year to live in a house, but collect $2,500 in bond

interest.

So buying would cost you $12,000 per year, and renting would also cost $12,000

per year, but if you rent, you get the $2,500 in interest on your $50,000.

So you would be $2,500 better off as a renter.

"But I'll get a conventional 30-year mortgage, not an interest-only mortgage."

That's still just a combination of the first two cases. As you pay off the debt,

the interest you pay each month decreases, but the principal you are putting

into your house is still a poor investment relative to your other options, like

CD's, the stock market, or bonds.

"What about the tax advantage of mortage interest?"

It's not enough to offset the other costs of owning a house. It's true that you

can reduce your taxable income by the amount of mortgage interest you pay, but

the other costs of owning eliminate that advantage. Furthermore, every married

couple gets a $11,400 standard deduction, just for breathing.

Take the previous case, but say that you pay that $12,000 in interest with

pre-tax money. You've really paid it, and it's really gone, but since you didn't

have to pay income tax on that money before spending it on interest, it's not

quite as painful. At a 28% marginal income tax rate, it's only 72% as painful as

paying $12,000 in post tax money. So let's say your interest payment is only

$8,640, which is 72% of $12,000.

But we should also consider that you'll have to pay property tax, maintenance,

and insurance on your house, forever. Property tax is typically 1.5%,

maintenance is about 1.5%, and let's say you can get house insurance for $1,000

per year. So for your $250,000 house, that's $3,750 property tax, $3,750

maintenance, and $1,000 insurance, a total of $8,500.

These are now your two options for the coming year:

- Buy the house for $200,000 in borrowed money plus your $50,000 downpayment,

and pay $8,640 interest after income deduction, plus $8,500 in property tax,

maintenance, and insurance, a total of $17,140. - Pay $12,000 rent per year to live in a house, but collect $2,500 in bond

interest. Property tax, maintenance, and insurance are paid by your

landlord, so you have a net cost of $9,500 as a renter.

Buying would cost you $17,140 per year, but renting would cost you $9,500.

So you would be $7,640 better off as a renter. (Not even considering the

standard income deduction.)

"But haven't houses always appreciated in the long term?"

House prices track inflation, on average, in the long term. Prices did rise a

lot from 2001 to 2005, but that was very unusual, caused by exceptionally low

interest rates and very lax lending standards. Prices peaked in the middle of

2005, and have been falling since then. If prices fall another 5% in the coming

year, as they did last year, then your choice is this one:

- A cost of $17,140 from the previous case, plus a 5% loss on your

$250,000 house. That 5% loss is $12,500, for a total owner's cost of $29,640. - The renter has the same $9,500 cost as before, and does not care about

the depreciation of the building he's in.

So you would be $20,140 better off as a renter.

If you look at the very long term, houses have been the **worst** investment

available to the general public:

From Yahoo finance

"But the bond interest is taxable, so you don't really get 5%"

Buying a bond is just the simplest possible investment example and not necessarily

the best one. You can actually get 5% and defer taxes for decades, or not even

have to pay tax at all. There are a few well-known ways:

- Buy your bonds in your 401K account. 401K's are tax-deferred until

retirement. - Buy your bonds in your Roth IRA. The principal you put

into your Roth IRA is post-tax, but all the accumulated earnings are completely

tax free, as long as you keep them in the account until retirement. - Buy US Treasuries in a taxable account. Though the rates are a bit lower

than CD's, maybe 4% instead of 5%, there is no state tax on US Treasury bond

interest. - Buy municipal bonds from your state. Now the interest rate is even lower,

maybe 3%, but there is no state or federal tax on the interest. - Buy and hold solid dividend-paying stocks. If you hold a stock for more than

a year, the tax rate on any gains is only 15%. And you can put off the tax

indefinitely just by continuing to hold the stock. - Buy and hold index funds. Index funds, which are mutual funds that mirror

stock market indexes like the Dow or S&P 500, have historically risen much

faster than housing. And you can hold them indefinitely and put off the capital

gains tax as long as you like. - Pay off debt. If you pay off credit card debt and avoid 20% interest rates,

you're way ahead of even the best professional investors. If a penny saved is a

penny earned, then 20% saved is 20% earned. Actually, it's even better because

it's tax free. - Pay rent in advance for a discount. If you can get a 5% discount by paying

an extra month's rent in advance, you've earned 5% in one month. That's an

annualized rate of 60%, which is an insanely great return.

"What about leverage?"

When you hear someone telling you why you should use maximum leverage in real

estate, run, do not walk, RUN to the nearest exit!

Leverage is a bet that the appreciation will be greater than the cost of

borrowing. For example, if you buy a $100,000 house at 6% with nothing down,

and the house goes up 5% in a year, are you $5,000 ahead? Maybe. You spent

$6,000 in interest, plus all the others costs of owning, but you got the use of

the house plus the $5000. For many years this bet worked, so people assumed it

would continue that way forever.

The problem is that **leverage works both ways**. What if the house goes down 5%?

Then you've spent your $6,000 in interest, AND you've lost $5,000. Leverage is

the evil that bankrupts the most people during every housing market downturn.

Warren Buffet said the greatest threats to personal wealth are "liquor and

leverage."

"What about inflation?"

Most of the apparent gain in housing value has actually been inflation. What

you really care about is after-inflation returns. A glance at the

after-inflation returns of various investments in the table above shows that

housing has the lowest real return.

Banks take inflation into account when lending you the money to buy a house. You

can be sure you will be compensating the bank for the expected rate of

inflation. On the other hand, it's possible that the banks will be wrong and

inflation skyrockets, greatly reducing the value of the debt that borrowers owe.

In that case, owners do win, and banks lose. This happened in the S&L crisis of

the 1980's.

"But rents will rise, while a fixed mortgage payment will not."

Rents have not been rising in most places. In fact, they are being driven down

by the large glut of available housing because there has been way too much

building going on due to artificially low interest rates. My own rent is still

less than it was 10 years ago, during the dot-com bubble.

Rising rents (but not rising house prices) are counted as inflation by the

Federal Reserve, so if rents rise significantly, interest rates will probably

also rise as the Fed tries to prevent inflation from from overheating the

economy. That means it may still be a worse deal to buy, because it will cost

more to borrow money. Property taxes, maintenance, and insurance will also rise

with inflation.

If you own outright and interest rates rise, then the value of your house falls,

because fewer people can borrow enough to buy it.

"Anything else?"

Well, yes, I didn't mention the 6% that the agents will take in commissions.

That reduces the resale value of your house to you by another $15,000. There

are also thousands of dollars in closing fees, and PMI (Private Mortgage

Insurance) if you can't come up with the 20% downpayment.

"So what should I do?"

Don't take financial advice from agents, lenders, mortgage brokers, or anyone

else who gets paid only if they convince you to buy. Put in your own numbers and

calculate what it would really cost you to own rather than to rent.

Here are some housing calculators that may be useful:

- sell or hold from landlord's point of view
- ny times housing calculator

Call it Crazy says

You guys are talking about apples and oranges. Assuming a fixed rate fully amortized mortgage.

Principal changes every single month.

Interest paid changes every single month.

Principal + interest remains constant for the life of the loan.

Property taxes and insurance changes every year.