This is a guest-post from Tim Ellis, author of Seattle Bubble, a blog and forum dedicated to discussing real estate market conditions in the Seattle area.

“If you rent, you’re throwing away your money.”
“Owning your own home is a forced savings plan.”
“Home ownership is an excellent path to build wealth.”

You’ve probably heard statements like these plenty of times. On television, radio, the internet, and in casual conversation. Such sentiments are common in any discussion that involves home-buying and personal finances. It’s common knowledge that buying a home is a better financial move than renting. After all, you’re building equity instead of throwing away your money, right? Well, maybe not quite… Rather than assuming the “common knowledge” on this subject is accurate, let’s take a look for ourselves at some of the financial differences between renting and home-buying.

A Real-World Example
For the purpose of comparing renting to owning in this article, I’ll be using real-world data gathered from my area (northeast of Seattle). Although most first-time buyers tend to move from renting an apartment to buying a larger, stand-alone house, as much as I can I will compare apples to apples.

  • For rent, I located a 3-bed, 2.5-bath, 1,840 sqft house with an attached 2-car garage, on 0.2 acres. Monthly price: $1,495.
  • For purchase I found a 3-bed, 2.5-bath, 1,850 sqft house with an attached 2-car garage, on 0.22 acres. Price: $424,950.

The two homes are located within two miles of each other in similar neighborhoods, and neither is located on a busy road. We’ll assume that our hypothetical homebuyer is a married couple with $85,000 in the bank to make a 20% down payment. To calculate mortgage payments we will use a recent 30-year fixed interest rate of 6.25%.

Let’s look at how the monthly costs break down (approximately) for our hypothetical potential first-time homebuyer:

  Renting    Buying   
Rent/Mortgage:    $1,495 $2,093
Insurance: $20 $163
Property Tax: - $407
Tax Savings*: - ($327)
Maintenance: - $354
Total: $1,515 $2,690

*: (less standard deduction)

Right off the bat, you see that simply trading straight across from renting to owning results in a 78% more expensive monthly bill. That’s not exactly chump change. With even a slight upgrade from renting to buying (which most first-time buyers are prone to do), you can easily see how the total monthly costs would be more than double.

“If you rent, you’re throwing away your money.”
Common knowledge says that despite today’s large premium, buying a home is a “good investment”. Hey, at least you’re not “throwing away” your money, right? True, the renter in our scenario spends $1,515 every month that they will never see again. I wouldn’t exactly say it has been “thrown away” any more than money spent on any other good or service is “thrown away,” but granted, there is zero financial return on that money.

However, when you take a look at the breakdown of the homebuyer’s monthly expenses, a large amount is money that will never return, either. Insurance, property tax (less tax savings), and maintenance, add up to $517 every month that is being “thrown away.” Even worse is the amount spent on mortgage interest. Consider how much of a mortgage payment is applied toward loan interest throughout the life of a 30-year fixed loan:

Years    % toward interest
0-5 ~80%
6-10 ~70%
11-15 ~60%
16-20 ~50%
21-25 ~35%
26-30 ~10%

In the first five years, approximately 80% of the mortgage payment goes toward interest. That’s an additional $1,674, for a total of $2,191 being “thrown away” every single month by the homebuyer for the first five years. Ouch! In fact, not until the homebuyer has been paying down the mortgage for over 20 years will the amount they are “throwing away” be less than the renter.

“Owning your own home is a forced savings plan.”
As you can see above, if home buying is like a savings plan, it’s probably the worst savings plan on Earth. Would you voluntarily sign up for a savings plan where well over half of the money you deposit in the first 20 years simply vanishes, and from which you can only withdraw money by relocating and paying a 6-9% fee (not on the amount you have “saved” mind you, but on the total sale price of the home)? Of course not. That doesn’t sound anything like a savings plan.

If our potential homebuyer has that $85,000 saved up for a down payment and deposits it along with just half of the monthly savings over buying ($578 per month) into an account at 8% interest, the balance will be nearly $300,000 in just 10 years. That’s a liquid investment, that can be used for whatever you want, no relocation required. Buying a home is not a savings plan. Actually saving money every month is a savings plan.

“Home ownership is an excellent path to build wealth.”
If your goal is to build wealth, you will be much better off investing your money in the stock market than buying a home. While both stocks and housing are cyclical markets, long-term historic trends show that housing appreciates at a rate barely above inflation, while stocks tend to return an inflation-adjusted 7-10%. In our hypothetical scenario, a renter who invested in the stock market with the $85,000 down payment plus the monthly difference between the $1,515 rent and the $2,690 home-buying costs would be over $500,000 better off after 30 years than the homebuyer, assuming 4% average appreciation.

An important thing to consider is that home prices in the United States are just now beginning to correct from an enormous unprecedented run-up in recent years. Despite what those in the business of selling real estate may insist, the correction in housing is still in the early stages. Four percent is most likely overly optimistic for most areas in the next 5-10 years. The only thing we know for sure is that double-digit gains are gone and won’t be coming back any time soon.

Also keep in mind — I mentioned it above but it bears repeating — in order to cash in on any “wealth” you build through your home you will need to sell that home and move. No, “extracting equity” does not count, since that simply results in a larger debt. Debt is not equal to Wealth.

Conclusion
For most people buying a home will result in their largest monthly bill (by far), and because they believe that it will bring them wealth or that they are “throwing away their money” if they rent, they often take on a much larger home debt than a prudent budget would allow. It is a real shame when people are driven to get into the housing market because of misplaced notions of imagined financial benefits. Of course, everyone’s circumstances are different, and for some (particularly those that live away from the coasts) the numbers may actually work out in favor of buying.

Don’t misunderstand me here. I am not saying that no one should buy a home, or that my example scenario is a golden standard of truth for all. Don’t take my word for it. Run the numbers for yourself, check out other articles (a small collection is listed below), and do what works for you. I highly recommend the great graphical calculator from The New York Times for comparing the financial aspects of renting and buying. Many people will consider all of the consequences — financial, emotional, etc. — and conclude that buying a home is the best decision. Just don’t trick yourself into thinking it’s a good financial decision if it’s not.

I myself intend to buy a house some day. However when that day comes, I will be buying a house because I want a nice, “permanent” place to live where I’m the boss, not because I think it will help me get me rich.

Additional Resources

Wall Street Journal: Your Home Isn’t the Nest Egg That You May Think It Is
New York Times: A Word of Advice During a Housing Slump: Rent
New York Times: Is it better to buy or rent? (graphical calculator)
The Motley Fool: The Worst Investment Ever
SmartMoney.com: Renting Makes More Financial Sense Than Homeownership
CNN Money: Stocks vs. Real Estate
Priced Out Forever: Renting vs. Purchasing

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