I've been a homeowner for 24 of the last 25 years. Based on this, you might think I'm an advocate of homeownership over renting. That's not the case. The older I get, the more I appreciate there's no correct answer in the perennial “is it better to rent or buy?” debate. Sometimes buying a home makes the most sense. Sometimes renting is the smarter choice.
In an editorial in the June 2007 issue of Kiplinger's Personal Finance, Knight Kiplinger wrote, “It often costs less to rent. The annual cost of owning a property, be it a house or a condo, is usually greater than the cost of renting, after taxes.” I agree.
Today, let's look at a handful of ways to evaluate the rent versus buy decision from a financial perspective.
The Price-to-Rent Ratio
One way to tell whether it's better to rent or buy is by calculating the price-to-rent ratio (or P/R ratio). This number gives you a rough idea whether homes in your area are fairly priced. Figuring a P/R ratio is simple. All you need to do is:
- Find two similar houses (or condos or apartments), one for sale and one for rent.
- Divide the sale price of the one place by the annual rent for the other. The resulting number is the P/R ratio.
For example, say you find a $200,000 house for sale in a nice neighborhood. You find a similar house on the next block for rent for $1,000 per month (which works out to $12,000 per year). Dividing $200,000 by $12,000, you get a P/R ratio of 16.7. But what does this number mean?
Writing in The New York Times, David Leonhardt says, “A rent ratio above 20 means that the monthly costs of ownership well exceed the cost of renting.” That's a little opaque, I know. Leonhardt is saying that the higher the P/R ratio, the more it makes sense to rent — and the less it makes sense to buy.
The normal P/R ratio range nationwide is between 10 and 14 (meaning it would cost between $1200 and $1600 to rent a $200,000 house). During the 1990s, just before the housing bubble, the national P/R ratio was usually between 14 and 15 (about $1100 to $1200 to rent a $200,000 house). During last decade's housing bubble, national price-to-rent ratios rose to 22.73 (in 2005) then to 24.50 (in 2007) before the market collapsed. As most folks were rushing to buy homes, the numbers said they ought to be renting.
Based on this info, I'd argue that:
- When price-to-rent ratios are under 12, it's generally better to buy than to rent.
- When price-to-rent ratios are between 12 and 15, the financial decision is murky.
- When price-to-rent ratios climb above 15, you're probably better off renting.
Nationwide numbers don't tell the full story, of course. While the national price-to-rent ratio might be around 20, the actual numbers in your city could be very different. [Read more…]