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Buy or Rent a House?

14 Oct

  Discussing Buy Versus Rent Calculators

Realtor groups have created a number of on-line calculators that attempt to provide an objective view of the advantages of buying a home versus renting a home.  The link to one such calculator is presented below.

http://www.realtor.com/mortgage/tools/rent-or-buy-calculator/

First, I describe the calculator.   Then I critique it.

Description of Calculator:

The simple version of the buy/rent calculator at www.realtor.com allows one to put in an address and get financial estimates for renting or buying.  The more advanced and interesting version allows a consumer to select assumptions on costs of buying and cost of renting.

The key assumptions on the cost of buying involve home price, down payment mortgage term, buying costs, selling costs, house appreciation, real estate taxes and miscellaneous homeowner fees.

The most important renting costs include the initial rent and the yearly appreciation in rent.

Other key assumptions include the exemption of  $500,000 on capital gains in housing, an investment return, and an inflation rate.

Based on the inputted assumptions the model provides an estimate of the amount of time that it takes for buying a home to be cheaper than renting a home.

The model at www.realtor.com assumes that buying costs are 4.0 percent of the purchase price and selling closing costs are 6.0 percent of the final sales price.   Due to transaction costs associated with home purchases, renting will be less expensive than buying for people who stay in a house for a short period of time.   The output of the model is the number of years it takes for buying to be less

Comments on the calculator at www.realtor.com

 

Comment One:  Often realtors and bankers persuade young homebuyers to use available cash for a down payment rather than immediately retire consumer or student debt.  The model does not have an option to explicitly consider the impact of credit card debt or student debt on the buy versus rent outcome.   The model does require input on the assumption of investment returns.   One way to model the impact of keeping debt is to increase the investment return assumption so that it equals cost of credit cards and student loans.   It would be useful if the model allowed for separate assumptions on investment return and the cost of existing debt.

Comment Two:   I modified one example to consider the breakeven point of a transaction with a 15-year FRM at current interest rates.   I found that buying was preferable to renting after a 6-year period for the 15-year FRM compared to 8 years for the 30-year FRM.   Essay Four provides more information on mortgage choice and lifetime savings.

Comment Three:   The model cannot be easily modified to allow for interest rate uncertainty associated with adjustable rate mortgages.

Comment Four: The model requires an assumption of average annual growth in house appreciation over the entire period and does not consider issues related to the uncertainty of future house appreciation.  House prices do not appreciate in a steady or reliable fashion.   The realtor’s model would have severely overestimated the value of buying a home during the 2004 to 2009 time period and would have underestimate returns from purchasing in 2011 or 2012.  The argument that housing prices would continue to rise was made quite strenuously in 2007 and was used to motivate unrealistic price appreciation assumptions in the breakeven analysis.

The house price appreciation assumption is usually based on what the analyst expects will occur.   An alternative approach would involve basing this parameter on the certainty equivalent.   A certainty equivalent is the guaranteed return that someone would accept rather than take a risk on a higher but uncertain return.

Comment Five. Many people are forced to move because of a new job or divorce.   The rent versus buy calculator does not allow for economic costs associate with moving when house prices fall and house equity turns negative.   Nor does the buy versus rent calculator consider economic costs associated with negative equity that make it difficult for a home buyer to refinance should interest rates fall.

 

The more relevant question not answerable from this calculator is it better for a person to buy now or reduce debt and buy in a couple of years.

Comment Six:  Often realtors will expect home sellers to put additional investments into the property prior to selling the home.  (Most recently in many neighborhoods realtors are pushing home sellers to install granite kitchen tops.)   The model does not include an option to consider likely upgrade costs.  It may be able to correct for this problem by reducing the price appreciation assumption in the model.  However, the need for upgrades appears to differ widely across properties.

Comment Seven:: The buy-sell calculator can also be used to evaluate mortgage properties financed with FHA loans.   The FHA loan program is geared for relatively small mortgages.  The program has a loan limit that varies across counties and can change over time.   The FHA loan program allows for down payments as low as 3.5% FHA loan costs include mandatory mortgage insurance premiums, part of which is paid up front.  Due to the insurance premiums the cost of the FHA loan is often one percent point higher than the cost of conventional loans.  Most often, the number of years it takes for a home buyer to break even on an FHA loan program will be substantially higher than the number of years it takes to break even on a transaction financed with a conventional loan.   Not surprisingly, the use of real estate break- even calculators is usually illustrated with conventional loan examples rather than FHA loan examples.

Comment Eight: The assumption regarding the rate of appreciation of rents has a major impact on the buy versus rent decision.    A larger percent of people are choosing to rent rather than buy consequently more rents are continuing to rise often at a rate that exceeds the increase in the value of the home.   In some markets it may be legitimate to assume a higher increase in rents than home prices.  This alternative assumption might persuade more people to buy rather than rent.

Comment Nine:  Realtors often argue that a house purchase should occur now rather than later because macroeconomic conditions are about to change.   Over the last three or four years realtors have argued that people should buy because the FED is about to raise interest rates.  An increase in interest rates induced by Fed policy would increase the cost of interest on a home but might also lower house prices.

The Fed will eventually raise interest rates but even Nobel Prize winning economists are confused about when this will happen.  Potential homebuyers should not rely upon the interest rate forecasts of realtors when determining whether or not or buy or rent a home.

Concluding thoughts on the Limitations of Buy Versus Debt Calculators:  My comments suggest that for a wide variety of reasons buy versus debt calculators often overstate the case for buying rather than renting a home.    The approach relies on subjective assumptions on a wide variety of economic variables.   Assumptions on the most crucial variable – the future growth of housing prices have been grossly inaccurate in the past.

The one factor that favors buying over renting in the current environment is that stock prices are currently at historic highs and long term interest rates are at historic lows.   I suspect that based on the current market conditions returns on real estate will outpace returns on financial assets in the near future.  Hence an assumption of a low future return on financial assets might be justified at this time.

The buy versus rent calculator does not accurately measure the benefits of delaying a home purchase until consumer debt and student loans are substantially reduced or eliminated.   Nor does the model allow for active consideration of costs, which might be incurred if a young worker with little initial house equity is forced to sell a home in order to take advantage of a new job opportunity.  Usually younger households will be much better off by delaying the home purchase and using all available funds to retire student loans and consumer debt.

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