Renting versus Buying a House – A Contrarian View

I’m often posed with the question, “Given that interest rates are low, why shouldn’t I buy a house instead of throwing money away by renting?” In recent years, buying a home has been all the rage. With interest rates around 6% for a 30-year fixed mortgage and the housing market booming, I’ve been amazed at how many people who have no real need for a house (young singles) have bought one.

As someone in the investment management business, whenever I am asked my opinion about buying a house, I look at it from two perspectives. The first one ignores the financial aspect (assuming the buyer can afford the home) because if you are getting married and starting a family, there are reasons to buy a house that have little to do with return on investment or anything like that. However, for those single people out there who don’t have a true need for a house of their own, I suggest looking at the possible purchase as an investment and running the numbers accordingly.

I have made many spreadsheets for people to determine if buying a house makes sense financially. In the vast majority of cases it does not, as you can usually earn a higher return investing in a bank CD (let alone the stock market) than you can on a house, even after considering the benefits (mortgage interest deduction) and the costs (insurance, maintenance, taxes). The exceptions are cases where you rent out spare bedrooms and that cash flow covers a large chunk of your mortgage-related expense.

As a result, it is baffling to me when people will choose to take money out of their high yield savings accounts, investment accounts, and even their IRA or 401(k) plans in order to fund a house purchase. The common reason given is “renting is just throwing money away.” While this sounds logical (your rent check isn’t going toward the purchase of any asset), you have to look at it from a return on investment point of view.

A Smart Money article published last Wednesday entitled “Why Rent? To Get Richer” outlines the case for renting very well. I suggest those of you faced with the “rent versus buy” dilemma give it a read.

Full Disclosure: No position in a house at the time of writing