Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

July 12, 2016

Owning v. Renting Smackdown

By David Reiss

photo by Agardikevin00

Forbes quoted me in Are You Really Just Throwing Your Money Away When You Rent? It reads, in part,

There are a number of reasons for wanting to buy a home over renting and most are valid. Some people want to buy because their current rental unit may have restrictions on owning a pet, while home ownership would, in most cases, not have this limitation. Others want to diversify their assets beyond the stock market. Still others may be pressured by friends and family – loved ones may claim you are simply throwing your money away if you rent, but with owning, you could be building equity every month.

Is this really true?

You Are Building Equity As A Homeowner, But…

It is true that you are building equity each month as a homeowner. However, the amount of equity you’re building is equivalent to the portion of your monthly mortgage payment that goes toward paying down principal.

Because most mortgages are structured to have a uniform monthly payment for the life of the loan, in practice, this means that your early payments will consist of more interest than principal. So while you are paying down principal and building equity, you may not be building as much as you imagined.

For example, let’s say you had a 30-year fixed rate mortgage with an interest rate of 4% and a starting loan balance of $500,000. Your monthly payment would be $2,387, but just 30% of this payment or $720 would go toward “building equity” during the first month. Over the first five years, less than 35% of your total mortgage payments go toward paying down principal (i.e. about $48,000 out of $143,000 of total payments).

Scott Trench, director of operations at real estate investment social network BiggerPockets, added, “Yes, equity can make you feel good, but it’s not really money you can use freely until you’ve sold the property. And if you end up selling in a down market, you may not end up realizing as much equity as you expected.”

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The Transaction Costs Are Large For Buying!

The costs of buying and selling real estate are significant, and those costs don’t go toward building equity either.

“Buying a house entails many transaction costs that add up to three, four, or five percent of the price of the home and sometimes even more,” said David Reiss, a professor who teaches residential real estate at Brooklyn Law School. “Many advise that homebuyers should have at least a five-year time horizon or they risk having those transaction costs eat into any gains they were hoping to get out of the sale of their home. Even worse, those costs can lead to a loss, if the local market is soft.”

 On a $500,000 home purchase, three to five percent of closing costs translates to $15,000 to $25,000 – not an immaterial amount of money. When you ultimately sell your home, you may have to pay another three to five percent in closing costs or more.

That’s why your expected time horizon in a home is one of the most important factors to consider when deciding whether it is the right time for you to buy. A longer time horizon gives your home a better opportunity to realize sufficient price appreciation, to offset those large transaction costs.

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