Dear Liz: I’ve gone back and forth over whether to buy property to live in. I would only consider a condo, because I don’t think it’s ecologically responsible for a single person to live in a stand-alone house, plus I have no interest in or aptitude for maintenance. But through family and friends’ experiences, I’m worried that condos can be a nightmare to own. That leaves me stuck with renting, which gives me flexibility. I also live in an extremely expensive area (Boston) and do contract work, so purchasing something I would want to live in might be tricky. But I feel I’m being barraged by people telling me that renting is a losing proposition and that buying is great for my future. I’d rather keep putting money away in my retirement funds, but I wonder if I’m just refusing to “be responsible” as others say. I have no debt at all, so I feel responsible.
Answer: You would think the recent economic unpleasantness would have cured people of the idea that homeownership is right for everyone all the time.
Real estate investors often tout the benefit of “leverage”–using borrowed money to control an asset that can appreciate in value. As we learned, though, leverage can work both ways and can leave you owing more than a property is worth.
In reality, much of the financial benefit of homeownership comes from the “forced savings” aspect of paying down a mortgage. Homes do tend to appreciate in value over time, but on average the appreciation usually doesn’t exceed the overall inflation rate. Plus homes are expensive to own and maintain, which can dramatically reduce the return on your investment. Investments in stocks and stock mutual funds probably will give you a better return over the long haul, and you’ll never have to buy a new roof for them.
Homeownership can be a good idea if you can afford all the costs, plan to stay put for several years and truly want to be a homeowner. Otherwise, renting gives you freedom and flexibility. That’s neither irresponsible nor a losing proposition.