Economix A Word of Advice During a Housing Slump: Rent http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/11/realestate/11leonhardt.html Homeownership may be the American dream, but the real estate downturn is calling into question the view that it is a canât-miss investment. By DAVID LEONHARDT Published: April 11, 2007 A promotional spot for the National Association of Realtors came on the radio the other day. The spot, introduced as something called âNewsmakers,â was supposed to sound like a news report, with the associationâs president offering real estate advice. âThis is the best time to buy,â Pat Vredevoogd Combs, the president, said cheerfully. âThereâs a lot of inventory in the marketplace. Interest rates are low. Itâs a wonderful tax deduction.â By the Realtorsâ way of thinking, itâs always a good time to buy. Homeownership, they argue, is a way to achieve the American dream, save on taxes and earn a solid investment return all at the same time. Thatâs how it has worked out for much of the last 15 years. But in a stark reversal, itâs now clear that people who chose renting over buying in the last two years made the right move. In much of the country, including large parts of the Northeast, California, Florida and the Southwest, recent home buyers have faced higher monthly costs than renters and have lost money on their investment in the meantime. Itâs almost as if they have thrown money away, an insult once reserved for renters. Most striking, perhaps, is the fact that prices may not yet have fallen far enough for buying to look better than renting today, except for people who plan to stay in a home for many years. With the spring moving season under way, The New York Times has done an analysis of buying vs. renting in every major metropolitan area. The analysis includes data on housing costs and looks at different possibilities for the path of home prices in coming years. It found that even though rents have recently jumped, the costs that come with buying a home â mortgage payments, property taxes, fees to real estate agents â remain a lot higher than the costs of renting. So buyers in many places are basically betting that home prices will rise smartly in the near future. Over the next five years, which is about the average amount of time recent buyers have remained in their homes, prices in the Los Angeles area would have to rise more than 5 percent a year for a typical buyer there to do better than a renter. The same is true in Phoenix, Las Vegas, the New York region, Northern California and South Florida. In the Boston and Washington areas, the break-even point is about 4 percent. âHouse prices have to fall more before housing becomes a clear buy again,â says Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moodyâs Economy.com, a research company that helped conduct the analysis. âThese markets arenât as overvalued as they were a year ago or two years ago, but theyâre still unfriendly. And thatâs one of the reasons the market is still soft â people realize itâs not a bargain.â There is obviously no way to know what home prices will do in the next few years. But there are two big reasons to doubt the real estate boosters who insist that itâs once again a great time to buy. The first is history. After the last big run-up in house prices, in the 1980s, a long slump followed. In the New York area, prices peaked in early 1989 and then fell 9 percent over the next three years, according to government data. (Adjusted for inflation, the drop was much bigger.) Not until 1998 did prices pass their earlier peak. Keep in mind that the 2000-5 boom was even bigger than the â80s boom and that house prices on the coasts, according to the official numbers at least, have fallen only slightly so far. So it is hard to imagine that prices will rise 5 percent a year, or another 28 percent in all, over the next five years. The second reason for skepticism is that buying has never been quite as beneficial as Realtors â and mortgage brokers, home builders and everybody else who makes money off home purchases â have made it out to be. Buyers have to pay property taxes on top of their mortgage, while renters have the taxes included in their monthly rent bill. Buyers also face thousands of dollars in closing costs (and, in Manhattan, co-op charges). Renters, meanwhile, can invest what they would have spent on closing costs and a down payment in the stock market, which hasnât exactly delivered a bad return over the last 20 years. And that famous mortgage-interest tax deduction? Yes, it reduces the borrowing costs that come with a mortgage, but it doesnât eliminate them. Renters donât face any such borrowing costs. Almost two years ago, I interviewed a thoughtful 37-year-old man named Tchaka Owen, who happens to be a real estate agent. (Whatever the sins of the Realtorsâ association, there are a lot of smart, helpful agents out there. Just remember that they have a financial interest in getting you to buy a house.) Mr. Owen and his girlfriend, Polly Thompson, had recently moved from the Washington suburbs to the Miami area and decided to rent a two-bedroom apartment with spectacular bay views. âYou can get so much more for your money, renting instead of buying,â he said at the time. Sure enough, house prices soon began to fall in South Florida, and Mr. Owen and Ms. Thompson started to think about buying a place. A three-bedroom Mediterranean-style house that they liked was originally listed for $620,000 last year, but the price was later cut to $543,000. They bought it in June for $516,000. Since then, the market has fallen further, but Mr. Owen said he didnât mind, because they plan to stay in the house at least a decade. âWe love it,â he told me. Clearly, there are benefits to owning a house beyond the financial, like the comfort of knowing you can stay as long as you want or can fix the roof without permission. But real estate has been sold as more than a good way to spend money. It has been sold as a canât-miss investment. Back in 2005, near the peak of the market, the chief economist of the Realtorsâ association, David Lereah, published a book called âAre You Missing the Real Estate Boom?â The canât-miss argument was wrong then, and it may still be wrong today. After hearing that radio spot, I called Ms. Combs and asked her whether she thought there was any chance that she and her fellow Realtors had gone a bit too far in promoting the boom. âI absolutely disagree,â she said, still cheerful. âWe help people look at the marketplace.â So I asked what advice she gave her own clients in Grand Rapids, Mich., where she is an agent. âWe often tell people that they need to stay in a house five to six years for it to make sense,â she said. Thatâs a nuance that didnât make it into her âNewsmakersâ interview. In Grand Rapids, where the median home costs $130,000, it is probably good advice. In a lot of other places, it may still be too optimistic.