I’ll be thirty-six years old this month, officially closer to forty than thirty. I’ve never owned real estate. Once in a while, someone judges this as a failure on my part, or a reluctance to “grow up” or enter a more sophisticated stage of development, as if maturity was somehow related to the ownership of property. I live in a nice apartment for a good monthly cost, and owning a house in the area where I live would cost more than twice as much to own and have additional maintenance costs.
When I returned to New Jersey thirteen years ago, I never intended to stay in the state. Yet, I’ve spent my adult life here. I’ve had the flexibility to move from sharing a small apartment with three roommates to a comfortable living space. Thirteen years ago, I would never have been able to afford a house of my own, so I don’t regret my choices.
Since my financial situation has improved, I’ve also delayed buying a house. I see buying real estate as a more permanent decision, and I always assumed that I’d be starting a family before making a financial decision whose effects are more permanent. It’s a decision that should be shared in a family; otherwise, I might buy a house today and discover soon that the decision is incompatible with someone else.
From the financial perspective, though, signs point towards making that decision soon, even if it is on my own. Thirteen years ago, I thought that mortgage interest rates were low when real estate values were high, and interest rates were high when values were low. It seems that today’s economy features both low interest rates and low home values. There’s lower demand in real estate now mostly because those who already own are reluctant to sell for a loss, more people like me who are choosing renting over the high cost of buying, and the effects of the wave of new construction throughout the last decade that was intended to supply an ever-growing demand for real estate that never took place.
At the same time, there are more homes being sold for a loss and more foreclosures, keeping the value comparable homes down. The cost of buying and owning a home over 30 years hasn’t changed much, though. Maintenance and improvements cut into an owner’s return on investment. While these expenses are said to be priced into the monthly rent for those who choose not to purchase the home they live in, renting is often the better deal despite the hard work of a real estate agents’ industry group’s attempting to convince the public that it’s better to own. (Whether you’re buying or selling, the timing is supposedly always right.)
This doesn’t change the fact that there is a “nicer” selection of real estate available to buy than there is available to rent. If someone is planning to own at some point in the future, and has the funds available, the coordination of low interest rates mixed with historically low overall prices is the perfect combination. Sellers’ desperation right now, with the lack of demand for real estate, could make it easier to find negotiable deals.
Would you use today’s economy as an opportunity to move from renting to owning a home? Would you wait until your personal life was in the form you’d like before making a financial decision that would effect the next fifteen to thirty years of your life? Is any decision really permanent?
Published or updated March 2, 2012.