real estate


    If you’ve been paying attention even a little bit then you know that the housing market in the Treasure Valley has been hot, hot, hot. The median sales price in Boise took a 20% jump this year, even after seven years of already steadily rising prices. This rise is due to the national rebound in home sales, Boise’s status as the fastest growing metro area in the U.S. and local homebuilder’s inability to keep up with demand.

    Price increases have cooled off slightly with prices down 4.7% in September (yoy). The Idaho Statesman has a good article with the details and some possible reasons for the slowdown if you are interested. It could be related to rising interest rates, the slowing pace of transplants moving to the area, or something else entirely.

    With everything going on in the real estate market you might be asking “Is now the right time to buy?” or “Should I wait for home prices to come down a little more?” or “Will prices shoot back up again next Spring?”.

    Should you even try to time the housing market?

    If you’ve been waiting for prices to stabilize before dipping a toe in the housing market, then this might be the opportunity you’ve been waiting for.

    But, this is probably the wrong question to ask, since trying to time the housing market is just as difficult as timing the stock market. As this great post by Ben Carlson points out, if you are purchasing a house to live in rather than a rental you are probably better off buying when you are ready and can afford to, rather than trying to time a market dip to make your purchase.

    So, if “is now the right time to buy?” is the wrong question, then what is the right one?

    What question should you be asking?

    I would argue that instead of a purely financial decision and trying to time the housing market, the right way to decide whether or not to buy a home is to consider the lifestyle implications and then the financial ones.

    Ask yourself: “What is my ideal living situation?”, and once you have that answer, determine if you should rent or buy.

    Apartment or condo, urban or suburbs, smaller house with short commute or larger house & yard with a long commute. With the number of decisions that are required when selecting a new home, it’s amazing that anyone moves at all.

    When thinking about where to live it’s best to start with what you value most and then choose the option that maximizes those values while fitting within your budget.

    A Lifestyle or a Financial Decision?

    Do you value living closer to vibrant downtown areas more than you value having a larger yard for your family to enjoy outside? Are you prepared to spend your weekends (or pay someone else) mowing your lawn and cleaning gutters, or would you rather have someone else worry about maintenance issues when they crop up? Do you value the feeling of security with owning or the freedom to move more easily if you get a new job?

    When you own a home you:

    + Can plan for fixed payments

    + Build equity as you pay off your mortgage

    + Make changes and remodel the property to your liking

    + Feel more secure and not worry about having to move

    – Need to plan for home insurance and property taxes

    – Take care of maintenance – lawn care, home repairs

    – Could be stuck in a bad situation if the real estate market dips and you need to sell

    When you rent a home you:

    + Have to do less maintenance

    + Can move to someplace new with much less hassle

    + Don’t have to worry about additional costs: taxes, insurance, maintenance

    – Can’t remodel or customize as much as you might want

    – Might have to pay more rent as prices rise

    – Could be forced out if a new owner buys the property

    When you include the financial aspect of the decision the stakes seem even higher. Remember to not let a potentially favorable financial situation blind you to the aspects involved.

    Renting vs buying

    The financial comparison of renting vs buying can be more straightforward, and used in conjunction with your values can lead you to the right decision.

    The three most important things to consider when comparing renting vs buying from a financial perspective are:

    • Housing prices
    • Rental Prices
    • How long you plan to stay there

    If you live in areas where it is cheaper to buy than rent, but you tend to move every 2-3 years, you will probably be better off renting, rather than paying 6% realtor commissions and 1-4% closing costs on every purchase and sale. The New York Times has a great calculator that you can use to compare renting vs buying in your neighborhood. You can enter in the details for your situation: home price, length of stay, mortgage rate, down payment, etc. to see where the rental breakeven point is.

    A real life example

    I’ll give a personal example from my past for a comparison. When we lived in Cleveland we bought our home for $276,500 in 2012 and sold it for $310,000 in 2015. If we were to rent a house nearby of similar size, our rent would be similar to the mortgage payment we were making.

    From a high-level view this looks great, a gain of $33,500 over 3 years. When you subtract the 3% buyer’s realtor fee of $9,300 (we listed the property ourselves so we didn’t have to pay an additional 3% seller’s realtor fee) the gain is down to $24,200.

    Not only was this a good period for the real estate market this was also a great time for the stock market. From the time we bought the house in 2012 until we sold it in 2015 the S&P 500 index grew from 1391 to 2066 a gain of 48.6%. We purchased the house with a 5% down payment using a VA loan. If we had instead been able to invest that $13,825 down payment in an S&P index fund we would have made $6,718 over that time, so our original $33,500 gain is now down to $17,481.

    During the time we lived there we performed general maintenance on the house and did one large remodeling project adding on to the garage. This project cost us $21,000. So without even adding in the typical maintenance expenses for lawn care, HVAC upkeep, and appliance repairs, what looked like a $33,500 gain is more in the range of a $3,500 loss.

    Making the right choice for you

    With the benefit of hindsight would we make the same decision to buy rather than rent knowing that it came out as a slight financial benefit to rent? Maybe… if we knew that we would move after three years we probably would have rented, but not knowing that I think we still would have bought our house. We valued some of the things that came with owning the home more than we would have renting. We put in an underground fence for our dogs which we couldn’t do while renting. We painted and redecorated rooms in preparation for the birth of our son which we probably wouldn’t have been able to do if we were renters.

    This is a big reason this question is so thorny. The right choice for you can’t be purely boiled down to a numbers only financial decision. The choice of where to live is a lifestyle choice even more than it is a financial one. Knowing this up front can help you make the decision that is right for you.