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Rent v Own 2.0

The housing equation is changing

Aug. 22, 2016

By MICHAEL KANELL The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Tribune News Service)

Ah, the momentous choices. It seems that American citizens through history are always being asked to pick sides.

Hamilton versus Jefferson.

Beatles versus Stones.

Taylor Swift versus Kanye West.

And of course, rent versus own.

Sure, the stakes are not quite as staggering as the direction of the Republic or the dominance of this or that cultural icon.

It is only about where you live and how much you pay for it, your financial health, stability and future.

Oh, and whether you accept the idea that the American Dream is all about holding getting title to a piece of property in trade for a promise to pay a bank for 30 years.

Rent versus own. Where do you stand?

Each buyer or renter has his or her own personal calculation.

But a new study from a San Francisco real estate firm -- which actually focuses on rentals -- says the metrics in metro Atlanta are moving in the owners' favor. Apartment List says its research show rents rising faster than home costs -- and neither has been climbing as fast as incomes.

Not that it's a slam dunk (Bird versus Magic? LeBron versus everybody?).

But "since 2007, while rents have been hovering a bit below zero percent -- growing slower than inflation -- owner costs have fallen much more, a staggering 19 percent, which is partly due to the introduction of lower interest rates for owners," writes Andrew Woo, a data scientist for the company.

In Atlanta, rents have increased by 3.7 percent in that time, he said, while, owner costs fell by 13.0 percent.

The calculation for owners uses the mortgage payments, average maintenance expenses and so on, he said.

And while ownership is getting more attractive faster, it can cost significantly more. The median owner in metro Atlanta spends about $1,400 a month, compared to $982 a month for the median renter, according to Apartment List.

Of course, the argument, on a certain level, isn't really about money. Or at least, not only about money. There are values that cannot be reduced to numbers. Flexibility. Security. Identity...

For example, if you rent, how much is it worth to you to know you could -- if you had to -- move on short notice, if you got a job somewhere else or decided to go live with your kids in Oregon? How nice is it to know that when the roof starts leaking, you're not going to have to pay for repairs.

At least until the rent goes up.

On the other hand, if you own, you may have lots of unexpected expenses, but you don't have to worry that a landlord will evict you in two months so he can sell the property to some multi-billion dollar sports team to pave over. And if you suddenly decide that the kitchen should be painted mauve, well, it's your call.

An owner can also look forward to seeing the value of the home rise magnificently through the years so he can refinance periodically to take cash out and then eventually sell.

Except of course, when the market crashes and he's left underwater, owing more on the mortgage than the home is worth. Yeah, a renter doesn't worry so much about that.

And in the past decade, there has been a much-noted change in America.

At the peak of the housing bubble, homeownership rates nationally were running at about 70 percent. Then millions of people lost homes to foreclosure, many of them forgoing another purchases, even when they got back on their feet. Moreover, millions of young adults chose -- or needed to -- to rent in far greater proportions than previous generations.

In Atlanta, Woo said, the homeownership rate fell from 66.4 percent in 2007 to 62.5 percent this year.

Some is economic -- after all, many people can't afford a downpayment or can't get a mortgage. Some is demographic, as boomers give up homes and childless millennials opt for city-ish living.

Some experts say the trend is reversing.

For instance, Svenja Gudell, Zillow's chief economist, recently told the Journal-Constitution she expects the home ownership rate to rebound.

Others say it's about more than a picking your favorite music. Home ownership, they is a fundamental bulwark of democracy, a route to a more stable and secure middle class and if the trend continues, it signals trouble.

"Homeownership rate has decreased the most among young Americans and ethnic minorities," Woo writes. "This is concerning, especially as rents continue to rise and mortgage costs decline."

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Distributed by Tribune News Service.

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