The Renter’s Manifesto

photo: Kelly Sims

“Stop throwing your money away on rent.” You see the phrase in Realtor junk mail and hear it from new homebuyers who are immersed in the nightmare of paperwork, points, and plastering.

The logic is simple: renting is just flushing money down the toilet; buying a house gives you a piece of something to call your own. You earn home equity and end up with something tangible to pass down to your heirs–or to sell or refinance when you retire.

There is a kernel of truth to all of this. But it’s mostly crap. I’ve been a renter all my adult life, and I have plenty of home equity. My home equity is called “cash,” and it’s the accumulated difference between what I pay in rent and what a comparable homeowner pays for their mortgage, maintenance, property taxes, and utilities. (Sure, I
pay for all of those things indirectly, but that’s the point: they’re rolled into my rent, and they’re not rolled into your mortgage.)

Unlike a homeowner, I can choose to invest my equity in something other than real estate. I can spend my equity without taking out a line of credit. I might squander my equity, but I’ll never be “underwater” due to the vagaries of the market. And I accumulate home equity more quickly than the average homeowner.

Yes, thirty years from now, when your mortgage is paid off, you will own a home, free and clear. You know what I’ll own? Enough money to pay cash for your home.

Sure, I’m making a big assumption: I’m assuming the value of your house won’t rise much faster than inflation (or, at least, not much faster than the performance of my investments). Harvard professor Ed Glaeser, writing on the New York Times’s Economix blog, thinks this is an excellent assumption:

Houses are assets, too, but it’s a mistake to expect them to offer a regular rise in price. Houses pay hefty dividends to their owners in the form of living space–that’s the real return on housing investment–and the basic economics of housing doesn’t point to perpetual price growth.

Indeed, the Case-Shiller index, the most respected measure of housing prices, shows that they’ve barely outpaced inflation since 1890.

I’m also assuming that I have the discipline to keep saving the money. So far so good. Homebuying is often lauded as a “compulsory saving scheme.” I guess that’s true: it’s a scheme that compels you to invest a large proportion of your money in real estate. How is this better than simply increasing your 401(k) contribution?

Two kinds of renters

We’re not so different, Joe Homeowner and me. I rent property from a landlord. He rents money from a bank.

Every month, I write my landlord a check. The money gets spent on orthodontia for the landlord’s kids, and I will never see it again.

Every month, Joe writes his banker a check. The interest portion of the payment–for Joe, that’s well over half the payment, more than I spend on rent for a similar home–gets spent on polishing the banker’s yacht, and Joe will never see it again.

For this analogy, I’m indebted to David Crook of the Wall Street Journal, who wrote a landmark 2007 column on the topic:

Mortgage interest is rent that you pay to your lender for the use of its money rather than to a landlord for the use of his house…most of your monthly payment neither builds equity nor is deductible. It just goes down the same black hole that sucks up any other renter’s money. And it takes 20 years before a typical borrower pays more principal each month than interest.

Oh, but what about the mortgage interest deduction? It’s not for Joe. It’s for my landlord and Joe’s banker. Only half of homeowners take it–the rest are better off with the standard deduction–and the average tax savings for those who do is $2000, according to Roger Lowenstein of the New York Times. (The big winners in the mortgage interest deduction game are homeowners who make over $250,000 a year but not so much that they can afford to buy a home with cash.)

Trapped in the closet

Home ownership, it has long been said, leads to financial and community stability. The last three years should have taught everyone that “owning” (that is, financing) a home is no protection against financial upheaval.

As for community stability, be careful what you wish for. If you lose your job, the worst place to find yourself is trapped in an underwater house. I could move with two weeks notice and get my security deposit back.

This isn’t just anecdote. As Tim Harford reported in Slate:

English economist Andrew Oswald has shown that across European countries, and across U.S. states, high levels of home ownership are correlated with high levels of unemployment…. Renting your home and staying flexible do wonders for your chances of always finding an interesting job to do.

As for high levels of homeownership creating community, I’m not sure how you would measure that. All I know is that my family lives in one of the safest and most desirable census tracts in Seattle; as of the 2000 census, it consisted of 85% renters.

Why buy?

Am I saying nobody should buy a house? Of course not. There are plenty of situations where you would want to do so:

* You live in a place where the total monthly cost of renting is similar to borrowing. This is true in a lot of non-housing-bubbly places, outside of big cities and off the coasts. In that case, sure, why not?

* You really want to be able to renovate. Yes, this requires ownership. But be careful: renovation costs are almost never recouped when a house is sold. Also, people talk about the ability to customize as if this should be important to everyone. I just don’t care to get my hands dirty.

* The kind of house you want in the neighborhood you want isn’t available for rent. (This is unlikely to be the case in the present market, however).

* There’s a specific house you want, and you can afford to buy it with a big down payment and a boring 15- or 30-year fixed-rate mortgage.

Just because a house isn’t a good investment, in most cases, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy one. A steak isn’t a good investment, either. The problem is, houses cost more than steaks, and a lot of people are convinced that everyone should own one, whether they can afford it or not. If you can’t afford to buy real estate, or just don’t want to, don’t. It’s okay. You’re still a grownup.

Me? There isn’t anything I want out of my financial, social, or family life that requires me to own real estate. So I rent.

Hungry Monkey out now: http://hungrymonkeybook.com/