Banking

After the mowing, it's about value, freedom

So, says the editor, we're looking for someone to make a case for homeownership over renting. You know anyone who's purchased a house recently?

That would be me - if you want someone who just sweated through trying to sell a home in the worst housing market ever, then fretted through a short-sale bank approval on the house we were buying, and now is waiting for two gutter repairmen and a crawlspace moisture expert to call back.

Buying a home? Maybe I can defend something a little less risky, like off-track betting.

Homeownership has taken a justifiable beating lately. Housing prices have tumbled and sales are still declining. Markets are glutted with foreclosures from people who borrowed too much or lost a job and were unable to sell. And while your friendly Realtor will happily tell you about the opportunities this strife creates, buying a home for its appreciation possibilities is still an iffy venture, especially if you can't or won't give the market time to find its long-term footing.

But if you are looking for a place to live a while - and not a property to flip - buying remains the option that gives you both value and, yes, freedom.

Let's strip away the big picture for a moment. It's trendy to blame homeownership for the financial mess we're in, but that's like saying that eating leads to obesity. It's not the act that causes the problem. It's how poorly you do it - and banks and borrowers engaged in loans they shouldn't have.

But for most of us, owning a home still makes financial sense. Lost in the pop of the housing bubble is some simple math: If you rent, you write a check and never see that money again. If you buy, and you're prudent and patient about it, you probably will.

It's called equity. If you're paying $1,000 a month in mortgage on a standard 30-year fixed rate loan at, say, 5 percent interest - then $2,700 of those payments goes toward the principal of the loan in the first year. That means if you sell the home, you have to pay the bank $2,700 less than the amount you borrowed. The next year you'll add $2,900 more to that total, and that annual number will go up each year. Plus, the interest you pay is often tax deductible.

If you rent, not only do you get less value by often paying more per square foot than homeowners, that hypothetical $1,000 each month is gone.

And for those renters who point to the supplementary expenses that come with homeownership, such as property taxes and insurance? If you believe your landlord isn't passing those expenses on to you, then you probably think the car dealer really did throw in those floor mats for free.

Same thing for those household repair costs renters think they're avoiding. Not only will you eventually pay in rent for the air conditioner that broke in your apartment, you're also probably paying for part of the unit that died in one of your landlord's other properties.

But beyond the repairs you have to do, the value of homeownership comes from the changes you want to make. If your carpet is worn or merely ugly, you don't need permission to improve the place you live. You don't have to split the cost for something that'll raise the value of someone else's property. You don't have to worry that the landlord might subsequently cut corners with inferior workers or materials.

If you're a tinkerer, you might be able to do some of these things yourself, which not only will improve your home's value but make it a more personal investment. Owning a home, however, does not bring a lifetime sentence of fix-it-ups. If, like me, you're not such a handyman, you can mow your lawn and call it a weekend. It's your choice.

And choice is what homeownership brings. You can choose a neighborhood or street where you can put down roots without having to worry about a landlord selling your place or booting you out. You can choose a comfortable monthly payment without worrying that it'll be bumped up in a year, and then maybe again the next year.

Is it a choice for everyone? Not at all. If I were 25 again, not 45, I'd do the same thing as the first time - lease an apartment for a year at a time and take advantage of the anchorless life in cramped urban places where owning is too expensive.

But in all but the biggest cities, there's a cultural expectation that when you decide to try adulthood, owning a home is part of it. Is it peer pressure? Absolutely. But it's real. And it's about stability and savings and -

Hold on, I think the gutter repair guy is calling...

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