Real Estate Round-up

How the other half lives: The renting vs. buying debate heats up and the correct answer surprises

How the other half lives: The renting vs. buying debate heats up and the correct answer surprises

So the Houston traffic jams are about to give you a nervous breakdown, if your ancient Camry doesn’t break down first.

If you could only walk to work to avoid traffic, save on gas and get some needed exercise while you burn shoe leather. Or if you could at least live close enough to your Galleria office building that a bicycle would suffice. The only problem is you’re a recent college graduate earning $39,688 per year. And homes around your Galleria workplace are priced way out of your reach financially.

The answer: Try renting an apartment.

Despite what your mama told you, renting instead of buying a home can be the right decision, especially if you must have a specific location Inside the Loop.

“With an apartment, you can go into the area you want to be,” says Kim Small, senior vice president of the Morgan Group and president-elect of the Houston Apartment Association.

So if you work in Greenway Plaza, a major office complex located between two of Houston’s most affluent neighborhoods, River Oaks and West University Place, renting can be the answer.

“Not everyone can afford home ownership or wants to,” Small says.

The apartment renter faces no unexpected repair bills, either. The renter needs no plumber, no electrician and no lawn man. Apartment living means a maintenance man can be dialed up anytime.

“If you have a light bulb burned out, they will come in and literally screw in a new one for you,” says Will Holder, president of Houston-based Trendmaker Homes. “If you rent an apartment, it’s a lifestyle decision.”

But wait a minute. What about building up equity in your home? What about getting tax benefits?

What about the investment angle? Homes can escalate in value significantly over the years, giving the owner a huge payout.

And the new home market is soft, meaning that the cost of building a new home may be as low as it’s going to be for years to come.

“With material prices on the rise and lot costs finally at reasonable prices, the time to build is now,” Scott Frankel, senior vice president of Frankel Building Group, says. “If you build your home to fit your needs but keep long term resale in mind, you will see long term financial advantages.”

The National Association of Realtors puts it this way: “Homeownership is how many American families begin to accumulate wealth. According to the most recent data from the Federal Reserve Board, a homeowner’s net worth is 46 times that of a renter’s.”

If you want to put a pencil to it, the Fed compares the wealth of homeowners versus renters thusly: Home owners have a median family wealth net worth of $234,200 for owners versus $5,100 of wealth for renters.

But that does not mean that buying a home is always the best decision from a financial standpoint either.

If you are going to stay in a dwelling for only a year or two, you can still come out ahead as a renter. Buying a house means facing closing costs of several thousand dollars and selling it again in short order will mean paying a commission to a realty agent.

If you want to get very scientific about it, there are several “Rent vs. Buy” calculators online. You can plug in all the variables, the price of the home, the cost of rents, the interest rate on your mortgage and much more. The computer does the rest of the work.

And it’s free. Here are some excellent “Rent vs. Buy” calculators you may want to try:

The New York Times

Freddie Mae

Ginnie Mae


In these times, you also have to be thinking about the threat of foreclosure. Foreclosures skyrocketed around the country in the last couple of years, although Houston’s foreclosure problems were not as bad as most other places.

Renters, of course, never have a foreclosure. But many foreclosures have occurred after homeowners lost their jobs in the recession. The job market is still not robust. In addition, a foreclosure puts a dark blot on a loan application that will not be overlooked by a mortgage company.

So some people with a foreclosure on their record, or just a poor credit history in general, may have no option but to rent.

A few years ago, when home loans were easy to get, apartment landlords faced stiff competition from home builders. Thousands of apartment dwellers decided to buy houses. Now, with stricter mortgage underwriting and lender requirements, the playing field is getting level again.

Houston has over 500,000 apartment units. The Houston Apartment Association reports that half of the population of Houston lives in an apartment.

When you get ready to make your next move, whether you are renting or buying, it may be time to consider how the other half lives.

Ralph Bivins, former president of the National Association of Real Estate Editors, is editor-in-chief of

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Don't be so quick to follow that sign. Photo by Ralph Bivins
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Home ownership can build equity or wreck your finances. Photo by Ralph Bivins
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If you want to live where everyone else wants to live (inside The Loop), renting is often the better answer for many people. Photo by Ralph Bivins
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The whole rent vs. house buy debate is in many ways a battle of lifestyles. Photo by Ralph Bivins