Monday, August 15, 2011

Shall I rent or shall I own?

On Thursday August 11, 2011, 10:00 am EDT


Donnie Wahlberg may have been a New Kid on The Block, but his cutie-boy brother Mark Wahlberg, (Marky Mark to those who remember the 90s) has become a new kid on a block in Toronto…in the form of a $12 million penthouse condo. The posh bachelor pad is close to Wahlberg's usual digs at The Hazelton Hotel, where rooms run between $500 to $2400 a night. Given that the star of Boogie NightsThe Fighter and former leader of hip-hop group The Funky Bunch spends an increasing amount of time filming movies in the city and hanging out at the Toronto International Film Festival, it seems he's decided to quit forking over money in hotel room rentals and instead buy his own place.
Wahlberg probably has the advantage of owning his new condo outright, giving him full equity ownership. For the rest of us mortgage-carrying mortals, however, now is not an ideal time to be investing in a condo in Toronto. According to Ben Rabidoux, financial adviser, real estate expert and author of the website The Economic Analyst (www.TheEconomicAnalyst.com), in most Canadian cities right now (but certainly not all), the house price versus rent ratio and the house price versus income ratio are at or near their all-time highs. This suggests that, overwhelmingly, it makes better financial sense to rent in these markets and invest your equity elsewhere.
There is no free equity
Building equity is undeniably a wise financial move. The mistake many people make is equating equity with a mortgage. A mortgage doesn't give you equity; equity is only as much as you pay. A down payment is equity. Anything you pay toward the principle of your mortgage is equity. Paying interest to the bank is as useful to your financial situation as paying rent to your landlord.
If you start out with a very small down payment and arrange for a long future of low monthly payments, your ability to build equity before selling your home becomes seriously limited. With less than 15 per cent equity, you may end up merely trading one mortgage for another. If there is a drop in the housing market, the value of your home could fall to the point that if you were to sell it, you would owe more on your mortgage than the actual selling price of the house. Once it's sold, you'd have to write the bank a cheque to make up for the difference. This is called a 'negative equity' situation and while it's a worst case, it happens more often than you might realize.
Renting space or renting money?
Most likely, everyone from your father to your banker has drilled the idea into your head that renting is a waste of money and buying a home is the only prudent way to build equity. According to Rabidoux, this is not always the case, especially in markets that are currently overvalued and highly vulnerable to a real estate crash, such as Vancouver, Victoria and the Toronto condo market.
"There is a very unfortunate stigma attached to renting," Rabidoux says. "This is dangerous and damaging to many people's finances. The reality is that the majority of new home 'owners' are still renters; they've just gone from renting space to renting money." With rents in large cities exceptionally cheap compared to owning, home ownership becomes a very steep tax on those unwilling to crunch the numbers or who give into the societal pressure to buy. Don't be that girl!
Comparing the costs
Rabidoux suggests wannabe-homeowners start by figuring out the monthly costs of owning a home.  Calculate the mortgage principal and interest, taxes, insurance and any additional monthly payments such as condo fees. Also add the often ignored but very necessary maintenance costs — two per cent of the cost of the house per year is a good rule of thumb — then divide by 12 to get a monthly cost.
Next, figure out what it would cost you to rent a similar property in the area. Kijiji and online classifieds are a good place to start. Realtors can also help with rent statistics. Remember that rent is often negotiable, particularly if you don't have pets or kids, if you do have a stable job, are a non-smoker and have good references.  Landlords often give steep discounts to 'good tenants' they believe will care for their property.
Most importantly, consider the lost opportunity cost of your down payment: what you could be earning by investing your equity in something other than real estate. With stocks or bonds, for example, you can earn a minimum of three to four per cent with a very conservative, low-risk investment. If you have a $20,000 down payment, that means you are foregoing at least $600-$800 a year that this money could be earning you.
You may be tempted to think that you can easily earn that kind of return on the value of a home, as house prices climb to teetering levels and buyers engage in wild bidding wars for the luxury of overleveraging themselves to buy their dream home. Yet, the definition of a housing 'bubble' is an unreal, overly inflated market where people expect prices to rise forever. Depending on the market where you live, you must consider the risk of when the bubble may burst and how you might safely build equity elsewhere. This needs to be factored into the 'true' cost of ownership.
Save the difference
If you find a substantial cost difference between owning and renting and choose to rent, you have a great opportunity to have the best of both worlds — rent the place you want and bank the difference. Of course, there is no financial benefit if you end up using the cost savings to splash out every month on Frette linens, Fall & Barrow paint and a fabulous home theatre system. The wise renter is disciplined enough to invest her monthly cost savings and therefore build that equity that everyone has told you can only come from home ownership.
The long-term view
If you plan to buy a home and live in it for many years or even decades, you will likely ride out numerous market fluctuations, will be more likely to sell at a profit and less likely to find yourself in a negative equity situation. As for Marky Mark, he's probably not in it for the profit; he has his movies for that. We do hope, however, that his foray into Canadian real estate means that he and his "Good Vibrations" will be here for a very long time.

GoldenGirlFinance.ca is a free personal finance and education site for women.
Nothing contained herein is intended to provide personalized financial, legal or tax advice. Before implementing any financial strategy, you should obtain information and advice from your financial, legal and/or tax advisers who are fully aware of your individual circumstances.

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