When Downsizing, Renting Often Beats Buying

Here’s how to run the numbers to compare renting against buying when you move to a smaller home.

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One of the financial cornerstones of many successful retirements is paying off mortgage debt before leaving the workforce. Life on a fixed income is a lot easier if you're not making that big payment every month to a bank or other home lender.

That's easier said than done in today's market. Still, many people with mortgages seek to sell their homes and live mortgage-free in a smaller, less expensive home during their retirement years. If this transition might be in your future, it makes sense to carefully consider whether you should buy or rent your new home. Renting looks better than you might think.

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Of course, you may never actually get to the stage of closely comparing the finances of owning or renting a home. There are major lifestyle, wealth, and estate issues that might decisively tilt the decision in favor of either renting or ownership:

1. Do you like tending your own home, including gardening, lawn work, and home maintenance? Or would you like to get out from many of these responsibilities?

2. Do you like the flexibility of an annual lease that gives you the freedom each year of living wherever you want? Or do you prefer to be a long-term member of a community and stay in the same home for a long time?

Even if your answers to these questions cause you to lean strongly toward being a homeowner or renter, it's still a smart idea to go through the process of evaluating the financial trade-offs of this decision.

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U.S. News Money reviewed nearly a dozen buy vs. rent calculators at leading personal finance websites. Most of them did not permit buying a new home for cash. None of them let us figure out the benefits to renters of investing the amount of the new home and using the earnings to help pay the rent.

To help make sense of the trade-offs, we've developed a downsizing case study. It assumes you will be able to sell your home and have $250,000 left over after paying off your mortgage and all closing costs. You can either buy a new home with this amount or put the $250,000 in a safe investment fund and use the fund's earnings to help pay your rental expenses.

Owners of a $250,000 home would need to pay roughly 2 percent of their home's value each year for property taxes and the amount that home insurance exceeds the cost of renter's insurance. That totals $5,000 a year. Set aside another $5,000 for annual home maintenance expenditures. Utilities—heating, cooling, water and sewage, cable, Internet, and phone expenses—would generally be higher for homeowners than renters. To make the comparison easy, tack on $2,000 a year for those higher homeowner utilities. The total of these higher expenses for homeowners is $1,000 a month.

Three other key assumptions:

1. Renters will earn 6 percent annual returns on their $250,000.

2. State and local taxes will be 20 percent on investment income.

3. Inflation will affect renters and homeowners equally.

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If that $250,000 earns 6 percent a year, the individual could withdraw $1,250 a month forever and still have $250,000 left in the account. That's $1,000 after paying 20 percent in taxes. Adding in the $1,000 a month in lower renters' expenses provides renters with a $2,000 break-even rental budget.

So, what kind of home can you get with $2,000 a month in rent? A pretty nice one. Moody's Analytics maintains a set of "buy to rent" ratios for more than 50 metro areas throughout the country. It uses home prices from the National Association of Realtors and rental information from Property and Portfolio Research.

For each metro area, the ratio compares the median price of a single-family home with the annual rental cost of a typical apartment. The higher the ratio, the more expensive homes are relative to apartments. (New York Times economics writer David Leonhardt has used these ratios for several years in annual rent versus ownership pieces.)

Moody's emphasizes that its ratios are of limited use. They do not, for example, have any way of comparing the quality of a market's housing stock. Perhaps the median-priced home is nicer than the average apartment, for example. Still, the ratios provide a rough idea of where you'd come out by renting instead of buying.

These ratios are most commonly used in comparisons of homes purchased with a mortgage. In such cases, according to Leonhardt and others, buying beats renting when the ratio is 15 or lower. But the advantages of buying at these ratios decreases in a downsizing scenario when a home is purchased with cash and there is no tax deduction for mortgage interest expenses.

Based on the most current set of ratios, the depressed housing market in Cleveland is the only metro area tracked by Moody's where the rental equivalent of a $250,000 home is more than $2,000 a month.

Interestingly, homes outside of these 50 metro markets are even more reasonably priced, with the median U.S. home costing slightly more than 13.8 times an equivalent rental unit. For our case study, this translates into $2,055 in monthly rent on a home equivalent to one selling for $250,000.

Here is the current list of buy-to-rent ratios as of the first quarter of the year. The ratio over the 15-year period from 1989 through 2003 is also listed. It will help provide a view of the long-term relationship of home prices and rental costs. Also, we've calculated the monthly rental in each market for a home equivalent to one costing $250,000.

In nearly all cases, renters would come out ahead, and still have their $250,000 as a retirement nest egg.

Metro Area Buy to Rent Ratios 2011 Equivalent Rent for $250,000 Home
  First Quarter 2011 1989-2003 Average
Atlanta, GA 12.44 13.47 $1,675
Austin, TX 20.58 15.19 $1,012
Boston, MA 17.03 15.24 $1,223
Baltimore, MD 15.17 10.14 $1,373
Bridgeport, CT 16.48 16.08 $1,264
Charlotte, NC 29.39 15.86 $709
Chicago, IL 13.30 16.71 $1,566
Cincinatti, OH 13.17 14.15 $1,582
Cleveland, OH 10.27 13.44 $2,029
Columbus, OH 15.00 15.32 $1,389
Dallas - Fort Worth, TX 15.16 15.37 $1,374
Denver, CO 21.54 16.31 $967
Detroit, MI 11.94 13.21 $1,745
East Bay, CA 29.59 27.05 $704
Fort Lauderdale, FL 13.09 12.23 $1,592
Hartford, CT 17.22 13.40 $1,210
Honolulu, HI 30.91 23.37 $674
Houston, TX 15.82 13.18 $1,317
Inland Empire, CA 13.95 16.59 $1,493
Jacksonville, FL
13.93 12.37 $1,496
Kansas City, KS 14.25 13.46 $1,462
Las Vegas, NV 13.51 14.82 $1,542
Long Island, NY 20.71 12.50 $1,006
Los Angeles, CA 12.50 13.99 $1,667
Manhattan, NY 28.52 22.14 $730
Memphis, TN 18.54 16.85 $1,124
Miami, FL 11.98 11.93 $1,739
Milwaukee, WI 20.38 15.38 $1,022
Minneapolis, MN 12.58 13.38 $1,656
Nashville, TN 23.68 18.50 $880
New Orleans, LA 15.37 12.97 $1,355
New York, NY 15.11 9.68 $1,379
Norfolk, VA 18.04 16.28 $1,155
North - Central New Jersey 22.67 17.07 $919
Oklahoma City, OK 15.26 11.73 $1,365
Orange County, CA 28.36 19.60 $735
Orlando, FL 12.33 12.32 $1,690
Palm Beach County, FL 14.93 13.61 $1,395
Philadelphia, PA 14.76 11.04 $1,411
Phoenix, AZ 11.87 11.89 $1,755
Pittsburg, PA 11.25 10.11 $1,852
Portland, OR 23.12 16.74 $901
Raleigh, NC 24.64 16.80 $846
Richmond, VA 21.60 14.31 $965
Sacramento, CA 15.15 16.16 $1,375
Salt Lake City, UT 16.69 14.23 $1,248
San Antonio, TX 17.61 12.58 $1,183
San Diego, CA 21.96 17.51 $949
San Francisco, CA 23.97 24.76 $869
San Jose, CA 29.57 22.79 $705
Seattle, WA 25.43 17.43 $819
St. Louis, MO 13.49 13.17 $1,544
Tampa, FL 11.95 12.35 $1,743
Washington, DC - Northern VA - MD 17.24 13.40 $1,208
Metropolitan Area Average 13.83 12.00 $1,506
U.S. 10.14 9.4 $2,055

Twitter: @PhilMoeller