Buying Beats Renting in 80 Percent of U.S. Cities

Homeownership is getting more affordable, but will house hunters make the move this season?

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In Pictures: 10 Major Cities Where Buying Beats Renting

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Thanks to falling home prices and rising rents, would-be home buyers have the upper hand this house-hunting season. In nearly 4 out of 5 major U.S. cities, it's now cheaper to buy a home than to rent. That's up from 72 percent of cities last quarter, based on the Rent vs. Buy Index released by online real estate resource Trulia.

"With home prices nearing a double-dip and more foreclosures expected to flood the housing market over the next two years, the decision between renting and buying a home across most of the country has clearly moved in favor of buying," said Ken Shuman, head of communications at Trulia, in a press release. "As we head into the summer buying season, those looking to buy a home should be encouraged by improvements in the market and feel optimistic about their chances of finding an affordable home, much more so than in previous years."

[In Pictures: 10 Major Cities Where Buying Beats Renting.]

Areas with the most affordable housing market conditions tend to be cities hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis, including Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Miami. Meanwhile, those with more affordable rental markets included New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. Omaha, San Jose, and Detroit had some of the largest quarter-over-quarter jumps in favor of homeownership.

Despite the overwhelming data supporting home buying this season, experts emphasize that above all, the real estate market is local. "This metric is a good baseline for the rent versus buy decision, but it doesn't capture everything," says Jonathan Miller, president of New York City-based Miller Samuel Real Estate Appraisers. "Locally, it may be cheaper to buy then rent, but that doesn't speak to your investment. In other words, how many years before I can 'get above water,' or see a return?"

[See Why We're Shunning the McMansion.]

The time factor is one of many stumbling blocks preventing house hunters from making the jump from window shoppers to homeowners, Miller says. During the housing boom, homeowners were virtually guaranteed to make money or at least break even on their home sales, regardless of the period they owned the home. In today's market, experts see home prices appreciating much slower, therefore home owners will have to make a longer commitment to their housing investments than in previous years. "The future upside is much farther down the road," he says. "You're looking at five, maybe 10 years out of this sort of rocky bottom."

Until consumers regain confidence in the housing market and economy, Miller and others expect the rental market will continue to benefit from apprehensive house hunters. "There's been some erosion in attitudes toward homeownership," says Eric Belsky, managing director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. "There's two parts to the home buying decision: the will and the way."

[See What Moves Mortgage Rates?]

Belsky says the spike in home prices and increased housing market activity following the first-time home buyer tax credit in 2010 demonstrates pent-up demand, but that the market isn't currently providing enough incentive for house hunters to make a move. "The 'way' right now is really being blocked by the underwriting standards being applied to loans," he says. Even if some of the slack in the market tightens, the rebound won't be as strong as it would otherwise have been, Belsky says, primarily because many would-be home buyers won't be able to qualify for a loan with favorable terms.

Despite the numerous obstacles for prospective home buyers, experts remain confident that improving employment and economic data will breathe life into the housing market this spring and summer. More Americans signed contracts to buy homes in March, according to the National Association of Realtors' pending homes sales index—up 5.1 percent—a signal that could mean more house hunters are snapping up bargains. "We're sort of in that in-between phase," says Heather Fernandez, vice president of marketing at Trulia. "People aren't running out to buy that dream house yet because they're not that confident. But we're starting to see consumer confidence shift, people are more interested in home buying, rental rates are still high, and therefore, just based on the numbers, increasingly homeownership is becoming more affordable across the U.S."