The 'New York Times' Rent or Buy Calculator Has a Gaping Hole in It

Overlooking the major downside of buying: owning during a calamity.

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The homespun, patently offensive advice always to rent anything that flies, floats, or fucks does not apply to most homes. Should you buy? Guys, the New York Times is ON IT. Here’s an intricate calculator the paper rolled out this week to walk you through the figures. It’s a masterpiece of hypothetical bean-counting, the sort of thing that comes when smart people throw a lot of resources at a big question. But anyone who bought property in America circa 2004 or 2005 could tell you, it leaves out one major hurdle to owning: exposure to economic calamity.

After the housing collapse circa 2007 there was a period when about a quarter of American homeowners were underwater on their mortgages. For as much nonsense as renting brings, renters simply cannot face a similar risk exposure. The analogous situation for renters — the collapse of the value of their home — would in the short-term drive up incentive to simply move to a cheaper place, or to negotiate a rent downward. A homeowner who gets whacked with a 30 percent plunge in the value of a house has no such recourse. Refinancing, maybe. Foreclosure, possibly. Or simply paying off years and years of banknotes that lead to minimal equity.

As reliable as housing is as an asset, a homeowner simply has to factor in this risk, and a generation of people who bought (or didn’t) during the last bubble won’t soon forget the outcomes for buyers. The Times accounts for part of this with the calculator. You can account for an annualized appreciation of minus-5 percent over time — no small dip, but certainly nothing on the order of the plus-15 percent you could assume as an investment. Most people simply don’t assume that housing will drop. And a lot of those people got blown up in the last bubble.