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Rent or buy? Do the math

A young couple who have been renting in our modest Toronto condo building recently bought a home a couple of miles away in a nice old neighbourhood with the aim of starting a family. The house is a big, detached fixer-upper and the renovation costs will be extensive.

In moving up to the rungs on the property ownership ladder, our young friends are committing themselves to a quantum leap in monthly expenses: They came up with a substantial down payment; they are taking on a mortgage payment, property tax bill and other expenses almost twice as large as their $1,600 rent; and they are spending a large amount on the renovation and other costs associated with buying a house.
It is a story that has unfolded millions of times in Canadian history and one that will continue to unfold because home ownership is deeply ingrained in our culture, a cornerstone of getting established and getting on our way in life. People will make great sacrifices and otherwise twist themselves out of
financial and emotional shape to buy into the dream.
They willingly become what we used to call “house-poor,” paying well over the one-third of household income that many professionals believe should be the threshold.
Over the past decade, owning has been a financial success for most people, with prices rising almost in a straight line, with low, low interest rates feeding into the equation and with homeowners’ equity subsequently bounding higher.
And yet, if it has been just about as good as it gets for so long, perhaps conditions are going to deteriorate at least somewhat, with prices likely to stabilize or retreat a little and with interest rates set to rise modestly at least.
Our friends and other buyers this spring will know that Canadian house price gains have been flattening out. The Teranet-National Bank House Price Index for February published this week showed house prices gained just 0.1% from January for a 12-month gain of 3.8%. It was the eighth consecutive month of deteriorating gains.
While the forecast of a 25% drop in house prices over the next few years by one widely quoted economist seems far-fetched under present circumstances, a pattern of smaller gains likely signals a flat to slightly lower market.
So, is it time to revisit buying versus renting? For most of the 30% of Canadians who rent their accommodation it’s simply not an option. Getting their hands on a significant down payment and having the flexibility to meet higher payments if rates rise is difficult at best.
But some people with the wherewithal to buy a property might want to keep renting, keep saving and investing, and keep their options open. Other long-time owners might even want to consider selling and renting, thereby locking in their tax-free gains.
If you wish to see how the math works, visit United Mortgage Group’s Rent vs. Buy Calculator website.
Even your technodunce reporter could plug in some numbers and come away with worthwhile conclusions.
A two-bedroom condo in our building might sell for $400,000. Let’s say you have a $100,000 down payment, a mortgage rate of 4.5% over five years, a $672 monthly condo fee, $200 a month in property taxes and other expenses of, say, $100 month.
Let’s also say that a two-bedroom might rent for $1,600 a month in the building, other costs might total $100 a month and the rent might rise 2% a year over five years.
All other things considered, the purchased condo would have to appreciate 2.33% a year, selling at $441,571 to match the gain made by renting a similar property in the building and investing the difference in outgoings at a conservative 2.5% a year.
The other way around, an owner could sell for $400,000 — with net proceeds of about $375,000 — and rent for $1,600 a month. The $375,000 could pay a conservative net return of, say, $10,000 a year. That $1,600 a month plus $100 in expenses would add up to $20,400 a year.
But deduct the net investment return of $10,000 a year and the condo fees of $672 a month, property tax of $200 and other expenses of $100 (for $11,664 a year), and the monthly rent for the former owner is basically paid. Or the former owner could invest the $10,000 a year and still end up paying only about $728 a month more than he was when he was owning.
Of course, this is just the rough math, which doesn’t take into account other factors, such as pride of ownership, the sense of place and the strong probability of building equity.
But geez. If I could live in the building basically for what I’m paying now in fees, taxes and insurance (by deploying my $10,000 a year investing return), and have my $375,000 to “invest” in winters in Waikiki and nice overnighters in Niagara-on-the-Lake, well then ….
It’s a thought, but only that. They’ll probably carry me out of here feet first from our condo, the equity in which may one day be needed to help us out in one of the emergency situations that can arise in older age.

Meantime, it wouldn’t hurt for everyone to do some math and determine what’s best financially for them — renting versus buying. And then, of course, throw the math out the window and succumb to the emotional tug of home and hearth.

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