To own or rent, that is the question that continues to weigh on the minds of potential homebuyers everywhere. While the gap may have narrowed over the past year due to rising mortgage rates and home values, buying is still a better bargain than renting in most communities across the country – including Phoenix and Tucson -- according to an online real estate company.

Trulia recently reported that even with the rate for a 30-year mortgage fixed at 4.5 percent, buying is 38 percent cheaper than renting nationally and in all of the 100 largest metro areas. The number shrank slightly compared to last year, when homeownership was 44 percent cheaper than renting.

In Phoenix and Tucson, the buying vs. renting margin experienced a similar squeeze. Trulia’s Rent vs. Buy analysis indicates it presently is 33 percent cheaper to buy than rent in metro Phoenix, and 42 percent less expensive in Tucson, compared to 46 percent and 48 percent, respectively, last year.

Trulia’s research assumes three main conditions: that you will stay in the home seven years; that you itemize federal tax deductions in the 25 percent bracket; and that your 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage rate is 4.5 percent, with a 20 percent down payment. The company’s calculations take into account the cost of buying and renting for identical sets of properties, including maintenance, insurance, taxes, closing costs, down payment, sales proceeds and monthly mortgage and rent payments.

In general, today’s rent vs. buy discussion is driven by simple supply and demand and the market correction that occurred in residential real estate following the Great Recession, when home prices fell by 56 percent. Homeownership became more affordable for some, but at the same time, displaced homeowners flooded the rental market, causing significant rent increases. “Rising rents hurt affordability relative to incomes, but rising rents make buying look cheaper in comparison,” writes Trulia chief economist Jed Kolko on the Trulia Trends blog.

So, when will we reach the tipping point where renting becomes cheaper than buying? Kolko says in all but the most extreme markets, homeownership will be less expensive than renting until mortgage rates hit 10.6 percent – and rates haven’t been that high since 1989.

(Editor’s Note: Andy Warren is president of Maracay Homes, the Arizona subsidiary of the Weyerhaeuser Real Estate Company.  He serves on the Board of Directors and as an Executive Committee member with the Greater Phoenix Economic Council and is a past board member of the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona.  He is also a member of Greater Phoenix Leadership and an active member of the Urban Land Institute.)

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