Image/Chronicle Books

Book Review
Title: "Rent vs. Own: A Real Estate Reality Check for Navigating Booms, Busts and Bad Advice"
Author: Jane Hodges
Publisher: Chronicle Books, 2012; 272 pages; $18.95

Once you’re in the weeds of it, real estate decision-making can seem like a tricky minefield of layer upon layer of calculations, mortgage complexities and if-this-then-that dependencies, Plans B-J and lending hurdles.

But this belies the essential truth that the most important real estate decisions are, ultimately, quite simple. The most fundamental, impactful and often difficult of these to make is the decision on whether to rent or buy the place that you live in.

This decision has never been quite so tough as it is in today’s post-recession market climate.

For the last eight decades or so, homeownership has been widely considered part of that game of life that is the American dream, the path of aspirations that once included: Go to college; get a great job; get married; have kids; and if you could afford it, buy a home.

Over the last generation or so, every step on that path has been questioned and deemed dubious in desirability by at least some significant number of Americans.

And the inherent value of homeownership has not escaped this social scrutiny — in fact, the housing market recession sparked a vocal movement of "renters by choice," who deemed real estate ownership more a burden than a blessing, despite being well able to afford it.

On the other hand, the recession has also kept up the demand for (and prices of) rental housing, while slashing the values and prices of homes for sale, creating the strange and unusual dynamic of renting being as or more costly than owning a home, in a surprisingly large number of markets.

To help decision-makers sort through the overwhelming data and opinions on the topic and make the right personal decision, real estate writer Jane Hodges has just released her latest book, "Rent vs. Own: A Real Estate Reality Check for Navigating Booms, Busts and Bad Advice."

To fulfill her stated mission of cutting through the rhetoric and answering all the relevant questions that should factor into the rent-or-buy decision (including those you don’t even know you need to ask), Hodges offers dozens of reality checks, success stories and cautionary tales (of renters and owners).

Here are three themes that emerge from Hodges’ guidance when it comes to deciding whether to rent or own your home:

1. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the rent vs. buy conundrum. There are pros and cons on every one of the many factors that must be balanced in making the decision.

For instance, Hodges advises that the exit strategy of moving out of a home you rent is low-risk, but also has low reward; conversely, the potential for reward is vastly greater when you buy a home — but so is the risk level homeownership poses.

And your personal risk/reward preference is just the tip of the iceberg of considerations you’ll need to factor in: things like your family’s or lifestyle’s space needs and how they map to your town’s rental or sale listing inventory; your romantic, family and career plans; and the level of cash you have to (a) buy, (b) pay for the property over time, and (c) improve a home to your satisfaction are a few of the other critical elements that Hodges encourages readers to incorporate into their analysis.

2. Sustainable is the name of the game. Hodges devotes some serious page space to the concept of sustainability, but not the sort of sustainability that probably first comes to your mind! In addressing this new flavor of sustainability, Hodges encourages readers to limit themselves to housing obligations that they will be able to afford long into the future, by asking themselves a series of questions, like:

  • Does it make sense for me, personally?
  • Can I afford it right now?
  • Will I be able to afford it in the future?
  • Will I be able to save and invest for the future after I rent or buy?
  • Do I have an exit strategy: What do I expect to gain, and how much am I willing to lose on this place?

3. Read the real estate news very, very carefully. There is a fire hose of real estate information out there for the consumer who wants to educate himself, but Hodges cautions that much is biased or susceptible to inaccurate interpretation.

She then translates many of the recurring headlines and messages in the national real estate news, surfacing their underlying realities and deactivating their power to drive irrational guilt or overoptimism in the mind of a consumer.

She goes on to offer a decoder for the now-ubiquitous real estate data stories, helping readers understand how to draw conclusions that matter to them from data points like inventory and vacancy levels and price-to-rent ratios.

Hodges closes "Rent vs. Own" out with a smart, comprehensive compendium of all sorts of real estate resources upon which readers can draw, depending on their angles of personal interest — from real estate memoirs to calculators to listings. If you’re wrestling with the decision whether to rent or own your home, "Rent vs. Own" is a strong recommend.

Unfortunately, no book can make the decision for you, but "Rent vs. Own" applies order and sequence to a decision process that can easily grow chaotic and confusing, and is strong when it comes to surfacing relevant stories of consumers you can relate to, and issues and questions that might not otherwise occur to you until you’re knee-deep in a serious situation.

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