Rent or buy? The age-old housing debate

author-avatar By on December 27, 2019
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Rent or buy? The age-old housing debate

Photo by Finn Skagn on Unsplash

"Are you still renting?" "Why haven't you bought a house?" And my personal favourite: "Rent money is dead money!"

If you're a renter, you've definitely heard at least one of these before. It's easy to understand how some people come to this conclusion. At the end of every month, you're forking over hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars just for the privilege of having a roof over your head. Having a roof over your head is obviously kind of important, but if you were to buy a house at least that money would be going towards something you can call your own.

That's the common argument peddled by most of our parents anyway. But these are the same parents who probably bought their homes pre-boom era and have been kicking back in their armchairs ever since watching Gogglebox while their home soars in value.

For most young people these days - I sound about a hundred years old when I say that - buying a property early in their working life is getting increasingly harder and a long period of renting awaits. 

But is buying always better than renting? 

rent money is dead oney

The benefits and disadvantages of renting

Renting isn't everyone's cup of tea: you're at the mercy of your landlord, sometimes you have to live with really weird flatmates, and you generally can't drill holes in the walls. But because you're not locked-in to a mortgage, you have the kind of freedom that property owners don't.

Pros of renting

More affordable

Renting is usually more affordable than paying off a mortgage, though how expensive or cheap your rent is will depend on the area you rent in.

For example, Sydney is a great city for those who like their kitchen table to double as a bedside table and a desk because you won't do much better than a studio if you want to live inner city. But in somewhere like Darwin, you could probably rent a house that has a bathroom big enough for a family of five to comfortably live inside of, probably.

Because renting is often more affordable, it also means you can afford to live in a nicer area that you may have otherwise been priced out of as a buyer. 

Less upkeep

As a renter, upkeep is not your problem. Besides just generally keeping things clean and tidy, your landlord is responsible for repairs, body corporate fees, maintenance and home insurance (unless you've caused damage, in which case the cost is deducted from your bond).

More flexibility

Renting also means you have the flexibility to move house whenever you please (albeit within the limits of your lease agreement). When you buy a home, you can't just pack up and leave. You could rent out your house or sell it, but that's expensive and annoying.

Renters on the other hand, can update their housing arrangements easily, whether it be to accommodate a new arrival, for a career change, or simply to seek adventure. Need an extra bedroom? Want hardwood floors? Sick of hearing old mate across the road blast Nickelback 24/7? The world is your residential oyster.

Cons of renting

Lack of security

Being at the mercy of landlords means that renting can be wildly unpredictable at times. Rent can be raised, leaky plumbing may never be fixed, you're not allowed to get a dog because it's against their rules. And what happens if the landlord decides to sell?

You have to pack up all your things and find somewhere else to live and anyone who's had to do that before can attest to how much of a pain in the you know where that is.

Limited freedom

When you rent, you can't just go around nailing holes in the walls and painting over the landlord's questionable color choices because it's not your house. There are some clever ways of getting around the rules though, like removable wallpaper, self-adhesive hooks, or covering an ugly floor with rugs.

No investment potential

When you buy a house, you probably will pay off the mortgage at some point. But rental payments are permanent. While home loan repayments eventually result in you outright owning your house, rental payments only help your landlord pay off their mortgage, which is why some people loudly proclaim that "rent money is DEAD MONEY!!!" any and every chance they get.

The benefits and disadvantages of buying a home

Owning a bit of land with a house plopped on top of it is frequently espoused as the 'Great Australian Dream'. While there's a lot to be said for owning a property, it's not for everyone.

Pros of buying

Stability and freedom

Short of failing to make your mortgage repayments, buying a house gives you the kind of security renters can only dream of. Nobody can kick you out because they want to sell, or hike up your rent just because. Even though interest rates can fluctuate, mortgage repayments generally don't fluctuate too dramatically - especially if your repayments are fixed. Unlike renting, you have a certain level of control over your repayments by opting for a fixed, variable or split loan.

Being a homeowner also means you can make like Darryl Kerrigan and make your home your castle. You have the freedom to do whatever you like to your own house, like painting, renovating and landscaping at any time, without needing permission or being concerned about breaching a rental agreement. Just bear in mind that if you buy an apartment or a townhouse, there may be some body corporate restrictions in place that you have to comply with - like not being able to knock down the wall you share with your neighbour, for example.

Rise in house prices over time

Depending on the type of property you buy and the local property market, there's the possibility your property may increase in value over the long-term. Property prices are currently rising in Australia, and are tipped to reach record highs in 2020. A rise in market prices often corresponds to a rise in the value of your asset - though the opposite can also occur if there's a downturn in the property market.

Cons of buying

Expensive 

It's fairly safe to say that buying property is substantially more expensive than renting. Even if your mortgage repayments work out to be the same (or even less) than what you were paying in rent, there's a bunch of other costs to factor in like maintenance, council rates, and possibly body corporate fees that the landlord would have covered. These expenses can add up fairly quickly and when combined with mortgage repayments, can become an unaffordable burden. 

millennials buying house

Whereas renting only requires a bond to be paid (which is usually four weeks of rent upfront), buying a home requires a sizeable deposit which can take a stupidly long time to save up for. The deposit needed to buy a home will vary depending on the lender and the value of the home. Many lenders require a 20% deposit, though it's certainly possible to secure a property with a deposit less than this. 

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the average Australian house price in September 2019 was $638,900, so the 20% deposit required for a loan would be $127,780.

Home may decrease in value

A home is usually a financial asset, but if you make a bad renovation decision or your local property market drops in value, so too does the value of your home. 

Is rent money really dead money?

Big four accounting firm EY (formerly Ernst and Young) undertook a detailed study into the rent vs buy debate and came up with this conclusion: 62% of the time, renters outperformed buyers.

Or, as EY said it:

"We found that in 62% of each equivalent 10-year comparison, people were better off renting and maintaining a leveraged investment in the ASX200, compared to owning a unit in the same area. it is important to note, that in this model the renter is taking on a risk profile that is perhaps higher than most are likely to take and put in place a savings framework that is more stringent than most would want. When we remove the ability to leverage their ASX200 investment, the results shift in favour of the homeowner. Adhering to this playbook, rent is no more 'dead money' than paying interest on a mortgage."

EY's study focused on suburbs in Sydney that are high in demand by renters. It found that renters could be up to $600,000 better off over a 10-year period in some of the wealthier areas than those that had bought. 

The traditional narrative assumes most people rent because they can't afford to buy where they want to live, and that they need to make sacrifices if they want to save enough for a deposit so they can buy. In other words, give up the smashed avo, bring your lunch to work and stop catching Ubers, you lazy entitled millennial.

The problem with this is that it assumes that everyone is better off owning their own home, because home ownership is the only way to achieve true financial success, Great Australian Dream, yada yada...

That isn't to say that you shouldn't buy a home. Owning your own place gives you stability, security and a sense of achievement. Get it right and you could also make a nice little return on your investment too. 

By its very nature, money is a form of exchange - a symbol of trading one thing for another. I'm sure we can all agree that paying to have a roof over your head is a worthwhile thing to spend your money on, especially when you consider the alternative.

"The benefits of renting to satisfy lifestyle choices is becoming more widely recognised," the EY report said. 

"Renting provides a significant mobility dividend, one where individuals are able to easily relocate from suburb to suburb, city-to-city and even country-to-country, without incurring the significant transaction costs imposed on the transfer of property. This is particularly important for younger generations, who value mobility."

Savings.com.au's two cents

In Australia, the general consensus is that parking your money in property is 'safe as houses' while the cons of renting are well established by those who parrot "rent money is dead money!"

Buying property isn't the only way to secure your financial future and build wealth, and renting doesn't mean you're flushing money down the toilet. The only difference between the two is that home owners are buying security. Renters are buying flexibility. Neither one is right or wrong, it's a matter of personal preference.


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author-avatar
Emma joined Savings.com.au as a Finance Journalist in 2019. She is a journalist with more than five years experience across print, broadcast and digital media, with previous stints at Style Magazines, 4ZZZ radio, and as editor of The Real Estate Conversation. She's most passionate about improving the financial literacy of young women and millennials by writing about complex financial topics in a way that's easy for the average Joe (or Jill) to understand. When she's not writing about finance she's watching Greys Anatomy (again).

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