To buy or to rent? That is the question

Max Weisman and girlfriend Talia Gottesman may seem like a typical millennial pair: Saddled with student loans and in entry-level jobs, the Philadelphia couple, who are in their mid-20s, are used to pinching pennies.

Which is exactly why, they say, they are working toward something most of their peers hardly consider: homeownership.

"After we renewed our lease, it dawned on us," Weisman said recently, referring to their $1,508-a-month, one-bedroom apartment in Fairmount. "It felt like we were throwing our money away."

So last year - after a $100-a-month rent hike left them rethinking the cost of a space they could not even make their own - Weisman and Gottesman began the hunt for their first house.

There was a time when their story would have been far from atypical and couples like them pined for that piece of the American dream: the chance to build stability and wealth simply by owning a home.

But after the financial crisis of the late 2000s, the American dream became much more of a fantasy. Once considered a reliable way to accrue equity over time, homeownership today has dipped, dropping in 2016 to a 50-year low that is driven, in part, by rising home prices, stagnant wages, and memories of a housing bubble that became a devastating bust. Rentership, meanwhile, swelled to 37 percent of all households in mid-2015, the highest level since the mid-1960s.

Which reignites an age-old debate: Is it a better deal to rent or to buy?

In the Philadelphia region, it's not as straightforward as you might expect.

Bucking decades of conventional thinking that buying was the obvious choice in the suburbs - allowing individuals to build wealth, a family, and a life in communities with better schools and less crime - new data suggest that renting is now a better deal in many suburban areas, including Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Burlington Counties.

By contrast, Philadelphia - unlike some of its urban peers - is now a buyer's rather than a renter's market, according to a study based on figures from October by Attom Data Solutions, which tracks real estate nationally. Camden and Gloucester Counties are, too.

The divergence between the city and most of its suburbs highlights an economic divide that still exists in the housing market. While some zip codes nationwide, including those in Philadelphia and other urban and coastal areas, have seen home prices surge, other regions in the country, mostly in rural areas and the suburbs, have seen prices flatten - or even drop dramatically.

According to Drexel University's Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation, the median suburban home price in the Philadelphia region declined by 1 percent in the third quarter of 2016, falling to $227,565 from $229,850 - a value that remains 15 percent lower than the suburbs' previous home-price high in mid-2007.

By contrast, median prices in the city jumped to $149,000 from $145,000 - an all-time high, and one that is 10 percent more than the city's pre-recession peak.

A lot of suburban homeowners "are still digging out of the recession," said Kevin Gillen, a senior research fellow at the Lindy Institute. "House prices won't go up because people won't sell their homes as long as they are underwater."

Suburban "prices are sluggish, and they will be until [homeowners] get their heads above those losses," Gillen said. "Buying is not offering a great return" in the suburbs.

Using in-house and federal data, Attom's analysis of buying versus renting provides a snapshot of the better decision measured as a percentage of average county wages. The analysis compares HUD-calculated median rents against the monthly payment for a median-priced home (based on a 3 percent down payment and including property tax, homeowners insurance, and private mortgage insurance). It does not factor in personal variables, such as how long a person plans to stay in a house or how much maintenance a property needs.

Still, the short-term comparison underscores the questions that property-shoppers face in today's less-certain market: Does investing in a house provide the same return it did years ago? And even if it doesn't, is it still a better alternative to renting, which many - including Weisman - liken to throwing away cash?

"Nationwide, while in the majority of markets it's more affordable to buy than rent, that pendulum is swinging toward rent," said Daren Blomquist, senior vice president of Attom, citing the study's finding that buying was more affordable in 66 percent of markets in October, when interest rates on 30-year fixed mortgage were 3.47 percent.

When recalculated to include the interest-rate jump to 4.32 percent after November's election, the number of more-affordable-to-buy counties dropped to 55 percent. Gloucester County switched from "buy" to "rent."

"If interest rates continue to rise," Blomquist said, "it will make it tougher for people who are renting now to get their foot in the door and buy."

The rental trend makes sense, observers say. After the housing bust forced 9.3 million homeowners to lose properties to foreclosure, and with 6 million homes still underwater (worth less than what is owed on their mortgages), many owners suffer from a severe housing hangover.

Less than one-third of families who lost houses in the crisis are projected to return to homeownership. And even if others want to, they may find it difficult to qualify for mortgages in an environment in which lending standards have tightened and job stability and wage growth is more unpredictable.

Will Gibson, 29, who moved to this area in May, is among the nation's growing class of renters. Never a homeowner, Gibson, who lives in an $850-a-month one-bedroom in Philadelphia's Cedar Park neighborhood, said he rents for personal reasons - he's single and unsure how long he will stay here - but also financial.

"Buying is just not on the radar," he said. "I think the idea of financially diving into that is a little daunting."

The decision to buy a home is among the biggest a person can make. And in Philadelphia, it does mean cost savings. When interest rates were 3.47 percent, Attom estimated renters in the city would spend 30.4 percent of their wages on housing, while a monthly home payment in Philadelphia would be 16.8 percent.

On the other hand, in Bucks County, where the largest disparity exists in the suburbs, renting in October would have accounted for 37.2 percent of a person's wages, versus 47.8 percent for buying.

"In Philadelphia, homes are less expensive and older," Blomquist said. "And urban areas are highly desirable."

Homeownership can be appealing, especially for those who anticipate living somewhere a long time. Even if interest rates rise, they still are historically low. With tax abatements available in some cases, buying in the city can be an affordable option and a safer long-term investment.

But does buying provide the same great returns many once expected?

Blomquist said Attom's data, not adjusted for inflation, shows a 2.1 percent appreciation in national values year-over-year since 1987. For others, the appreciation is even less. According to estimates from economist Robert J. Shiller, the Nobel Prize winner who helped create the Case-Shiller index, inflation-adjusted estimates show home prices have appreciated just 0.37 percent each year.

"Especially in the short term, renting . . . may be better because you can put your savings to work in other investment vehicles," Blomquist said.

Still, for many, such as Weisman, even if interest rates rise and home appreciation is slow, buying makes sense.

"Preparing for the down payment will be a little difficult, and we will have to be a little more frugal than we'd like," he said. "But our friends are here, our family is here - we can easily say we will be in Philadelphia for the next five to 10 years."

cmccabe@philly.com 610-313-8113 @mccabe_caitlin