Second thoughts on the American Dream of home ownership: Study reveals that renting can be a better financial choice

Home ownership lies at the core of the “American Dream,” revered by generations for its economic and social benefits. Yet a new study by faculty members at Florida International University and East Carolina University questions the assumption that buying a home is always the best investment – and raises the possibility that renting could have a stronger financial payoff.

The study, “Lessons from Over 30 Years of Buy versus Rent Decisions: Is the American Dream Always Wise?” by Eli Beracha of East Carolina University and Ken H. Johnson of Florida International University, to be published in a forthcoming issue of Real Estate Economics, reveals that over the majority of a 30-year study period, most individuals would have been financially better off renting than buying.

The study, which took place over the period 1978 through 2009, assumed an eight-year holding period and factored in adjustments for property appreciation, property maintenance, tax savings from mortgage interest deductions and other standard adjustments in the buy versus rent decision. Data on rental and purchase of similar homes in the same area were used in the analysis.

“Our study disputes the commonly-accepted wisdom in the United States that renting is always ‘throwing away money,’” said Johnson, Knight-Ridder Research Fellow at FIU and editor of the Journal of Real Estate Practice and Education. “As a government and a society, we recognize that home ownership has multi-dimensional benefits: increasing civic pride, improving self-esteem, crime prevention, child development, and better educational outcomes, among others. Yet our findings show that financially, if renters exercise disciplined investing over time, they can be more successful in accumulating wealth than those who own a home.”

At the same time, Beracha said, “the study reinforced previous research that found home ownership to be a better option for individuals who might otherwise spend the difference between the costs of renting and owning.”

“People who own typically wind up with more value, because a home appears to be a forced savings account,” Beracha said. For financial value to emerge in a rental situation, “the key question is whether individuals have the discipline to invest the cash savings they’d have from renting their home rather than buying it – a pattern that’s not typical of American renters.”

“There is research to indicate that the person who rents probably won’t have the financial discipline to save,” Johnson said. “He’ll spend it on education, or health care, or beer and cookies. If you didn’t have the financial discipline to invest the difference, you probably should have been buying.” Additional research removing the renter reinvestment requirement is underway by Johnson and Beracha to settle this concept of an owned residence being a forced saving account.

The study uses data collected in 23 different MSAs, and uses an eight-year holding period for comparative purposes. Factoring in costs associated with homeownership, tax benefits and home price appreciation and considering returns on similar risk portfolio, Beracha and Johnson were able to compare the homeowner proceeds from the sale of their home relative to the value of an investment portfolio held by a renter.

“This is the first ‘horse race’ that anyone’s ever done comparing home ownership versus renting, with the maximizing of wealth as the ‘finish line’,” Beracha said. While renting and investing did not provide better value in every period analyzed, he said, “it came out ahead a majority of the time.”

One notable exception to the rule was the period between the early 2000s, at the start of the housing boom, and 2006, when homes began their dramatic decline in value. Another exception is today. Current home market prices make today’s market the most compelling for home ownership in the buy versus rent equation. With the onset of depressed home prices, there are current indicators in place that strongly favor buying over renting. These indicators include higher than average rent-to-price ratios, near record low mortgage rates and favorable reinvestment opportunities.

The study’s findings could have potential implications for government programs that encourage home ownership for a wide segment of the population, using the accumulation of wealth as motivation.

“We’re one of the more mobile societies of the western developed economies, yet we have one of the highest rates of home ownership,” said Johnson. “In general, mobility decreases the ownership period making renting relatively more favorable.”

Members of the media may request a copy of the study’s executive summary directly from Professor Johnson. He can be reached at The study will be available to the general public once it is published by Real Estate Economics.

Media Contact: Ellen Forman at 954-873-4118 or 305-348-2232.