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Buy, Sell or Rent: Americans Rewrite the Dream




By Diana Olick, CNBC Real Estate Reporter

NEW YORK ( CNBC) -- American homes have never been more affordable than they are today. Prices are down dramatically, mortgage rates are at record lows and desperate sellers are willing to make concessions.

Still about one third of Americans choose to rent, despite the fact that 85% say owning makes more sense financially than renting over the long term, according to a new Fannie Mae study.

Buying is cheaper than renting in most U.S. markets, according to another study from online real estate sale site Zillow. The upfront costs may be higher, but Zillow looked at what it calls the "breakeven horizon," which is when the cost of owning (including down payment, taxes, fees) meets the cost of renting. While markets will vary neighborhood to neighborhood, the breakeven point in many markets, like Minneapolis, Baltimore, Denver, St. Louis, Chicago and Charlotte, is under three years.

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The main barrier to homeownership for many, however, is the mortgage market.

The days of free-wheeling lending are over, and credit worthiness is now king. There are low down payment options, like the FHA, but too many potential buyers don't meet the credit qualifications either for the great low rates or for the loan itself.

The other half of the equation is attitudes.

Consumer confidence in housing is still in the basement, especially for younger Americans, who make up 46% of the rental market, according to Fannie Mae. Younger Americans not only have the highest unemployment rate, but they also don't have the cash for today's higher down payments, and in many cases they've seen their parents lose massive amounts of home equity. Fannie Mae's survey found that attitudes played a much bigger role in the decision to buy for some, while demographics played higher for others, and home values, believe it or not, played a very small role:

Demographics such as income, age, marital status, and employment status are the primary drivers of current homeownership status and the own-rent intention for outright homeowners (those who don't have a mortgage). However, attitudes are the key drivers of the own-rent intention for renters and homeowners with a mortgage - two groups that account for about 80% of housing units in the U.S. Surprisingly, we also found that exposure to default, perceived home value appreciation/depreciation, and self-reported underwater status make minimal incremental contributions to predicting the own-rent intention in the models.

While renters have historically been younger, lower wage-earners, nearly 20% of renters make between $50,000 and $100,000 a year in income, according to Fannie Mae. Nearly half of those who own a home without a mortgage are over the age of 65. But the renters keep coming, as aging baby boomers downsize and as younger cohorts choose not to fight the mortgage market.

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