BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- Experts have long advised U.S. consumers who plan to stay put for a while to buy homes instead of renting, but Zillow.com (Z - Get Report) found recently that the "break-even point" between buying and leasing varies widely from city to city.
"Housing markets are very different in different parts of the country," says economist Svenja Gudell of Zillow, a market-tracking site that estimated break-evens for hundreds of U.S. locales.
Break-even periods represent the point at which consumers can expect to spend the same amount on mortgage payments and other expenses (minus any capital gains) that they'd fork over for rent.
Buying makes more sense than renting if you expect to stay in a home longer than the break-even point, but leasing is the better option if you don't.Zillow found that while the average U.S. community has a 3.1-year break-even period, break-evens actually range from one year in Memphis, Tenn.'s Shelby Forest-Fraser neighborhood to more than two decades in tony Virginia Beach, Va.'s Sandbridge section. Gudell says cities with the longest break-even periods typically didn't see home prices tumble as badly during the housing bust as America's hardest-hit locales did. As a result, people in such markets still face such high home prices that it takes years of living in one place before buying makes more sense than renting. "The rents are high in these cities, but the home values are even more high," Gudell says. "So it takes longer to make your money back if you buy." Here's a look at the five markets Zillow found have the longest break-even periods among America's 30 largest cities. (Click here for a rundown of cities with the shortest break-evens.) Zillow calculated break-even points by estimating each community's median home price, median rent, typical property taxes, expected future price appreciation and other factors. All figures are as of March 31 and refer to Zillow's estimates of prices and rents for all houses, condos and co-ops (including those not on the market) in each metro area.