NEW YORK (MainStreet) – Thinking of giving up that apartment lease and taking the plunge into homeownership? A recent report from Robert W. Baird & Co. offers a little insight that could help budding homebuyers decide if it makes financial sense to take the leap now or wait. In some instances, it can even be cheaper for consumers to buy a house rather than rent.
The report provides a cost analysis that compares average monthly rents with monthly homeownership costs in each of the country's largest markets. The study took into account property values, mortgages rates and average rents in high-end apartment units when compiling the data.
Baltimore tops the list of markets that offer the best bargains for renters who want to become homeowners. In the first quarter of 2015, its average monthly rent for a high-end apartment was $1,478. However, the average cost of owning a home in that market was cheaper at $1,323 a month.
Tampa came in second, with average monthly rents being $1,046 - which is pricier than the $1,037 monthly cost of owning a home. Others on the list include Norfolk/Richmond, Va.; Washington, D.C.; Chicago; and Phoenix, where monthly rental costs were still lower than owning but with a neglible difference of less than $200 a month difference.
When it comes to renting, Seattle, New York and Los Angeles ranked at the top of the list, where it's far cheaper to pay the landlord than the bank. In Seattle, the average rent for a high-end apartment stood at $1,418, which is sharply lower than the $2,761 cost of owning. In Metro New York, which includes cities in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, the average rent was $2,503 a month while the cost of owning was a whopping $4,365 a month.
"Renting remains the most attractive option by a large margin in most West Coast markets, NYC, Houston, Denver, Boston and Austin," the report said.
Industry experts expect many renters are under the gun to jump into the homeownership arena before the Fed starts raising rates. The average rate on a 30-year-fixed rate mortgage ticked above 4% this month - for the first time this year, according to Freddie Mac. While it's still low by historic standards, it's at its highest level since last November. And if the Fed starts raising rates, the speed and size of the mortgage rates could jump significantly.
"It's after the rates start to move that it really prods or nudges them to make the move," said Bob Curran, a managing director at Fitch Ratings.
Improving employment numbers and "more liberal" lending standards are also prodding renters into homeownership, added Curran. "[Employment] has been moving clearly in the right direction and it has a psychological impact" on consumer confidence and buyers' psyche, he said.
At the same time, lenders have softened lending standards slightly from the tight grip they held following the housing crash, making mortgages more accessible, said Curran. Also, the Federal Housing Administration, earlier this year, slashed the rate of its annual mortgage insurance premium on new FHA-backed loans and refinancing by 0.5% to 0.85% of the loan balance, which helped to lower monthly mortgage costs.
Still, the Baird report recommends that prospective buyers look at all sides of the affordability equation carefully before making a decision. Markets where home prices are lofty also give landlords the upper hand to bring in hefty rent increases. So, even if the monthly ownership costs are higher now, will they remain significantly higher after several years of sharp rent increases and higher mortgage rates?
"If someone has the money to make a downpayment, then it's something they might consider now [while mortgage rates remain low]," said Drew Babin, a senior analyst at Robert W. Baird & Co. However, he said it's particularly rough for renters in West Coast markets, where they'll have a tough time finding affordable homes without facing long commutes into work - a burden many Millennials aren't willing to shoulder.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held TK positions in the stocks mentioned.