Today’s news that national housing prices have double-dipped to a new recession-era low is grim for homeowners, home sellers, banks, builders, and the president. Prices are down in 19 of the 20 biggest metro regions – Washington, D.C., is the exception. And given the 1.9-million-house backlog in the foreclosure pipeline, nobody expects prices to rebound any time soon.
But these data can be interpreted another way. The American economy is making a significant shift from buying to renting, and that may ultimately be good news. According to a USA Today analysis of Census data released this weekend, since 2006, the number of households that rent has grown by about 700,000 a year, while the number of households that own has fallen by about 200,000 a year. One reason is macroeconomic. The unemployment rate remains high and wages are down, meaning many people simply cannot afford to buy a house. Plus, nobody wants to take the risk of selling into a down-market. But there are also indications that Americans are electing to rent – and that is a very good sign.
Contrary to the housing-bubble dogma that a mortgaged apartment or house provides a pathway straight to the American Dream – and contrary to the tax code, which encourages buyers and discourages renters with a huge break for mortgage interest – renting is better than owning for many Americans. Indeed, dozens of recent studies have shown that, excepting the go-go bubble years, houses tend not to make very good investments at all: A prospective homebuyer would have made more money taking her down payment, parking it in inflation-adjusted Treasury bonds, and renting.