What's better: Paying off your mortgage early or saving? Photo: AT&T YouTube.

When it comes to home ownership, the American dream used to be quite simple: Buy a house with a 30-year mortgage, make your payments, and someday down the road, you'll own your home free and clear.

Nowadays, people tend to move around a lot more than they used to, resetting the 30-year clock every time they do, greatly decreasing the likelihood that a home will ever be paid off in full. Also, people tap into their home's equity and refinance their mortgages much more today than they used to for repairs, upgrades, etc., often creating a new 30-year loan in the process.

This got me thinking: Does anyone actually pay off their home in 30 years (or less) anymore? Is this a goal younger homeowners have in mind? And perhaps most importantly, is it worth it?

How many people actually live "rent-free"?
The actual number depends on where you live, but almost one-third (29.3%) of U.S. homeowners have no mortgage. As would be expected, the percentage gets higher in the older age groups. Of those homeowners over 85 years old, over 77% own their homes outright, and about 63% of those in the 74 to 84 age group own their homes.


One interesting statistic is the higher percentage in the lowest age group, those homeowners from ages 20 to 24. 34.5% of these young homeowners have no mortgage, and generally speaking, these young homeowners either inherited their money or have some kind of assistance. Another reason could be the fact that most younger buyers tend to buy more inexpensive, or "starter" homes and have fewer financial commitments (like kids), making it more feasible to pay off a house quickly.

The percentage of homeowners who own homes free and clear has dropped steadily over the past several decades, from a high of 42% of homeowners in 1960. However, after years of building up our "debt culture," we are beginning to see younger homeowners make paying down their debts a priority, having witnessed the effect of too much debt on the older generation. In fact, the average percentage of equity in the average home is up to about 45% from a low of around 38% in 2009.


A few actual accounts...
The website about.com has a pretty interesting thread of people who share their experiences with a paid-off mortgage. The first entry is from a 35-year-old whose parents paid off his mortgage as a gift, and he now puts his former mortgage payment into a retirement account. 

Another entry is from a 43-year-old who paid off his mortgage in just over 12 years as a means of financial safety should he ever lose his job. Several other entrants chose to buy fixer-upper houses in order to have the lowest purchase price, and hence the lowest mortgage possible. Another homeowner took a loan from his IRA in order to build a home without a mortgage.

Foolish final thoughts
While not having a mortgage may indeed be freeing, not everyone agrees it's the best course of action. According to many experts, paying off your mortgage may not be the best use of your money. While it certainly would be nice to not have to make that $2,000 house payment every month, it has not been hard to find fairly safe investments at any point in history that offer returns higher than the interest a mortgage is costing you.

For instance, let's say I owe $320,000 on my house on a 3.875% 30-year fixed mortgage and happen to come into some money and have enough in the bank to pay off my balance. If instead of simply paying off my balance, I invest the money in a pretty safe income fund that pays, say 6%, my $320,000 investment should be worth about $1.7 million in 30 years, which far outweighs the $541,713 in mortgage payments I would have made over that time.

Taking it a step further
The recovering housing market has helped families, but millions of Americans have waited on the sidelines since the stock market meltdown in 2008 and 2009, too scared to invest and put their money at further risk. Yet those who've stayed out of the market have missed out on huge gains and put their retirement in jeopardy. In our brand-new special report, "Your Essential Guide to Start Investing Today," The Motley Fool's personal finance experts show you why investing is so important and what you need to do to get started. Click here to get your copy today -- it's absolutely free.

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