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Why I Won't Buy

A few weeks ago, I met a man who built a baseball field on his property in South Carolina -- diamond, lights, bleachers, pitcher's mound, and all. It's true. I can't come up with a better illustration of the advantage of home (and acreage) ownership.

Hosting the little league at your place might not be your thing. But what about painting the walls any way you want? Or ripping up the wall-to-wall 1970s shag to discover oak floors underneath? When you own a home, hanging a bright-blue porch swing and constructing a designer dog house is your choice.

Don't forget that the pipes, garage door opener, siding, chimney, and sculptural shrubbery are all yours, too. When it all functions properly, it's great. When it doesn't, there's no landlord on speed dial to bail you out and foot the bill.

Homeownership -- the blessings and curses -- is a hot topic. My colleagues Tom Jacobs and Mathew Emmert have written some compelling articles on the topic. Tom carefully considered America's fears of a housing bubble and offered sound advice for those who own. Matthew suffered housing sticker shock when he moved to the Washington, D.C., area and is still grappling with the rent vs. buy issue.

I've been a renter for nearly 15 years. My reasons for not buying have changed since my first college rental. But the reasons why I don't buy have wavered very little during the last five years.

The down payment: According to lenders, I already have enough money for a down payment. But I struggle with the idea of draining my short-term savings account to zero. That money enables me to travel and buy couches with cash, not credit. While the money could be used to build equity in a home, the "opportunity cost" is too high for me right now. Because I haven't had to rebuild my short-term savings, I have been able to invest a larger chunk towards my future. That security is worth more to me right now than showing off an unfinished basement of my own.

Fear of commitment: I have been in the D.C. area for six years. Had I known how long this gig would last, I might have made the decision to buy when I moved here from New York City. I would have made a killing, too, had I decided to sell the property. But I didn't know what the future held -- and certainly couldn't make a confident housing decision when I barely knew the way to the nearest grocery store.

A renter's Rolodex: The flip side of remaining a renter for so long is that I know the lay of the land and have the contacts to find really great rentals. Today, I pay $200 less rent for a much nicer place than when I moved here. Even the rent vs. buy calculator celebrates my good fortune. When housing got hot, rentals cooled down. There are some excellent places to live -- and the prices are better than they were five years ago.

Harnessing home improvements: If I had cable, do-it-yourself home decorating shows would be my downfall. While my interest in home décor may be unhealthy, the constraints of being a renter have kept my side hobby in check. When you own your home, you can certainly do what you want with the interior (provided it is not an historically significant property). But your whims can come back to bite you when it comes time to sell.

I've made a strong case (to myself, at least) to remain a renter for the time being. In the rent vs. buy world, there's always the give-and-take questions that are unique to each dweller. I know that someday I will hang a mod-looking plaque that says "Welcome To Dayana's Pad" on the front door of my own home. Just not right now.


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