Is buying a house a good investment?

The American Dream used to be pretty static. Good job. Stable relationship. House in the suburbs. Back yard for cookouts. White picket fence. Maybe even a dishwasher for good measure.

While that vision still represents a dream for many Americans, the idea that any one image of prosperity and success would be the dream for all of us is a little ridiculous once you start to think about it. Some people don’t want a family. Some people like trying lots of different jobs. Some people hate cookouts and like doing their own dishes, thank you kindly.

And some people don’t want the hassle of owning their own home.

A 2013 survey commissioned by the MacArthur Foundation found that while 7 out of 10 renters would still like to own a home someday, 57 percent believe that buying a home has become less appealing. Meanwhile, 45 percent of current homeowners can seriously see themselves renting at some point in the future.

And as for the American Dream? Three out of five adults (renters and homeowners) believe that homeownership is no longer an essential element of the “American Dream.”

So while many media outlets and realtors are imploring people to shake off the debris of 2008 and buy a house ASAP, the mere fact that it’s a “buyer’s market” doesn’t necessarily mean that buying is right for you. So, how do you know if homeownership is right for you?

Where are you going? Is the answer “nowhere”? Then buying a home might be the right decision. Unless you’re planning on flipping your home, the key to the “buying a home is financially smart” argument is that you’re making an investment. Over time you’re building equity in your home, which isn’t happening when you rent. So if your future is a little uncertain and you aren’t quite 100 percent settled, buying a home is a touch dangerous. Selling a home after a short period can be costly.

How flexible do you need to be? Again, homeownership really works best when you’re able to make the commitment to stay where you are for the long haul. Owning a home makes something like moving for a career opportunity difficult (though not impossible).

Can you handle being responsible for everything that goes wrong? Things happen when you own a home. Plumbing. Heating, Electricity. Leaks here. Raccoons in the ceiling there. You don’t necessarily have to have the skills to fix all of these problems on your own, but they’re your responsibility. You have to find someone who can fix it and then pay them, because there isn’t a landlord to handle that for you.

Do you feel confident in your ability to pay? Buying a house is an investment and a commitment. No one plans on defaulting on a home loan, but a large factor in the collapse of 2008 was the thousands (if not millions) of consumers who had been talked into purchasing homes they could not afford. Your financial situation should be the primary consideration when buying a house – not how “good” the market is at that moment.

The basic mathematics of homeownership are always going to be favorable. Buying something almost always makes more sense than renting. But don’t get swept up in hype and rhetoric. Make sure that when you buy a home it’s the right decision for you.

Jesse Campbell is the Content Manager at MMI, focused on creating and delivering valuable educational materials that help families through everyday and extraordinary financial challenges.

  • The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) is an association of nonprofit consumer organizations that was established in 1968 to advance the consumer interest through research, advocacy, and education. Today, nearly 300 of these groups participate in the federation and govern it through their representatives on the organization's Board of Directors.

  • Since 2007, the Homeownership Preservation Foundation (HPF) has served as a trusted, neutral source of information for more than eight million homeowners. They are partnered with, and endorsed by, numerous major government agencies, including the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of the Treasury.

  • The mission of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is to create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all. HUD works to strengthen the housing market in order to bolster the economy and protect consumers; meet the need for quality affordable rental homes; utilize housing as a platform for improving quality of life; and build inclusive and sustainable communities free from discrimination.

  • The Council on Accreditation (COA) is an international, independent, nonprofit, human service accrediting organization. Their mission is to partner with human service organizations worldwide to improve service delivery outcomes by developing, applying, and promoting accreditation standards.

  • The National Foundation for Credit Counseling® (NFCC®), founded in 1951, is the nation’s largest and longest-serving nonprofit financial counseling organization. The NFCC’s mission is to promote the national agenda for financially responsible behavior, and build capacity for its members to deliver the highest-quality financial education and counseling services.