Buying A House At The Right Time

Buying a house at the right time. As U.S. home prices continue to plunge, nearly a third since 2006, ownership rates are falling at the fastest pace since the Great Depression. This creates a buyers market in the real estate industry.

In fact, there are two key measures that now suggest it’s an excellent time to buy a house to live in or for investment income. First, the nation’s ratio of house prices to yearly rents is nearly restored to its prebubble average. Second, when mortgage rates are taken into consideration, houses are the most affordable they have been in decades.

Two of the silliest mantras during the real-estate bubble were that a house is the best investment you will ever make and that a renter “throws money down the drain.” Whether buying is a better deal than renting isn’t a stagnant fact but a changing condition that depends on the relationship between prices and rents, the cost of financing and other factors.

However, the math is turning in the buyers’ favor. For investors, a lower ratio suggests more income for the price. For prospective homeowners, a lower ratio makes owning more attractive than renting, all else equal.

Nationwide, the ratio of home prices to yearly rents is 11.3, down from 18.5 at the peak of the bubble, according to Moody’s Analytics. The average from 1989 to 2003 was about 10, so valuations aren’t quite back to normal.

But for most people buying a house, mortgage rates are a key determinant of their total costs. Rates are so low now that houses in many markets look like bargains, even if price/rent ratios aren’t hitting new lows. The 30-year mortgage rate rose to 4.12% this week from a record low of 3.94% last week, Freddie Mac said Thursday. The latest rate is still less than half the average since 1971.

As a result, house payments are more affordable than they have been in decades. The National Association of Realtors Housing Affordability Index hit 183.7 in August, near its record high in data going back to 1970. The index’s historic average is roughly 120. A reading of 100 would mean that a median-income family with a 20% down payment can afford a mortgage on a median-price home. So today’s buyers can afford handsome houses-but prudent ones might opt for moderate houses with skimpy payments.

It is time to buy a house. Real estate analysts predict one final drop in first-quarter 2012. After that, the prices are expected to rise.