Is it cheaper to buy or rent?

Introducing the daft report earlier this year, Gerard O’Neill discussed the possibility that we might become a nation of renters. On the other hand, there is a lot of talk at the moment, particularly from those selling homes such as these guys in Palmerstown, about how it is significantly cheaper to buy than to rent. I thought it would be worth investigating this a little more, because at the end of the day, despite all the crazy economic goings-on of the past three years, people still have to make a decision about where and how to live. Is it cheaper to buy than rent, and if so by how much? How do things look now compared to the boom years and how will things look if house prices and rents continue to fall?

To do this, I had a look at average prices and rents for three-bedroom properties around the country from the start of 2006 on. I wanted to calculate the annual premium for owning your accommodation as opposed to just renting it, bearing in mind mortgage interest relief, prevailing interest rates and changing property values and rents. After all, economic theory would suggest that if you get to own the asset at the end of thirty years of living there, you should pay more than if you don’t.

The graph below shows the difference between renting and buying in annual terms for four regions – south County Dublin, Limerick, Dublin’s commuter counties and Connacht/Ulster outside of Galway. It’s calculated for a first-time buyer couple, with mortgage interest relief based on the first year of repayments. I’ve taken ECB+1% as the benchmark interest rate – something which of course may only hold for the first year.

 

Annual savings for owning rather than renting, 2006-2009

Annual savings for owning rather than renting, 2006-2009

Even with property prices the way they were, it was cheaper to buy your house in 2006 than it was to rent it in everywhere around the country except South County Dublin. Generally, first-time buyers in Dublin could expect to save at least €2,000 over the course of their first year, while elsewhere they could expect to save about €1,000. Only in South County Dublin were first-time buyers actually paying any premium on ownership – in the order of €4,000 over the year for their three-bedroom home.

Sometimes I look back at 2005 and 2006 and wonder what we were all up to. Given those maths, it’s a bit easier to understand again. Of course, things didn’t stay that way. ECB rates started increasing and by mid-2007, potential first-time buyers were faced with the prospect of a premium on ownership in order of €1,000 over the first year – this at a time of uncertainty over capital values. In South County Dublin, the premium on home ownership for the first year was almost €10,000. It should be noted that in a couple of areas, South Dublin city (i.e. all areas with even postcodes), West Dublin and Limerick, it was cheaper to buy than rent – even when interest rates were at their highest. These areas have repeatedly exhibited the highest yields on residential property (about 4% over the past couple of years – high is relative).

Since late 2008, though, as lower interest rates have kicked in, there has been a dramatic swing in the maths back in favour of home-ownership. In late 2008, if you paid the asking price and got ECB+1% for your mortgage, you could expect to save €1,000 in most parts of the country – and more than €3,000 in Limerick or West Dublin. What’s worth noting is that this is at a time of rapidly falling rents as well as house prices. Looking at Q1 figures, that trend is growing with first-time buyers able to save in the region of €3,000 in their first year of ownership. Even in South County Dublin, a household will save money if they buy rather than rent.

How will these figures look in a year’s time? I’ve put in figures marked 2009 Q2 and Q3 to give an indication of how the buy-or-rent decision might look. I’ve assumed another 20% fall in house prices – that’s about a 40% fall from peak to trough. (If that sounds drastic, probably best not to read David McWilliams’ latest comparison of Ireland and Japan.) For rents, I’ve gone for 33% peak-to-trough fall (again, there are those who argue it could be more). In that scenario, buyers would continue be better off than renters in every part of the country. First-time buyers of three-bedroom properties would expect to save anywhere between €1,800 (West Leinster) and €7,000 (Dublin city centre).

To some extent, this is being driven by mortgage interest relief, which is greatest in Year 1. However, Q1 figures indicate that even if there were no mortgage interest relief, there are areas of the country where it is cheaper to buy than rent. And if house prices fall 40% from peak to trough, and rents fall 33%, it will be cheaper to buy than rent, even with no mortgage interest relief, in all areas of the country apart from South County Dublin.

What about the downside? If there are indeed significant swathes of vacant properties around the country that will continue to put pressure on rents for the next 3-5 years, could both rents and house prices halve from their peak values? If that were the case – meaning the typical three-bedroom home in south Dublin city would cost about €900 a month to rent or cost about €275,000 – the maths in favour of buying still look convincing in Dublin but elsewhere it’s a much tougher call. Without mortgage interest relief, homeowners would have to pay around €1,000 a year over what they’d pay to rent.

The tax system as it currently stands certainly strongly favours home ownership. If the government decides that the balance of emphasis when correcting its fiscal black hole should be on raising taxes rather than cutting expenditure, it may abolish mortgage interest relief and bring in a universal residential property tax. This could significantly alter the maths of buying versus renting and bring about the ‘nation of renters’. As it stands, though, even if rents were to halve over the coming year, the premium people pay to actually own their home appears too small for that to happen.

How much are rents falling around the country?

The latest Daft.ie Rental Report is out today. It shows that rents across the country fell by more than 5% in the first three months of the year. The national average rent now stands at €840 per month, compared to just over €1,000 per month a year ago. Nationwide, rents have now fallen for 14 consecutive months. The fall since the peak early last year has been faster than the rise before that, and with rents 17.5% lower than the peak in early 2008, rents are now back mid-2005 levels.

The largest falls in rents have been in the cities. In Dublin and Limerick, rents fell by up to 6.5% in the first three months of the year. In Waterford and Cork cities, rents fell by 5.3% and 5.1% respectively. In Galway, the fall in rents was smaller, at 4.3%. Rents in Dublin’s commuter counties and in West Leinster (i.e. Laois, Longford, Offaly and Westmeath) – presumably an indication of their role as Dublin’s outer and further-outer commuter belts – have fallen by about 6%, more than the national average. At the other end, South-East Leinster (Carlow, Kilkeny and Wexford) and the counties of Connacht and Ulster have seen rents fall by less, typically by about 3.5%. Rents in Leitrim and Roscommon fell by less than 1.5%.

The county-by-county changes are outlined in the map below. As you can see, it’s the extended Dublin area that’s being hit most. For the full details on average rents by county and how much they’ve fallen in the last three months and in the last 12 months, check out the Manyeyes visualization here.

Change in rents by county, 2009 Q1

Change in rents by county, 2009 Q1

The reason for all this is clear – the rental market is feeling the brunt of too much supply and not enough demand. On the supply side, the number of properties available for rent is now over 23,000 – an all time high, certainly compared with the 5000-6000 range we saw on the site up to 2007. This means that landlords are having to fight for tenants, pushing down rents – and rent-a-room income – pretty much everywhere. Add to this falling demand, as Ireland’s most footloose workers head off to pastures new, and it’s pretty clear that the pressure on rents throughout 2009 and maybe into 2010 will be downward pressure.

This report’s commentary is provided by Brian Devine, Chief Economist at NCB Stockbrokers. He highlights the challenges and perils of forecasting facing economists today:

In relation to the property market there have been plenty of forecasts regarding how far residential prices (ranging from -35% to -60%) and to a lesser extent residential rents (ranging from -20% to -35%) are going to fall from peak to trough. Some studies/views on how far prices will fall are based on historical comparisons with previous OECD housing busts. Others invoke the idea of a “fair value” for housing based on, for example, one or more of the following: income-price ratios, mortgage repayment burden, rent-price ratios, rental yield, credit availability, population growth, interest rates and growth in per capita disposable income.

The problem with trying to forecast prices/rents based on the concept of fair value is that prices overshoot and undershoot fair value. The magnitude of the overshoot/undershoot is ultimately determined by psychology. While the psychology of never ending price rises fuelled the market on the way up, economic/job uncertainty and the expectations of further price falls will be the important psychological factors on the way down.

Next week’s property market post will have a look at affordability, i.e. the maths of buying versus renting, based on these figures, and how yields have been affected by the latest falls in rents.