In February, I bought a starter home.
So when I came across a blog post on A Wealth of Common Sense by Ritholtz Wealth Management’s Ben Carlson calling buying a starter home “one of the worst moves you can make financially as a younger person,” I gulped.
And then I had to know more.
Carlson further explained his take on the phone. A starter home, he says, is any home you don’t plan on staying in for the long term — at least a decade, roughly.
Carlson, who’s a married homeowner in his mid-30s as well as a CFA, watched many of his friends follow the traditional path: get married, buy a home for the time-being, have kids, upgrade to a bigger, more permanent home.
However, he saw that these starter homes were more expensive than the buyers planned, from making improvements upfront to extricating themselves from the property later.
When he ran the numbers, he realised that generally, starter homes just don’t make sense. For one thing, the bulk of your mortgage payments in those first years go directly to interest payments, meaning you haven’t built much equity by the time you trade up.
“The median house price is roughly $200,000,” he told me, “and for the sake of argument, let’s say you don’t put anything down. If you stayed there for five years with a 4% interest rate on a 30-year-fixed mortgage, two-thirds of your payments go to interest costs alone. You don’t build up a ton of equity.”
He said that the break-even point for a home tends to be between five and seven years, depending on where you live. If you’re in the house for less than that time, you sink money into closing costs, property taxes, improvements, and even realtor fees when it’s time to sell.
“If you’re going to buy a house,” he said, “buy something you’re going to stay in for seven to 10 years. Otherwise, those costs are going to eat up most of your equity.”
“But,” I pleaded with him, “I live in the New York metro area. Aren’t there exceptions to this rule?”
Turns out there are, and I’m not the only one who was dying to hear him say it. After that blog post went up, readers from major cities like New York, San Francisco, and Philadelphia reached out to say they’d done the maths and in fact, buying a starter home made more financial sense than continuing to rent.
“I think the break-even point is a little shorter,” Carlson said. “I think there are always caveats, always. And I have had people say they’re going to hold onto the starter home and rent it out when they leave.
“There’s a lot of nuance to it — there’s always personal situations that intervene. Real estate is probably much different in New York City than it is in the rural Midwest, so I think there has to be some give and take there with the local market.”
Carlson isn’t against buying a home overall. In fact, he’s strongly in favour of it, if it’s somewhere you intend to stay for at least a decade. Until then, though, don’t look down on renting.
“I think for young people, renting is underrated,” he said. “When you’re young, renting gives you more options. People say they don’t want to pay someone else’s mortgage, but I think especially when you’re young and not tied down, it gives you the ability to pick up and move to another city for a job — a little leeway.
“A house is much more expensive than people think. It’s more than just a mortgage.”