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September
10

It's hard to read the headlines and not conclude that becoming a homeowner is a terrible idea.

This week, the National Association of Realtors announced that existing-home sales in July had fallen an astounding 25.5 percent from the previous year. Sure, there was a federal tax credit in place last summer. But with single-family home sales at their lowest level since 1995 and unemployment still stubbornly high, home prices may fall further.

In the meantime, millions of homeowners are still far underwater, and government programs to help them have fallen well short of their goals. More foreclosures are coming, casting a deeper shadow over home prices. So it's hardly surprising that the conventional wisdom says that home values will never again rise faster than inflation.

But as with stocks and the weather, it is dangerous to assume any certainty in the housing market. And by wallowing too much in the misery of others, people looking for a new place to live run the risk of thinking every home purchase will end in regret, at least financially.

Many still could, if they buy in hard-hit areas where prices could fall further.

But a mortgage is still a form of long-term forced savings, after all. This is more important than ever, since fewer people have access to generous pensions than they did during the last big housing slump. A 401(k) or similar plan is no bargain, either, with its erratic returns and employer matches that come and go as the economic winds shift. Social Security is also likely to be less generous, and Medicare will probably cost more.

Besides, owning a home isn't just about what shows up on a net worth statement - something that bears repeating after all the "investing" that people thought they were doing when buying homes over the last 10 or 15 years. Many of these more qualitative factors, from living free of a landlord's whim to having access to a good school district or retirement community, haven't changed and probably never will.

It is possible, as a homeowner, to make very little money but still buy plenty of happiness. So before you swear off real estate, reconsider a few of the basics.

WORST CASES Some buyers may rue the day in 2010 they bought their homes. They may end up like those who bought in 2006 and have lost their jobs. Now those people face the difficulty of moving to pursue employment elsewhere because they owe much more than their homes are worth.

Marke Hallowell and Allison Firmat, who are getting married next month, are well aware of the history. Yet they plan to put 5 percent or less down, using a fixed-rate mortgage backed by the Federal Housing Administration, once they find a condominium in southern Orange County, Calif. (They've already been outbid a few times.)

Ms. Firmat is not working, and Mr. Hallowell is a Web developer. Does he worry about mobility problems or making the payments in the event of a job loss, given that he's the sole breadwinner? "We're getting such a good deal on interest rates that we could rent our place out," he said.

Mr. Hallowell and Ms. Firmat say they believe their approach is conservative, at least compared to what they might have done five years ago.

"Nothing is going to change the rate we will have," Mr. Hallowell said. "Condos like the ones we're looking at now were unobtainable in the past, unless we went into something with a total balloon payment. There were times I was tempted, but never seriously."

Indeed, many people who are buying at the moment are locking in mortgage rates of about 4.5 percent. A year ago, they might have paid 5.25 percent on a $300,000 loan for a monthly payment of about $1,657. Today, you could lock in a lower monthly payment of around $1,520 on a mortgage that size, or you might not need to borrow that much, given that prices have fallen in many areas.

FORCED SAVINGS You may make nothing at all beyond inflation over time on a home, but the part of your mortgage payment that goes toward principal is a form of forced savings.

Sure, you might do better by renting and investing the difference between the rent and the total costs of ownership. But at least three things need to go right.

First, you need to actually save the money. Americans have trouble with that sort of plan. Then, you need an after-tax return that's better than whatever a home would deliver. That's a task that might not have gone so well over the last 10 or 12 years, and it involves its own future risk, given how little safer investments are returning now. Finally, you must not raid the savings along the way.

DIFFICULT LANDLORDS A bank can kick you out only if you don't pay your mortgage. But landlords can drive you away in any number of ways.

Laura Mapp and her husband, Carl Berg, rented from a relative, but it didn't go particularly well. They found another landlord they liked, but came back from a holiday trip one year to a note saying he wanted to move in himself. They had a month to scram. (The note came with a bottle of wine, at least.)

In yet another rental, they let their landlord know they were looking to buy and inquired about a month-to-month lease. No problem, their landlord said, as long as they used his boyfriend as their real estate agent.

Earlier this year, the couple gave up on landlords and bought a house in the Highland Park neighborhood in Seattle.

THE NICE PART OF TOWN No matter how pretty the neighborhood, prices may still fall further in places like greater Detroit, Cleveland and Las Vegas; outlying areas of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Phoenix; and much of Florida. If you're looking elsewhere, consult the rent-versus-buy calculator.

But if you want to live in the Fox Hill Farm development in Glen Mills, Pa., you'll have to buy because renters are not allowed, said Bob Kuhn, who lives there. The same may be true of other communities for older people.

And there may not be many family-size rentals - or at least any financial edge to be gained by renting - in suburbs or urban neighborhoods with excellent public schools.

After many years of building their down-payment fund and a couple of years of watching the listings in the Eagle Rock and Mount Washington areas of Los Angeles, Garret and Alison Williams realized that prices simply were not falling much there.

By the time they were ready to pounce this year, they had a big enough down payment and interest rates had fallen so far that renting didn't make much financial sense, even if they could have found a rental big enough for them and their two small children.

"Had we rented, we would be paying more than we're paying for a mortgage," said Ms. Williams, who had lived in the same two-bedroom rental for 12 years before she and her family moved into their new house in Eagle Rock earlier this month. "I don't see how we could really regret having made the move when it's so much better for us on so many levels."

A version of this article appeared in print in the NY Times on August 28, 2010, on page B1 of the New York edition.

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