The transaction cost in selling a property is, roughly speaking, around 10%. That means that, if you buy at market value, the market has to appreciate about 10% before you break even. Although no one has a crystal ball, and I don't know your geographic area, in many areas I think it's safe to plan for some further price declines, then a leveling off, then perhaps a slow climb. If there is a dip, it could take 2-4 years to get back to today's prices, and another year or two to see 10% appreciation. Sure, I could be wrong. But I really don't think that in the next 12-18 months values will appreciate by 10%. And remember: You need that 10% appreciation just to break even. So, to use some hypothetical numbers, let's say the house you like costs $600,000. You buy it. It declines 5% in value over the next 18 months. It's now worth $570,000. You decide to sell it. You might net, very roughly, $517,000. But you owe $600,000. Are you prepared to bring $83,000 to closing? (I know; you'd put some money down, but you'd still be out $83,000.)
But let's suppose prices just stay flat. No decline. You're still out about $60,000. Meanwhile, you've been paying $400 a month more for the pleasure of owning. Over 18 months, that's $6,000. Yes, you have saved some on the tax benefits--the interest and tax payments. Still, spread that $66,000 over 18 months, and (pre-tax) you've spent $3,667 a month more for the pleasure of owning.
Check with an accountant to determine the tax advantages of buying--it'll be affected by your taxable income and by the amount of deductions for interest and taxes. I suspect, though, that you might be better off, financially, renting.
Now, if you can get a fabulous deal on the house--say 20% or so below the comps--then you probably could buy, survive a further (moderate) decline in the market, and sell in a year or two and at least break even. Still, do you want to go through the hassle of buying, then trying to sell, meanwhile facing the uncertainty of the market? That's your decision, but a fair number of people would answer "no."
Consider waiting until after your daughter graduates from high school. You'll have a better sense of market conditions, then. You'll also probably have a better sense of whether you want to stay where you are or move somewhere else.
Hope that helps.
Yes, there are financial benefits to owning, but there are also expenses. A local agent can tell you how "good" a buy you would be getting for the home you are interested in, but keep in mind that in general, housing prices are still declining--some towns at a slower rate than others--you will have to pay for any maintenance issues that arise when you own the home, and you will have to pay a commission to an agent when you sell (unless you FSBO) You might want to take the numbers to an accountant and run them by him/her for a professional financial opinion.
If you told me that you would be renting for 5 years or more, I would tell you to buy.
Answer these questions to yourself and then read Joan's answer below.
If you sell after you've lived in a house for 2 years, you even get a break on any gain you do have. You can have up to a $250K gain and not pay capital gains tax on it.
Joan Prout, MBA
RE/MAX Villa REALTORS
Jersey City, NJ