There are good reasons to own a home in retirement, but there are also plenty of arguments for renting. The latter may be less expensive if it means you don’t have to pay for maintenance and repairs. However, owning can be less stressful if you don’t have to worry about a landlord raising your rent.

Whichever route you go, housing costs will be one of your major monthly expenses in retirement. Here are some factors to consider when making a rent-versus-buy decision.

Key Takeaways

  • Housing costs will be part of your retirement budget, whether you rent or own.
  • Fluctuations in market value, unexpected maintenance expenses, and insurance deductibles can increase ownership costs.
  • Though homes can be valuable assets to own, they shouldn’t be purchased primarily for investment.
  • Owning offers stability, tax benefits, and equity, among other perks.
  • Renting provides more flexibility and liquidity, and you’ll spend less money (and time) on maintenance.

Tax Implications

In analyzing homeownership versus renting, one thing to consider is the tax implications. Starting with returns filed in 2019, interest on qualified mortgages of $750,000 or less is deductible for a couple filing jointly. (If you bought your home before Dec. 16, 2017, you can still deduct interest on a $1-million-or-less mortgage under the previous law.)

However, now that property tax deductions, once a tremendous boon to taxpayers (especially in affluent areas), are capped at $10,000, and the standard deduction has been nearly doubled, both thanks to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, the number of people who are likely to take advantage of such a savings by itemizing their deductions is considerably reduced. Rental costs are not tax-deductible, so renters have no access to these potential savings.

Risks to Consider

In theory, buying a house after retirement gets you more for your money than renting. However, homeownership also entails substantial financial risks. Issues such as fluctuations in market value, unexpected maintenance expenses, and insurance deductibles can increase costs over and above those of renting. And whichever option you pick, don’t forget to plan for inflation—rent, taxes, and insurance costs all go up over time.

Another major issue is the maintenance risk associated with ownership. Renting is like buying an insurance policy against maintenance; renters have no liability for regular maintenance costs, equipment failures, or catastrophes such as storms or floods. The landlord has to worry about those unexpected costs—as do homeowners.

An Investment Opportunity?

Though real estate can offer good investment opportunities, a residence shouldn’t be purchased only for that reason. Housing is an unavoidable cost of living, and liquidating an investment asset shouldn’t involve finding another place to live. Retirees shouldn't factor in the investment upside of ownership when planning for housing costs.

“One of the biggest myths of homeownership is that it is an investment. It isn’t,” says Kirk Chisholm, wealth manager and principal at Innovative Advisory Group in Lexington, Mass. Chisholm adds:

Owning a home that you live in is an expense, not an investment. An investment is one that generates cash flow. Sure, there are some benefits of owning a home, but when you factor in the costs, tying up large amounts of capital, illiquidity of the home, and that house prices don’t always go up, it makes for a much less attractive “investment.”

To actually use a home as an investment, a homeowner would have to buy low and sell high—buying and selling homes opportunistically. By selling a home to make a profit when prices are high, however, one takes the chance of becoming priced out of the market if prices continue to increase. Those on a fixed budget, as most retirees are, may not be able to purchase another house or apartment and will find themselves dealing with a landlord instead.

In some ways renting can be the economic equivalent of shorting a stock. If you believe housing prices are headed lower, you could rent a residence, wait for prices to fall, and buy a home later. Being wrong about the direction of housing prices and ending up paying a higher purchase price is similar to paying a higher price for a stock to cover a short position.

Cashing Out and Liquidity

Other financial benefits of being a tenant include freedom from worrying about housing market conditions and liquidity. Selling a home can take a long time; it also involves lots of paperwork, and most real estate agencies charge a commission, which reduces the return on the investment. Sidestepping these entanglements when it’s time to move can definitely be worth it.

Some retirees live solely on pension money—Social Security benefits, annuity payouts, or a government or union plan. They don’t always have large sums of liquid cash. Without sufficient assets on the sidelines for unexpected expenses, the regular costs of owning a home could be ruinous.

Advantages of Owning

If you’re one of the 56% of homeowners who go into retirement unencumbered by a mortgage, according to an American Financing survey, the question of renting vs. owning may seem less complicated at first. Still, the fact that you have no house payment doesn’t make this a no-brainer. You’ll have to consider property taxes and maintenance costs, and the older your home, the higher those upkeep expenses could be.

Still, it’s easy to find arguments for staying—especially if you live in a house you own now (and have no health-related reason to leave). Here are some other key arguments.

Stability

If you own your home, you’ll likely enjoy more stability and control. You won’t have to worry about a landlord bumping up the rent. Likewise, a landlord can’t sell the residence out from under you. You still have the option to move, but it will be your decision—not a landlord’s. Also, you can’t remodel a rental, at least not without the owner’s permission.

Build Equity

For some retirees, it’s important to leave an inheritance. Others want to use accumulated home equity to take out a loan, line of credit, or reverse mortgage. These are situations in which ownership makes the most sense. In areas where property values are increasing rapidly, owning allows you to possess an asset that appreciates. And, of course, it also means you can avoid rent increases that are so common in hot real estate markets.

Tax Benefits

As noted above, though the 2017 tax bill lessened the ability to deduct mortgage interest and property taxes, such benefits still exist. In addition, other deductions, including mortgage points, can also work to lower the amount you owe. You get none of these tax perks if you rent.

Mortgage lending discrimination is illegal. If you think you've been discriminated against based on race, religion, sex, marital status, use of public assistance, national origin, disability, or age, there are steps you can take. One such step is to file a report to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and/or with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).  

Emotions

The degree to which you’re emotionally tied to the idea of homeownership—or to the particular home where you currently live—is an important, nonfinancial consideration.

Pros
  • Equity

  • Stability

  • Tax deductions

Cons
  • Maintenance costs, time

  • Illiquidity

  • Property taxes

Advantages of Renting

Selling your home and moving into a rental has its points. If you currently rent, you know these benefits. But if you’re a homeowner contemplating jumping ship, here are some reasons to consider.

Open Options

Renting may make sense if you’re an empty nester, ready to downsize or unsure of where you’ll spend your retirement years. You may want to move away for better weather or a lower cost of living for some years, but also be easily able to move closer to your family later on.

Your health—or that of a family member—can also be a factor if you believe you may need to move soon to receive or give care. Many assisted living, continuing care, or independent living communities are rent-only, leaving you with no choice if that’s where you’ll live.

If you do end up renting, a long-term lease will lessen the uncertainty of rising rents.

Fewer Costs

It’s important to compare the cost of renting to owning in the place where you plan to live. According to a 2016 report from Trulia, renting was less expensive in 98 out of 100 cities with a large population of residents 65 and older. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that in the South owning is typically less expensive than renting.

Less Maintenance

When you rent, you will likely not have to pay for major-league, structural maintenance. According to Millionacres.com, homeowners spend between 1% and 4% each year on upkeep on average. The older the home, the higher the percentage. One caveat: Read the lease carefully before you sign and make sure your landlord is responsible for all (or nearly all) maintenance and repairs, especially if you’re renting a house.

It’s not just the cost. As you get older, your ability to do any of these jobs yourself will inevitably decline. Maybe you don’t want to live somewhere that finds you regularly standing on ladders to change the light bulbs or shoveling snow from the sidewalk—or the roof. That’s when a super or building handyman can really help.

Freed-Up Capital

Renting may free up money that you can invest. That keeps you liquid and can increase your overall income during your retirement years. Investments often grow at a faster rate than real estate appreciates, making them an even better use of your money. Also, ownership puts you at risk in the event of another housing-market crash—something renting does not do.

Pros
  • Liquidity

  • Little maintenance expense, responsibility

  • Flexibility in moving

  • Fewer costs, taxes

Cons
  • Unpredictable rent increases, eviction

  • No equity

  • No tax benefits

  • Inability to customize home

The Bottom Line

For many people approaching retirement, the decision of whether to keep the family manse or downsize to a smaller place is a difficult one. If they do decide to move, the stress and expense that can come with homeownership come into play. Whether to own or rent a home in retirement involves several considerations, such as:

  • What are the tax perks of renting vs. owning?
  • Is the home a potential investment opportunity or just another expense?
  • Which risks come with homeownership, in terms of unexpected costs, and can your budget withstand them?