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It’s now cheaper to rent than buy in San Francisco, says report

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“Escalating prices are driving homes further out of reach”

The San Francisco Bay Bridge behind rows of houses. Photo by ConorD/Shutterstock

In 2017, the real estate site Trulia crunched numbers and determined that it was still cheaper to buy than to rent in San Francisco, albeit by a very slim margin.

At the time, San Jose had even worse figures: buying was cheaper than renting in the South Bay city too, but the difference was only 3.5 percent. Respectively, the two Bay Area cities had the most anemic returns for buyers nationwide in over seven years.

Trulia followed up with a new 2018 report on the topic released today, and now the tables have turned: In San Francisco and San Jose, home values have soared such that it’s now cheaper to rent than buy, at least for anyone in the enviable position of choosing from a perfectly median lease and a perfectly median mortgage.

According to Trulia economist Cheryl Young:

For as long as we have run this report, renting has never been a better deal than buying. But this summer, driven by epic home price appreciation and lifeless rents, renting tips the scales over buying in San Jose and San Francisco.

Home values in San Jose have soared 29.0 percent since last year, while, in San Francisco, home values rose 14.2 percent. Escalating prices are driving homes further out of reach, but there’s a silver lining for home seekers in these Bay Area markets: Rents were unchanged in San Jose and fell three percent in San Francisco.

Young calculates that in San Francisco you save 5.8 percent in the long run by renting, and in San Jose it’s a whopping 12.2 percent.

That’s based on an estimated home value of $1.39 million in San Francisco and $1.28 million in San Jose. Note that home values are estimates and the result of Trulia’s logarithmic projections and may not compare favorably to actual prices when a sale happens.

But the Trulia figures are roughly in line with other sources. In May the California Association of Realtors priced a median San Francisco house at $1.6 million.

But that price doesn’t include cheaper condo prices. In any case, if SF homes end up costing even more than Young calculates, then it would only bolster her recommendation in favor of renting.

Photo by Sundry Photography

Young also employed median estimated rents of $4,095/month (across all types of homes) for SF and $3,500/month for San Jose. That’s far more than the average renter actually pays, but it’s comparable to the figures rental platforms report as the median for their services.

For a potentially more nuanced opinion, in May investing outfit SmartAsset used census data—which is always a year or two out of date, but generally much less speculative—to compare the value of a hypothetical $1,000 rental in San Francisco to the value of purchasing a similar home at roughly $555,000.

The result was the highest price-to-rent ratio in the country at 45.88.

As economist Nick Wallace explains, “As a general rule, a lower price-to-rent ratio indicates that a place is more favorable to homebuyers, while a higher ratio indicates a better environment for renters.”

The SmartAsset results don’t necessarily add up to a concrete, “rent, don’t buy” recommendation à la Trulia. But both studies do agree that that the value of buying over renting in San Francisco is almost historically poor right now.