I’ve done a lot of things I’m proud of. I think the rent-vs-buy spreadsheet has to feature somewhere near the top of that list (at least if we limit the discussion to things I’ve done for personal finance). It’s the only such calculator to let you include the risk of future rate increases, and includes many important factors without completely blowing the whole thing open to the maze of apples-to-basement-suite type comparisons. Rather than starting blank or with valuations that may have been relevant in 1995, it’s prepopulated with recent data from Toronto (and every 6 months or so I even update the interest rate projections based on what’s available in the mortgage market). Moreover because it’s a spreadsheet you can check the math (or tweak it to do an apples-to-basement-suite comparison) if you so choose.
Really the only drawback is that it’s a spreadsheet rather than a flashy widget (and I keep meaning to get around to learning how to code those but it’s just too big a time commitment for me now), which seems to hurt its popularity. Because other rent-vs-buy calculators are still popular, let’s take a tour through the options.
New York Times: The NYT calculator was updated recently. It takes a neat approach in that instead of getting you to tell it what the cost of rent is, it computes what the equivalent breakeven rent would, and leaves it up to you: “if you can rent for less than this, then rent.” It also has itty-bitty graphs that show you the sensitivity of the outcome to each factor. Now, I prefer my approach because it’s clearer what the magnitude of that is. Maybe you can rent for less, but if it only works out to $10k more over 10 years, maybe “pride of ownership” is worth that. Or maybe the difference merely looks small when expressed in monthly terms: if NYT says to rent below $2500/mo and you find a place for $2000, maybe that sounds like it’s close enough to break-even that you’ll just buy. But if you saw how quickly that difference compounds into hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe your decision would be different. There’s no way in the current NYT calculator to enter your market rent to make a comparison.
My main beef with the NYT calculator is that you have to tweak it for Canadians in really non-intuitive ways. The big change is that you have to set your tax rate to zero — in the calculator it’s not the investments that are being taxed, but that Americans get a tax deduction for mortgage interest. I think the NYT one is the most-recommended one out there. Even Rob Carrick recommends it on a regular basis, which stings because the refinements to my calculator came about through discussions on his facebook page. Rob Carrick why don’t you love me??? Ahem. Anyway, it’s not bad — actually rather good if you’re American — it’s just that the link doesn’t usually come with the appropriate Canadian conversion kit, and there are Canadian calculators [waves] available.
Getsmarteraboutmoney: This one IS BROKEN. Stop sending people to it. I talked about the “wonky” results back in December, and emailed them about it as well. They acknowledged the problem back in March and said they would fix it soon. Well, it’s still broken and there isn’t even a notice on the webpage about it or anything. The main problems are that it always sells in year 30, so you can’t compare other holding periods (even though the graph visually implies that it is looking at break-even times), but the larger error is that it does not compound the differences in cashflow between the renting and buying option. That can really skew the difference between the options over a long time period. Otherwise it is flashy and pretty and has sliders for all the right things, so it should be good to go in a couple of years when they finally fix the back-end calculations. Of course, that just makes the math errors that much more tragic because it looks like it should be fancy and trustworthy.
RBC: To be clear, they call it a “rent or buy calculator,” not me. It is simply not a calculator to compare the two options. The only inputs are how much you pay in rent, what interest rates are, and how long you want your amortization period to be. Then it tells you how much house you could buy with a mortgage payment “equivalent” to your rent — note that it ignores tax and maintenance and opportunity cost and insur– just all the costs. Every ownership cost you can think of, it is ignored. I’m hoping it ranks so highly in Google because they bribed someone and not because people are actually linking to that POS.
In fact as a short-cut, if a rent-vs-buy calculator doesn’t have an input for your investment return as a renter, just throw it away. It’s likely missing a number of other important factors for the decision. Naturally, Genworth’s is similarly biased, as are most of the other big bank ones. CIBC’s is not that bad, but it does miss transaction costs and insurance. Its rates of return for a renter’s investment and the house are are unhelpfully labelled “market appreciation” and “rate of return” — you tell me which is which.
First Foundation: They recently launched their suite of calculators, including a rent-vs-buy calculator. It seems to do all the calculations properly and includes the most relevant factors. I could nitpick and add the ability to include future rate increases or whatever, or to start with all three tabs open, but the only real criticism I have of it is that the default for maintenance is zero rather than some wrong-but-better-than-zero approximate number. Also, the property taxes are annual while the maintenance is monthly. It’s explained in the tooltip, but the average user buzzing through it might get wonky results before realizing the problem. It’s not mine, and I can quibble, but the math checks out and it includes the important factors others often miss — First Foundation gets the nod.
Money Geek: I opened it up and I was like “nnnnnnuuugggggghhhhhhhh…” as my brain started to overload. This must be how other people feel when they open one of my ridiculously overly detailed spreadsheets. I can’t actually evaluate it because it only works in the bleeding-edge versions of Excel. But it’s there if you can get past that technical challenge.
Yahoo Finance: I’ve seen this exact one around on other sites, so it must be a licensed calculator/widget. Anyway, all the tax issues of being American, without the benefit of sensible defaults (0% selling cost yet 5% house appreciation?). It’s also a little odd in that it subtracts the opportunity cost of investing the down-payment from the owner’s side rather than adding the value to the renter’s side — I haven’t thoroughly tested it to see if that still gives the correct results but a spot test looked in the ballpark.