Rent vs buy, Manhattan edition

By Felix Salmon
May 9, 2012

newpic.jpg Yesterday, I published the chart on the right, showing that in the nation as a whole, houses look like they’re a pretty good value, relative to rents, for the first time in many years. The chart elicited an email from one New Yorker, asking whether the same thing was true here in Manhattan.

It’s a good question, so I asked Jonathan Miller, of Miller Samuel, to provide some New York data which I could overlay on the US chart. And here’s the result:


The most striking thing, of course, is how expensive New York is relative to the country as a whole: that huge spike in the original chart now just looks like more of a foothill.

But it’s also clear that even with record-low interest rates, Manhattan prices are still a lot higher than Manhattan rents.

It wasn’t always that way. Rents were higher than prices from the fourth quarter of 1994 through the fourth quarter of 1999 — a full five years, during which prices rose from $227,500 to $320,000. Which in hindsight was a great time to buy, seeing as how prices now are at $775,000.

Obviously the Manhattan data series, with fewer transactions, are much noisier than the national series. But broadly speaking, it costs you the same amount to buy a house today, in terms of your monthly mortgage payment, as it did at the end of 2004, when the median sales price was just over $600,000. By the standards of recent history, then, Manhattan real estate is a lot more affordable than it was during the bubble. But look back a couple of decades, and it still looks expensive. And compare it to rents, and it still looks like you’d be better off renting than buying.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Does this data filter out historically rent controlled apartments? (I raise the point not to argue the merit of that policy, but if you are asking which is a better buy, the relevant comparison point is probably market rent.)

Posted by alkali | Report as abusive

It’s the maintenance/common fees that kill you in Manhattan! Even after you buy, you’re paying a good percentage of what the rent would be every month.

Posted by AngryInCali | Report as abusive

Felix – a few ideas for you:

(1) log(n) and re-base the data series so that you show *relative* Manhattan vs. all-country, and make the growth trends more meaningful to the human brain. Absolute, compounded prices are not that relevant for what you’re trying to show.

(2) it’d be interesting to chart your Manhattan real estate graph against some sort of Manhattan compensation or wealth metrics. Is Manhattan compensation/wealth not changing in the same way that it is in other parts of the country, and might that explain the continued elevation of purchase prices?

(3) Sectors: How much of this is made up of very high-end properties vs. middle-class purchases? Is high-end Manahattan real estate not unlike high-end art, with such an increasing and global class of very rich people that super-luxury goods/assets have a constant bid, regardless of rent-buy relative valuation?

Do you think people that can afford $20+ million purchases really care what the rent vs. buy calculus is? At that level, real estate is an asset, not shelter expense like lower-priced houses and rental apartments.

(4) Where’s the link to the underlying data sets, so that we can play, too?

Posted by SteveHamlin | Report as abusive

I’d be interested in the outer boroughs, but perhaps nobody else would.

Posted by dWj | Report as abusive

I think there might be some systematic measurement error for the sale prices since the difference between median asking prices and actual sale prices is likely affected by the state of the market. IE in 2006 the median sale price might have been above the median asking price and in 2009 it was probably way below.
Also I wonder if there has been some systemic change to the housing stock through better units moving from rental to sale.

Posted by tuckerm | Report as abusive

dWj–I’d guess the picture for the outer boroughs probably looks different, but probably varies a lot more by neighborhood. But in the outer reaches of the city you’re more likely to find properties affordable for middle-class families. In Manhattan, it’s mainly high-end lux condos for sale, so it doesn’t really reflect a broad market.

Posted by Moopheus | Report as abusive

Perhaps I overlooked something, but omitting the mortgage interest deduction as a variable (impossible though it may be to come with a good number) strikes me as a distortion of the data.

Posted by MalcolmCarter | Report as abusive

I think the last sentence is the worst/bad rubbish advice I’ve read lately…”And compare it to rents, and it still looks like you’d be better off renting than buying.”

In my opinion, given the choice and if you can afford it…the no brainer here is to buy. If you can afford $3k on rent than certainly you rather pay $3k on a home that is ‘yours’ plus the mortgage,tax deductions makes it an worth while investment instead of give money to the landlord or a black hole. Especially,here in NYC were rent is so high and the market so far has been stable.

Posted by mnguyea | Report as abusive

@Malcolm: I’m not sure the mortgage deduction is an independent variable here; it’s pretty much going to scale with mortgage payment, isn’t it?

Perhaps this will help (and also address the last comment by mnguyea): what you should be looking at here is not “buy if the purple line is lower, rent if the green line is lower”. The interest deduction (which, even in a high-tax state like New York, isn’t worth that much — remember, you lose your standard deduction if you itemize) is a smaller adjustment than things like property taxes, maintenance, and even home price appreciation, all of which should drive the gap between monthly mortgage payments and rent on an equivalent apartment up and down. And, as mnguyea seems to indicate, some people just prefer to live in a place that is, in whatever sense, “theirs”, whether that means they can paint the walls without permission or just that it feels more like home because they own it. Try to quantify these things as best you can if you’re making a concrete decision between buying one place and renting another, but in terms of generalities, I think you’re likely to add more noise than signal to simply looking at these lines and saying, “before the bubble, the ratio between these values bopped around in a range that’s mostly still lower than where it is today”.

Posted by dWj | Report as abusive

Regarding that deduction, I do continue to think that it matters a great deal in NYC. As Miller reports about Q1, entry-level sales (of studios and one-bedrooms) amounted to nearly half of all sales (48.1%). The median price of condos was $1.05 million; for co-ops, $638,000. With average rent reported this week hovering around $4,000 monthly, depending on the data source, I think it is unlikely that those who move from renting to buying use the standard deduction anyway.

To me, the larger point, which underlies your previous response, dWj, is that using the mortgage payment without various qualifications does not compare apples to apples very well. Moreover, as Miller’s report shows, sales of entry-level co-ops amount to the vast majority of that type of apartment that changed hands, while sales of condos approached nearly half in the first quarter–and most wouldn’t be classified as “high-end.”

As a real estate broker, I can say with confidence that most buyers I encounter at open houses and elsewhere are middle-class consumers trying to squeeze themselves and their families into spaces that residents outside NYC would find laughable.

In any case, thanks for the provocative piece, Felix.

Posted by MalcolmCarter | Report as abusive

Mtge deduction isn’t exactly proportional to mtge payment. In low interest rate environment, the interest rate portion is smaller percent of total payment.

It would be interesting to see the graphs by size (1BR, 2BR) as portions of 1BR in rentals and purchases may vary over time. I agree with earlier statements that total costs of buying should include HOA + real estate tax (or maintenance) and cost associated with tying up down payment. Minus interest deduction.

Posted by dc10023 | Report as abusive