Its time to buy that house

It’s time to Buy That House

Is there good news in the housing market?  Two key measures now suggest it’s an excellent time to buy a house, either to live in for the long term or for investment income (but not for a quick flip). First, the nation’s ratio of house prices to yearly rents is nearly restored to its pre-bubble average. Second, when mortgage rates are taken into consideration, houses are the most affordable they have been in decades.

Two of the silliest mantras during the real-estate bubble were that a house is the best investment you will ever make and that a renter “throws money down the drain.” Whether buying is a better deal than renting isn’t a stagnant fact but a changing condition that depends on the relationship between prices and rents, the cost of financing and other factors.

But for most home buyers, mortgage rates are a key determinant of their total costs. Rates are so low now that houses in many markets look like bargains. The 30-year mortgage rate is currently 3.5%.

• How Much Can You Afford
As a result, house payments are more affordable than they have been in decades. The National Association of Realtors Housing Affordability Index hit 183.7 in August, near its record high in data going back to 1970. The index’s historic average is roughly 120. A reading of 100 would mean that a median-income family with a 20% down payment can afford a mortgage on a median-price home. So today’s buyers can afford handsome houses—but prudent ones might opt for moderate houses with skimpy payments.

Of course, all of this assumes mortgages are available—no given now that lending standards have tightened. But long-term data on down payments and credit scores suggest conditions are more normal than many buyers think, according to Stan Humphries, chief economist at Zillow. “If you have good credit, a job and a down payment, you can get a mortgage,” Mr. Humphries says. “There’s more paperwork and scrutiny than five years ago, but things are pretty much like they were in the ’80s and ’90s.”