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Mon Feb 9, 2015, 09:06 AM

Is Buying a House Still the Best Way to Build Wealth? [View all]

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/02/is-buying-a-house-still-the-best-way-to-build-wealth/385243/

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Ricardo and Denise Cabrera were so burned by the last housing crash that it is hard to believe they're vying to become homeowners again.

In 2005, the couple bought a starter home for $490,000 just outside of Los Angeles through a no-money-down, interest-only loan. By 2009, after the market crash, that same home was worth roughly $150,000 less. The couple decided to do a short sale to get out from underneath their mortgage. The only problem? It prevented them from pulling any equity out of the house; just as bad, it marred their high credit scores. "We walked away with nothing," Denise says.

Now, after five years of renting, the Cabreras are once again putting their faith (and savings) into the housing market—this time, through a 10 percent-down mortgage on a five-bedroom, Cape Cod-style house in the San Fernando Valley, on the edge of Los Angeles. The seller accepted the couple's bid of $530,000, after receiving roughly 20 other offers, Ricardo says. With the property now in escrow, the Cabreras and their children, ages 9, 5, and 4, hope to move in by the end of February. "For me, the house is something we can pass on to the kids," Ricardo says. "Paying rent is just like throwing your money away."

The ideal of American homeownership may have been tarnished during the recession, as the values of so many homes plummeted and the number of foreclosures across the country soared. But for many Americans, like the Cabreras, the emotional rush of buying a home still represents a significant marker of stability and financial success. Buying often gives families access to safer neighborhoods, better schools, and more services than renting. And, like it or not, homeownership still offers the best way to save money for the majority of Americans by building up equity, especially in this era of dwindling pensions and stagnant wages. "It is a forced saving mechanism, and if you don't have to think about saving, it goes better," says Brett Theodos, a senior research associate at the nonpartisan think tank, the Urban Institute.

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