Monday, September 13, 2010

Q&A: Should I Buy a Bigger House for Roommates?

Following last week's post on the ROI of rental properties, another interesting question is whether you should buy a small one-bedroom condo (for example) to keep expenses low, or a three- or four-bedroom house to gain some rental income. There are two main considerations: ROI and overall financial safety.

As far as ROI is concerned, I think it's very similar to last week's calculations. There are some differences in the details, though. Your principal and interest (P&I) payment will be higher, but when determining the ROI on the rental portion of your property, I think it should be specified as the difference between the large house's payment and the small home's P&I. You would have had the base P&I payment anyway, so it's not really a cost associated with the renters. Similarly for most of the expenses. Property taxes and insurance will be higher for a larger house, usually. Maintenance costs will be higher with the increased wear and tear, and you'll need a larger refrigerator, but maintenance costs haven't risen that much for me. Utilities will be higher, but probably not terribly so.

Your investment amount should be the increase in down payment, or the difference in overall home value. In this scenario, I am strongly inclined to use the overall home value in my calculations. This gets into the overall financial safety aspect. A pure rental property can be abandoned and sold off if you don't want to deal with renters anymore. If you get tired of having roommates, you can kick them out, but you still have to pay for the entire house. Lowering your expenses requires moving and the house-buying-and-selling process and headaches associated with it.

Consequently, I think it is very important to buy a house with many financial cushions included, even when you plan on having roommates. As I mentioned ages ago, I bought my home knowing I could afford the payments and other costs using just my base salary after all my preferred expenses had been taken out - 401(k) contributions, IRA contributions, miscellaneous spending money. Each of these expenses was a cushion, and any rental income was a nice bonus.

And there are other reasons why you may not have roommates anymore. I would guess that most people are single when they contemplate having roommates in a house they are buying. It's possible you meet that special someone that thinks you're a special someone, too. Roommates may get in the way then. It's possible that special someone comes with a second income that's much higher than that provided by roommates, but they might also be going (back) to school, or you might be having kids right away and one of you will be staying home. Either way, it'd be nice to be able to spend your first year together in wedded bliss, rather than struggling to downgrade your home.

For me, it seemed to make sense to buy a bit bigger. It's definitely worked out so far. On the other hand, I'd have a much lower debt than I have now, and might have purchased a standalone rental property already. It's hard to know exactly how things would have been different, but I can't say I've had any major regrets with my house and/or roommate situation.

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