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5 cities where you'll break even on a house quickly

When You Buy Buying a home seemed too risky to many for a long time, but here are markets where you'd be crazy to rent.

Jerry Kronenberg
by Jerry Kronenberg

BOSTON (MainStreet) — Buying a home seemed too risky to many Americans during the housing bust, but here's a look at five U.S. markets where prices have fallen so low you'd be crazy to rent.

"These are places where prices have in some cases fallen more than 50 percent," says Svenja Gudell, senior economist at market tracker Zillow.com. "They're forecast in many cases to rise really, really strongly because there's no place to go but up."

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Zillow analyzed hundreds of housing markets recently to see how long buyers in each locale would need to "break even" — pay the same in mortgage payments and other expenses (minus any capital gains) that they'd spend on rent.

Gudell says renting makes more sense than buying if you don't stay in a home long enough to reach the break-even point, but buying becomes the better deal thereafter.

Zillow found that break-even points range from one year in Memphis, Tenn.'s Shelby Forest-Frayser neighborhood to 20.3 years in Virginia Beach's upscale Sandbridge area. The average U.S. community has a 3.1-year break-even period.

Here's a look at places offering the shortest break-even points among America's 30 largest cities.

Zillow calculated break-evens by estimating each community's median home price, median rent, typical property taxes, expected future price appreciation and other factors. All figures are as of March 31 and refer to Zillow's estimates of prices and rents for all houses, condos and co-ops (including those not on the market) in each metro area.

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Fifth-shortest break-even period: Dallas/Fort Worth
Break-even point: 2.3 years

Zillow estimates you'll need only a tad more than two years to break even buying a home here instead of renting one.

Gudell says that's because prices are modest today — the median Dallas/Fort Worth home costs $132,700 — but expected to rise a decent 3.5 percent over the next year.

By contrast, the median Dallas/Fort Worth rental costs a relatively high $1,340 per month.

"Home values are a little bit low in relation to rents," Gudell says.

If you're interested in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, Zillow lists more than 5,000 homes for sale there.

Fourth-shortest break-even period: Riverside, Calif.
Break-even point: 2.2 years

Located some 60 miles east of Los Angeles, the Riverside area offers property buyers quick break-evens compared with renting because home prices there are soaring.

Zillow estimates the median Riverside home's value has risen 16.3 percent over the past year to reach $210,100 — with another 17.2 percent gain forecast for the next 12 months.

Gudell says that beats paying the $1,588 a month that Zillow estimates the typical Riverside rental costs.

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"[Big price appreciation] gives you a very short break-even period," she says.

Would-be buyers will find that some 1,400 Riverside properties are for sale.

Third-shortest break-even period: Phoenix, Ariz.
Break-even point: 2.1 years

Phoenix is rising from the housing bust's ashes, with median local property values bouncing back by an estimated 24 percent over the past year to hit $165,600.

Zillow predicts home values will rise another 10.6 percent during the coming 12 months, which means people who buy Phoenix properties can expect a quick break-even point.

Gudell says that's particularly true given that home values are still relatively low when compared with the area's $1,170 estimated median rent.

Add in the expected future home-price appreciation and "it's looking pretty [smart] to buy in Phoenix right now," she says.

Zillow lists nearly 7,000 Phoenix-area houses and condos as up for sale.

Second-shortest break-even period: Miami/Fort Lauderdale
Break-even point: Two years

The Miami/Fort Lauderdale metro area is another market that fell sharply during the housing bust but is snapping back — meaning buyers can expect good future price appreciation and short break-even periods.

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Zillow estimates that median home values rose 12.1 percent there over the past year to reach $159,000, with another 4.1 percent increase expected over the coming 12 months.

Gudell says that when you add in the fact that the metro area's $1,624 median estimated rent is "relatively high compared to home values," buying a home there "looks very attractive."

You can check out some 3,500 properties currently available in and around Miami by clicking here.

Shortest break-even period: Detroit
Break-even point: 1.96 years

Struggling Detroit has seen property prices fall so low that Zillow estimates homebuyers need less than two years to break even by purchasing places instead of renting.

That's because median Motown home values (currently $84,700) fell far more during the housing bust than did rents (now at $1,036 a month), according to Gudell.

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"You can find a house for $60,000 or $70,000 and I guarantee you that your mortgage payment will be less than $1,036 a month," she says.

At the same time, Zillow estimates Motor City home values rebounded 13.1 percent over the past year and will add another 4.4 percent during the coming 12 months — making it even easier to break even by buying instead of renting.

The site lists some 5,000 Detroit-area properties as up for sale.