Real Estate

Should You Sell Your House or Rent It?

Tenants. Taxes. Cash flow. ROI. There are lots of factors to weigh. This contributor tells you how.
Should You Sell Your House or Rent It?
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Remember that old high school girlfriend -- the one with the annoying laugh? You put up with her because she was nice enough, but one day you met that new girl, and she was everything you ever wanted. Best of all, your new romantic target showed definite signs of interest and wanted to date. But you had a problem: You still had the old girlfriend.

While this drama doesn’t take place in the life of every high school student, something similar does happen to most adults. But, rather than girlfriends . . . it’s houses. 

You buy a house and it’s fine, but then you need to move on to another property. Maybe that's by choice or work is forcing you to relocate. Either way, you have the same problem as that high school Romeo: What to do with the old house?

Related: 6 Ways to Reduce Pain When Selling Your Home

While trying to date two girls at once may prove difficult, owning two homes can actually work and be profitable if you rent out the previous home. By keeping the house, you can begin building serious wealth through cash flow and equity. But how do you know if that’s the right move?

Sell the house and move on? Or rent it out? As with most real estate questions, these are not universal “right or wrong” questions, but once you understand the options, you can make the best choice for your situation.

Here are five factors to consider when deciding whether to sell or rent out your house.

1. Will this property generate cash flow?

The first thing to look at when deciding whether to rent or sell your house is the math. I know, math was likely not your favorite subject in school, but luckily all you need is a fifth-grade mind to understand real estate investment math.

First, ask: Will this property produce positive cash flow?

In other words, when this property is rented out, and you deduct all of the associated expenses (mortgage, taxes, insurance, utilities, management, vacancy, repairs, HOAs, etc.), will the property produce a monthly profit or a loss? If it's a loss, consider selling.

For more on analyzing properties, read my Ultimate Guide to Analyzing Rental Properties.

2. What about the return on investment?

Next, consider how much you would profit if you sold the property today, assuming you’d lose around 10 percent to agent fees, closing costs and other sales expenses. If you would make little or nothing, it may be advantageous to hold on to the property and wait for the market to improve over time. This is especially true if the property will provide positive cash flow in the meantime.

If you would make a profit by selling, consider your return on investment. For example, if you could make $100,000 in profit by selling your house and achieve only $1,000 per year in cash flow, that’s a 1 percent return on investment. Better to take that $100,000 profit and invest it in something else that could produce a higher return.

Related: Rent or Sell? What to Do When You Leave Your Home.

3. Consider the taxes.

The U.S. government does a lot of things I don’t agree with, but one thing it does that I absolutely love is the potential exclusion from paying capital gains tax that's allowed on the sale of your primary residence.

Normally, if you sell real estate and make a profit, you have to pay capital gains tax on the sale, up to 20 percent, depending on your tax bracket. However, the IRS allows homeowners (sorry, investors!) to exclude the sale of up to $250,000 (or $500,000 if married filing jointly) of a primary residence if you lived in the home for at least two of the last five years.

Let’s look at another example where this might come in handy. Consider the fictional case of Bob and Marge, who bought their home in 1990 for $150,000. Today, they can sell the property for $500,000, clearing $300,000 after the sales expenses.

If they keep the home as a rental for, let’s say, five years and then sell, they’ll potentially owe $60,000 in taxes. But if they sell now, they can potentially keep that $300,000 in profit without paying any capital gains tax.

Related: Buy a Rental Property Before Year-End: Why and How

Of course, by keeping the property, there is always the likelihood that it will appreciate in value to a level higher than what the tax would have been, but there are no guarantees when it comes to real estate values.

(And I’m not a CPA, so to learn more about this possible capital gains tax exclusion, consult a tax advisor or read the IRS’ rules on the topic.)

4. Does the future look bright?

Another important factor to consider when deciding whether to rent or sell your house requires gazining into your your crystal ball for the future. What do the next five, 10, 20 years look like for your home’s location? Are things improving? Will your neighborhood decline in value? If the future looks dark, consider selling now to avoid problems later on.

Of course, we don’t have crystal balls, but trying to gauge where the market’s going is not impossible. Take a look at the growth of your city -- is it moving away from you or toward you? Are businesses moving into your area? Are homes being fixed up or left to rot? You can’t know with 100 percent certainty, but by analyzing the current trends in your market, you can make a more informed decision on whether to hold on or sell now.

5. Can you handle tenants?

Finally, ask yourself: Are you willing to be a landlord? Because, honestly, many people are simply not cut out for the life. While some tenants are a dream to manage, others require significant time and patience to deal with. Last week, I had to deal with the eviction of a “garbage hoarder.” It wasn’t pretty.

Luckily, landlording is a skill that can be learned and improved upon. All new landlords make mistakes, but if you are the kind of person who is willing to learn, you’ll do fine.

Also, just because you own rental properties does not mean you have to be the person dealing with the tenants. Professional property management companies exist in nearly every city, and if you can find a great manager, he or she can cut the stress of rental property ownership down to a minimum (for a fee, of course!).

So, once again, should you rent or sell your house?

Unlike what happens with high school girlfriends, real estate allows you to keep both the old and the new. But deciding whether to rent or sell is a choice only you can make after weighing all the options.

Related: The 10 Best Cities for Buying or Selling a Home

If you are trying to make that decision right now, take a look at the five factors outlined above and make the choice that works best for you, your family and your financial future.

Brandon Turner is a real estate entrepreneur and the VP of Growth at BiggerPockets.com, one of the web’s largest real estate investing communities. He is also the author of The Book on Rental Property InvestingThe Book on Investing in Real Estate with No (and Low) Money Down and several other books. Buying his first home at the age of 21, Turner quickly grew his real estate portfolio to over 40 units using a variety of creative finance methods. He and his wife Heather live in Grays Harbor, Wash.