Recently….well over the last year anyway, I have had friends ask me for advice on whether now is a good time to rent or buy real estate. As most of my friends, colleagues, and locals know, I consider myself a real estate geek and have learned enough hard lessons, however had many great experiences professionally and personally to last a lifetime…and I am only 30 years old but this is an age to where we can take those lessons and build on our future, using real estate as a catapult to financial freedom one day….Discontinue reading if you think real estate is a “get rich quick” scheme. I thought it was when I was younger. Believe me, it’s not.I can write a novel on the difference between renting and buying real estate but I will try to make this short yet helpful. All things equal, owning a house far exceeds the benefit of renting a home. The obvious factors are that by owning, you can build equity and write-off your interest payments on your mortgage. This doesn’t mean that everyone in America should be a homeowner. Real estate is local. For instance, property values are still declining in California. In Florida, prices are starting to level off. In New Jersey I can point out 30 different markets where the market conditions are different. If you live in Montclair, the market is different in Clifton, less than 2 miles away.If real estate values are deteriorating in your neighborhood of choice and your interest rate is not favorable, it could be a good reason to stick with renting for now. Deals don’t go away overnight.If you have cash saved, some tenants prefer renting so that they can play the stock market which historically return 8-10% per year with a good broker. Real estate values typically follow the rate of inflation over the long term. That being said, home ownership has the best tax incentive. Married couples can earn up to $500,000 in gains on their homes TAX FREE, where singles can earn up to $250,000 in gains TAX FREE. If you played the stock market, those gains would be hit by nearly 50% by Uncle Sam.First and foremost, you need to find a neighborhood that you absolutely love. If you have kids, it is important to look in their best interest FIRST before yours. Second, look at property values. If prices are declining and homes are sitting on the market for over 180 days, it may be better off to hold off and rent, analyze for the next year, and buy something possibly in foreclosure when you are ready. How do you find out about Days On Market (DOM)? Call a local agent and ask for homes for sale in your preferred neighborhood. DOM is normally listed.If you do buy, it is best to put down 20%. Avoiding Private Mortgage Insurance is huge today. PMI companies are going broke or already did, and the ones left standing are charging an arm and 2 legs for coverage. Not to mention your closing costs are about 3% higher. Although an FHA loan sounds great with 97% Loan To Value loans, it is quite expensive when you roll things out. Be sure that you understand the pros and cons of FHA versus Conventional financing. I will offer friendly advice to those who ask.Some pros and cons about renting and buying…Well if you rent, you have the flexibility to move. Leases run month to month, 6 months, and 1 year. Home ownership limits you to the market whether it is a buyer or sellers market. The resale of your home is based off of competitive sales and overall demand, not a lease. Renting allows you to blame everything on the landlord. If you don’t like dealing with broken water heaters, leaky roof, and running toilets, then maybe you are a lifelong renter. OWNING a home allows you a huge tax advantage, potential tax-free capital gains, and emotional satisfaction. With that however, comes property taxes and upkeep.If you purchase or contract a home by the end of 2009, you are eligible for the $8,000 tax credit from the IRS and can spread this out over 2 years, something Congress passed to stimulate home ownership. All things aside, this is truly a very good time to start shopping for a home. Historically low prices, low interest rates, and real estate provides an amazing tax shelter. Read my article about the tax credit HERESo a couple paragraphs to conclude, real estate is a very tough and mean industry. If you are not careful, it will eat you up 10 times over. Most people get only one chance and you are done for a long time. Most decisions in life are based off emotion, and in real estate, if you let emotion control your decisions, you are in for a potentially catastrophic ride. Most importantly, let a professional help you with a plan. You can either agree or disagree with their input. But a guy like me can share a wealth of information for those who don’t even know what a home inspection is. Don’t try to tackle buying a home by yourself.On a side note, most of you that know me know that I have more stories about real estate and business that will even draw a surprised look from Ben Stein. I have learned from the best in the industry though and at 30, I feel I have a great amount of experience in real estate acquisition, construction, and finance. I have shared my stories with investment groups across the country and now speak at forums about risk mitigation. One thing that is so important to understand and I’ll say it again, is that real estate is the biggest catapult to financial wealth, freedom, and stability. Most of our parents made a lot of our upbringing possible by home ownership and equity.If you are not ready now, don’t panic or feel that you are missing the boat. The nice thing about real estate is that it is tangible. It will always be there no matter what, different than stocks. Think things through, talk to people, and make a smart decision. Once you make a smart decision, your emotions will take over.Aside from my beautiful family, real estate is the most important thing in my life. I strive to make more good decisions than bad, and if you understand the way I just said that, the industry will force you to make both types of decisions. The key is to not jump the gun. Understand EVERYTHING. Then…one day…everyone will have an opportunity to lead a more secure life no matter whether it is just buying 1 house or 20 houses.