Dog sleeping

Should I rent or buy? Should I pay off my mortgage early? Should I refinance? Should I buy as much house as I can afford?

These questions are asked over and over and over and over. They’re a bit tricky to answer because everyone’s situations are different. Renting vs. buying is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. You might read things like “The typical homebuyer is married, 33 years old, with 1.5 kids and blah, blah, blah,” but the truth is that there is no such thing as a typical home buyer.

Every buyer, every individual situation is unique. Really.

Should I buy a home? Yes, I should buy a home. Should you? Should your parents? Should Gwen from accounting? It all depends. The rent vs. buy question is the same for all of them, but the answer might be different for each of them. How can an either-or question have that many answers?

Well, when you’re dealing with so many truly individual situations, the answers usually go something like “But, IF…” or “Rent, BUT…”. Every answer has to come with some kind of qualifier. And that’s the case no matter who you are or where you are.

Except that there’s one way to answer that DOES apply the same to every single real estate question. At least all the “Should I…” questions. Here’s the ultra-valuable, always correct answer to all those questions:

Just make sure you can sleep at night.

That’s a more dramatic way of saying: “Do what you’re comfortable with.”

All the dollars-and-cents facts, wisdom or whatever that make buying vs. renting seem a no-brainer don’t mean a think if you’re constantly going to be worried about owning a home. Taking the $20,000 you have saved up and paying off the last couple of years of your mortgage could make total sense on paper, but if you’re going to lie awake in bed wondering what would become of that $20,000 had you invested it instead, it’s not worth it.

If you are thinking of selling your home because homes in your neighborhood are fetching ridiculous prices and you stand to make a bunch of money, but you love living there, you might regret selling for a long time. Dollars, you see, often look one way on paper but have a way of affecting your day-to-day life a little differently. We don’t live our lives on paper.

You can do all the math you want. Thinking of refinancing? Figure out how long you’re going to stay in the home. Do the calculations about how long it will take to recoup your up-front costs at a lower rate. Or figure how much more it will cost you each month to go from your 30-year loan to a 15-year. Is that worth it?

Financially, “worth it” means something different than “worth it” in the grand scheme of things. Your decisions have to fit into your life. If after all that math, you can answer “Yes” to the “Will I be able to sleep at night” question, meaning you’re comfortable with the outcome, then it’s the right move.

But if you can’t get comfortable with it now, it’s probably not going to get any easier. All the numbers can add up, but if you’re not comfortable, then it’s probably not the right move.

Of course, this applies to life in general, not just real estate. You have to be comfortable with the potential consequences of just about every decision you make if you want to live a low-stress life. It’s just that in real estate it’s a little different because so often we “run the numbers” and expect them to give answers that, mostly, are guides to a decision, NOT decision-makers.

People are the decision-makers. Sure, it appears on the surface that real estate decisions are about numbers. But real estate has always been much, much more about people.

And every one of those people is different. Not just their income levels, or credit scores or wants and needs in a home. But in their comfort levels, long-term concerns and psyches. Different people mean different answers, numbers be damned.

Just make sure you can sleep at night.