After seeing how the housing market has collapsed over recent years, you may wonder why anyone in their right mind would want to enter the tricky game of homeownership.

Here is a compelling reason: It’s cheaper than renting — at least that is the case in nearly four of five major U.S. cities, according to a rent vs. buy index released by Trulia today.

The index showed it is cheaper to own a home than to rent in 39 of the 50 cities included in the research. The only cities where the cost of homeownership is “much greater” than renting are New York, Fort Worth and Kansas City.

Las Vegas, one of the areas hit hardest by the foreclosure crisis, ranked at the top of the affordability index, followed by Phoenix and Arlington, Texas.

Granted, the index doesn’t take into consideration the costs of maintaining a home. In most rentals, the landlord picks up the tab whenever there is a maintenance issue. Many first-time homebuyers don’t realize they’ll be faced with those extra costs until after they move into their new home.

But in some areas prices have tumbled so low that even if you factor in the cost of replacing a broken air conditioning unit every other year, it would still be cheaper to own.

That trend is expected to continue through the rest of the year as the rental market gains strength. Rents have started climbing and apartment vacancies have been dropping, according to various recent market studies.

Those who are hesitating to buy a home or can’t qualify for a mortgage loan in the still tight lending market will likely be stuck with higher rents.

Some may choose the higher rent prices over having to deal with the headaches of owning a home.

What will you choose? I guess a better question is: Will you have a choice?

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