WASHINGTON — At 48, Sheryl Bottner is still a renter, and she's proud of it. In fact, she has no intention of buying a home. Not now. Not ever.

WASHINGTON — At 48, Sheryl Bottner is still a renter, and she's proud of it. In fact, she has no intention of buying a home. Not now. Not ever.

Ask her about the "American Dream" of home ownership, and she is resolute in her response.

"I have heard that from my friends for several years," she said. "I had to look at them and say, 'That's your American dream. That's not my American dream.' "

Many of these renters by choice regard themselves as winners as they watch home prices fall in parts of the country and homeowners struggle to pay their adjustable-rate mortgages.

"I don't want to get involved in this 'it's a sellers' market, it's a buyers' market, the subprime mortgage problem,' " said Bottner, a Web communications manager for the National Academy of Sciences.

But have they really won? With the weakening prices and still-low interest rates, economists and housing experts are questioning the wisdom of continuing to sit out of the housing market.

Now is the perfect time to buy, they say, because waiting too long might mean a higher interest rate.

"It does not take much in rising interest rates to wipe out the savings in price decline," said Gregory Leisch, chief executive of Delta Associates, a real estate research firm in suburban Alexandria, Va.

So if you're considering joining the ranks of die-hard renters or following the American tradition of owning a home instead, what should you do?

"The simple answer is that it's not simple," said Mike Larson, a real estate analyst for Weiss Research in Jupiter, Fla.

There was a time when it was simpler. That is, when it cost less to own than to rent. Ten years ago, according to Moody's Economy.com, the average annual cost of owning a home — including mortgages, taxes and maintenance costs — was $10,231 nationally, compared with $13,090 for renting.

Then things changed. Owning became more expensive than renting in the first quarter of 2004, and that trend has persisted. In the second quarter of this year, nationwide, the average annual cost of owning a home was $17,707, compared with $15,721 for renting.

"In the last four years, rent became a four-letter word. No one wanted to rent. They looked down upon it ..." said Larson. "I think a lot of people just assumed buying makes sense. They drank the Kool-Aid and unfortunately are finding themselves now in a tough spot."

There are many reasons why housing costs increased, economists say. First, lenders promoted exotic mortgages that did not require large down payments, if any, leaving homeowners with large monthly payments. Second, because interest rates were at record lows, people bought more house than they could afford.

Proponents of homeownership say the benefits offset those high housing costs.

The federal government has aggressively pushed homeownership — President Bush once called for an "ownership society" — through its mortgage interest deduction and its creation of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which buy mortgages from lenders. Such efforts, coupled with creative financing from banks, drove the national homeownership rate to a high of 69.2 percent in 2004 before it dropped to 68.2 percent in the third quarter of this year.

"The mortgage interest is tax-deductible as opposed to rent, which is not," said Heather Evans, vice president and wealth management adviser at a suburban Merrill Lynch office.

Plus, if you get a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage, your monthly payment will remain the same for that time. True, your taxes and insurance might increase. But rents could rise more precipitously. "Your rent is eventually going to double where your mortgage isn't," Evans said.

History has shown that housing prices eventually rise after real estate busts.

"Everything is cyclical. This isn't like a forever thing. The stock market goes up and down, and the housing market goes up and down," said Susan Black, director of financial planning at eMoney Advisor.

So you will eventually build equity in your home — if you keep it long enough.

If you have a job that might move you in a couple of years, it's probably not a good idea to buy, Evans, Black and other housing experts said.

If you expect to make money off your home, or at least break even, be prepared to own it for a long time. And don't forget to factor in the costs of selling the property. Sellers typically have to pay real estate agents 6 percent of the sales price, and there are other fees owed to the bank and city you live in.

"The place has to appreciate 5 to 10 percent at minimum," Leisch said. "Therefore, you shouldn't plan on holding the place for less than three years."

Or longer, say other experts.

"Don't think of a home as an investment," said John McIlwain, senior fellow on housing for the Urban Land Institute. "It may well help build your wealth, but don't buy a home just because you want to make money. There was a time years ago when people were making money, but homes are to be lived in."

And to be lived in, they must be maintained.

"You need to have extra cash flow ... for monthly upkeep of the home," Black said. "What if your heater breaks? What if your air conditioner breaks?"

That's one reason Duncan Chaplin, 47, still rents.

"I don't mind repairing things. I can do it. But boy, my landlord is great at it," he said.

Renting has also been financially more prudent for him. He has lived in the same Washington building since 1997, and his rent, he says, has not increased much. He declined to say how much he pays per month but called it "cheap." "It seems I've done much better than most people in terms of rent," he said.

When Chaplin, a researcher at Mathematica Policy Research, considers how much he has for a down payment and how much he would have to pay to own a comparable home in his neighborhood, staying put in his two-bedroom rental makes sense.

"It seems to me like investing in a house for the sake of money is almost always a mistake if you want to reduce risk," he said. "So it seems to me that it makes more sense to put your money in the stock market."

Bottner owned a home in Arizona for six years. It was her then-husband's at first. She bought a stake in it but let him keep the house when they divorced in 1995.

"It seemed like a good idea at the time. After a while, I felt that all I was doing was fixing things," said Bottner, who now rents a suburban one-bedroom apartment for $1,205 a month. "Owning a home is not all it's cracked up to be."

Renters also avoid many of the other extra expenses homeowners face: property taxes, homeowners insurance, homeowners association or condominium fees, and, in many cases, utilities. As a renter, some or all monthly utility bills might be included in the rent. Probably not so when you own a home, unless the association fees cover them.

That's why Shalonda Long, 31, a property manager, said she has "no desire" to ever be a homeowner. She lives in a rented two-bedroom suburban townhouse with her husband and mother. She doesn't worry about taxes, paying for repairs, or the market's ups and downs.

"I don't think I've ever had a desire to own a home," she said. "I remember watching my parents cutting the grass and whining about taxes. Homeownership works for some. It doesn't work for me."

Unlike Long, Susan Raneri thinks homeownership will work for her someday — just not before the end of next year. Raneri said she doesn't want to repeat some of her friends' mistakes.

"I just saw a lot of people around me buying things that were risky," said Raneri, who recently signed another one-year lease for a rental in Baltimore. "I just don't think it's a wise idea to be buying something when you can get it for $100,000 or $200,000 less two years later."