I agree with the discussions in this thread about differentiating between owning rental properties and owning a single family home to live in.
I will also add that rent vs own can turn into a bit of an apples to oranges comparison because owning a property gives the owner certain privileges under the law that are not afforded to renters. For example, in my state I cannot trap animals on private land unless I am the owner (so squirrels are likely to take a big bite out of my vegetable production this Spring).
Additionally, certain ambitious eco projects like solar panels, grey water harvesting, wood/rocket stove, biointensive vegetable gardening on lawns, and small scale livestock are not possible on rented properties without extensive landlord approval. Therefore, although renting provides some flexibility, it also provides limitations on certain life models. I will have more to say about this over the next year when I will likely be pushing the limits of what is possible with homestead production in a rented property. There are of course ways to live a low carbon footprint sustainable life without owning land (see Rob Greenfield), but these strategies are a further Wheaton step away from "normal" society and some of them require skirting zoning laws.
In Chris Cole's article about the Dragon Portfolio, where he models the performance of every asset class over the last 90 years, he has the following to say about real estate:
Chris Cole 13 wrote:Real Estate, defined herein as price appreciation of a single-family home in the United States, is one of the most important investments for the typical American family. The salaryman(woman) that owns a house with a mortgage at a 20% downpayment has replicated a 5x leveraged exposure to the business cycle. While the return to risk is better than Equities (especially after taxes), this investment will still suffer during periods of secular decline, including the periods between 1929-1944 and 2007-2011. Real Estate has the highest return to risk of any single asset we tested over 90 years.
Note that his analysis did not included taxes and transaction fees associated with real estate. Also it is looking at the US as a whole, not a particular market.