It's long been the consensus that buying a home is a more sound investment over the long term than renting. Depending on savings, credit history and career stability, among other factors, the former is not always an option, especially when home prices rise as they did in many metro areas throughout 2013.

But the most recent Breakeven Horizon report from Zillow, a leading real estate analysis firm, revealed that as appreciation rates have eased, so too has the amount of time it takes for the home buying investment to pay off in most parts of the U.S. Through the first quarter of 2014, Zillow's research revealed that, on average, buyers will reap the benefits of their decision within two and a half years of their purchases, when compared with paying 30 months' worth of rent. Furthermore, in more than half of the 35 major metro areas analyzed, the breakeven points occur within less than two years.

Renting is not always cheap 

A HousingWire report noted that it's important to provide distinctions between different neighborhoods, even within the same cities, as rent prices can range greatly depending on the ZIP code. That's true of home prices to an extent, as well, but the savvy home buyer is typically better versed in the appreciation potential possessed by their targeted neighborhood. A thorough home inspection and proper upkeep are still absolutely necessary, but the point is that when property values rise locally, it's the owners who stand to gain and the renters whose money is failing to grow.

"Rents keep rising, and mortgage interest rates remain very low, which is helping to skew the rent vs. buy decision toward buying for those who can afford it," said Stan Humphries, Zillow's chief economist. "Many renters may ask themselves why renew a lease, when you can break even on the same home in less time in many areas."

Humphries did acknowledge the range of factors that continue to box much of the renting contingent out of the equation, especially given the emphasis placed on granting only qualified mortgages and ensuring the ability to repay since the recession. Tighter standards for credit approval, as dictated by regulations imposed upon most lenders, have made buying a home easier said than done for many, particularly those strapped with debt. 

"However, some renters still have to overcome significant hurdles before they can pull the trigger on homeownership," Humphries said. "For those renters who can't qualify for a mortgage or aren't able to save enough for a down payment on a house, renting can be a more flexible, and often far less frustrating option for many people."

Higher prices don't necessarily equal worse investments 

Zillow's geographical analysis revealed that the breakeven point is generally further down the road for homeowners in crowded metro areas along the coasts, since inventory is usually thinner and homes cost more to buy. Those higher prices can work both ways though, for those who can afford them. The return on investment comes more quickly in markets such as New York, San Francisco and San Diego, which may be expensive but have also experienced rapid rates of appreciation. Rent prices have also spiked noticeably in many of those areas, further shortening the horizon.

The markets in which the breakeven period is currently shortest all share common traits of recovery. They were hit hard by the recession, riddled with foreclosures in spots and have gradually been climbing back with the broader economic resurgence. Consequently, they are not necessarily expensive, but present buying opportunities with the promise of significant long-term returns. The top four included three Florida metro areas - Miami/Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and Orlando - and Riverside, Calif., all of which have ample inventory at relatively affordable prices.