hotpads-logo.jpgWith plummeting housing prices and rental rates going up (credit crunch victims need a place to live, after all), prospective home buyers face more confusion about whether it’s better to buy or rent a home.

Housing search engine and listing service thinks it has the answer to the conundrum: showing rental and mortgage rates side by side on the screen.

On Monday the Washington, D.C. company will launch the first “buy vs. rent” search feature in the industry. Select a city and a target location from the list on the left of your screen, and a map of the area comes up with a choice of a street, aerial or hybrid view. Then enter the amount you’re prepared to pay for a place per month. Hotpads then returns all the matching properties on a 3D map. Red homes are those for sale, and Hotpads shows only those you can afford with a mortgage payment in the range you selected, and yellow homes are for rent, and it will only show those with rental payments in the same range. See image below.

You can also tweak the amount you’re prepared to pay per month, with a slider. You can also change the loan terms you want for a purchase — size of down payment, length of mortgage and the interest rate you think you can get — and matching properties again pop up on a 3D map.

As you click on each property on the map, a bubble pops up showing pricing details. See image below.

This will be useful for some people. Even before the credit crunch shook things up, we knew several young professionals who were undecided about whether they should rent or buy. Obviously, short-term and long-term goals will and should factor into that decision, but for some, it boils down to a practical decision about how much they can afford, and this map lets them know what they’re really getting with buy vs. rent.

Launched in November of 2005 by Doug Pope and two other college roommates, the company says its site has 300,000 visitors a month. It kicked off with $200,000 in seed money from family, friends and the founders. In March, it raised $2.3 million in a first round of capital from Meakem Becker Venture Capital and the Investment Group of Santa Barbara. Pope expects to raise a larger round of venture capital next year.