Renting- The New American Dream
Renting: The new American dream?
Homeownership rates are falling, and the trend is expected to continue. Is something fundamental changing in the American psyche?
Mark Kiesel and his wife, Amy, sold their Newport Beach, Calif., home in 2006, near the peak of the housing bubble. They put most of their possessions in storage and rented a 1,400-square-foot apartment that's still their home, five years later.
Kiesel is managing director at investment management company Pimco. His research for work helped him spot the coming crash, and his research today tells him there's no hurry to buy a home again. Besides, he's happy as a renter.
"I'm considering buying," he says, "but I'm pretty confident that I'll be waiting to buy until 2012, or it might be 2013."
Kiesel has plenty of company. While real-estate listings languish, the demand for rentals is growing. Nationally, rental occupancy is 93.1%, a rate last seen in 2007 (but below a peak of 96.6% in 2000).
Renting "has cachet. It's the new black," says Stan Humphries, the chief economist at Zillow. His company's research found that a quarter of Zillow users were open to buying or renting, leading the company to add rentals to its property and to unveil a feature that lets users estimate the rental value of a listing.
"There's a wall of capital moving into apartment development," says Jeff Meyers, a principal in Meyers LLC, which advises investors on the multifamily housing industry. "Put it this way: It's easier for an apartment builder to get a construction loan than it is for the average American to get a mortgage."
Plenty of reasons to rent
Is renting about to replace property ownership in the hearts and psyches of Americans? With the traumatic disruption in housing lately, it certainly feels as if something fundamental is changing.
Some economists believe an elite class of renters may be developing: high-earning workers who live in big coastal cities and switch jobs readily, Humphries says.
Powerful forces are contributing to the rise of renting:
- Foreclosure refugees. "We're going to take 5 million to 6 million homeowners and turn them into renters because they're going to lose their house to the bank," predicts housing analyst John Burns, the CEO of John Burns Real Estate Consulting. Credit reporting company TransUnion surveyed 1,252 managers of large and small apartment complexes last month and found that nearly half had reported an increase in tenants moving from foreclosed properties.
- New households. As soon as the economy started improving, people who'd been waiting out the recession by living with friends or family started to strike out in search of rental homes of their own.
- Fear. Many renters have the finances to own a home, but, like Kiesel, they don't want to. They sleep better without their savings sunk in a deteriorating housing market. Or they're younger and childless and like the freedom of renting. Or they're empty nesters who've had enough of home-maintenance chores and expenses.
- Tight credit. With home prices down about a third since 2006, lots of other renters would love to buy a home at current low prices, but they just can't. Even many with good credit. Newly chastened lenders are granting home loans to very few applicants.
- Gen Y. The biggest factor in the rental boom may not be the housing crisis at all but rather the gigantic Millennial generation -- the cohort born in the 1980s and '90s. Now at average age 20, the Millennials, or Gen Y'ers, as they're also called, are a big reason for the rental demand.
Renting is huge elsewhere
In several countries -- Germany, France and the Netherlands are three -- many or even most people are lifelong renters.
In Germany, for instance, the family and neighborhood stability that's supposed to come from homeownership comes instead from laws protecting renters, says Dean Baker, a co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C.
Carefully written laws take landlords' rights into account as well, he adds.
But despite the current boom in rentals, few experts expect a sea change here. For one thing, it's impossible to discount how deeply the value of property ownership is embedded in American culture. A CBS News/New York Times poll taken in June indicated that 59% of those polled said owning a home is "a very important part of the American dream."
Homeownership is thought to give communities greater safety and stability, and to help individuals build wealth.
"We have a fixation on ownership," Baker says. "The idea is, if you're not an owner, you're a second-class citizen."
Since the late 1970s, around 64% of U.S. homes have been occupied by their owners. The rate climbed sharply after the turn of the century, hitting a high of 69.2% in 2005, at the top of the housing boom. It's been dropping since and was at 65.9% at the end of June.
Although it's unlikely the U.S. will become a nation of renters, homeownership rates are likely to keep falling -- and to settle well below the recent highs but also well above 50%.
Humphries, the Zillow economist, thinks it may eventually stabilize at around 64%. Kiesel, the Pimco analyst, sees a slow economic recovery driving it perhaps as low as 60%, a rate last seen in the late 1950s.
But Kiesel describes himself as bearish. Few experts expect it to reach as low as Germany (43%), the Netherlands and Denmark (54%) or even Japan (61%).
Fundamental change not likely
But even those who see Germany as a model for the U.S. don't expect we'll get there.
Each nation's mix of owners and renters tends to stay fairly stable because each depends on a complicated mix of forces, says Michael Lea, the director of the Corky McMillin Center for Real Estate at San Diego State University. Those include:
- Government subsidies that encourage renting over owning or vice versa.
- The availability of mortgages.
- Cultural values.
- The historical and economic predominance of landlords versus homeowners.
Emerging nations usually have the highest homeownership rates. That's because strong laws supporting renting haven't yet developed and few homes or apartments are available for rent. For example, homeownership rates are 71% in Mexico, 74% in Brazil, 75% in Thailand and 96% in Armenia, according to the Housing Finance Information Network.
Where rates are high, many owners may be squatters or have poor title to their land, as in Latin America, says Lea, an expert in real estate and mortgages internationally.
The U.S. government has been pushing homeownership since before World War II. We've got mortgage guarantees through Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae and the Federal Housing Administration; a mortgage-interest deduction; a property tax deduction; and a capital-gains tax exclusion for selling a primary residence.
Not all countries subsidize homeowners as heartily as the U.S. does. In Australia, Britain, Canada, Germany and Japan, for example, homeowners can't deduct mortgage interest from their taxes, Lea says. All but Australia and Japan, however, exclude a home sale from capital gains taxes.
In the U.S., the emphasis may change some, but a complete cutoff of housing's IV drip of tax money is very unlikely. Last year the mortgage-interest deduction alone ($131 billion) far exceeded the cost of the Afghanistan war ($105 billion) and dwarfed the $48 billion spent on all Department of Housing and Urban Development programs.
Combined, federal tax breaks for American homeownership and subsidized mortgages cost $230 billion in 2010. And housing typically goes where the money goes.
In contrast, only $60 billion of U.S. taxpayer money goes toward making renting more affordable. Only about a quarter of those who are eligible can actually get Section 8 rental housing subsidies.
"We just don't fund it," says Lea. "Congress has never come close to appropriating enough money."
A major reason people like renting is that it's flexible. Renters can pick up and move with little notice or expense. That freedom allows them, like Kiesel, to ride out the current economic storm while deciding what to do next.
Rent hikes switch the balance
But as competition for rental homes drives rents higher and as home prices continue to fall, the balance is about to shift, making buying the more affordable option. On average, rent prices are up 2% this year nationwide, and they could rise 3% more next year, according to Meyers.
Price increases are likely to cause lower-income renters serious difficulty. "Tenants will be pushed into properties of lesser value as rents increase," says Meyers.
New rental properties are under construction, but shortages could arise, particularly in Boston, Los Angeles, New York, San Diego, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and San Jose, Calif. At the same time, assuming that mortgage credit eases up some, many renters could be driven by rent hikes into the arms of home sellers.
"My rent hasn't really gone up in five years, and I'm expecting it to," Kiesel says. "That could influence my decision. It's set to renew in January, and I can tell you that if it goes up a lot, I might want to buy. My view on the market is that we are getting close to the bottom."
But for most renters, the pressure of rising rents isn't a good enough reason to buy. It can be a lot harder to get out of homeownership than it is to get in. When you own your own home, if your income drops or your life changes and you have to sell but can't, you're stuck.
For lots of people, renting is always the right decision, whether it's the American dream or not.