America: A Nation of Renters?

November 16th 2014

Danielle Belton

I’ve never owned a home.

That’s not a particularly shocking fact once you learn I’ve moved every two-to-five years while working in a volatile media market. Since 2001 I’ve lived in Texas, California, Missouri (twice), the District of Columbia, New York City and back to D.C. again. Owning, which I considered for a quick second during the five years I lived in California, seemed to be both impossible and impractical. Why buy if I knew there was a strong chance I’d move in a few years because I’d get laid off or my job would change, yet again?

And, for me, the math backs this up.

Maybe in my hometown of St. Louis, where homes still are moderately priced, it makes sense to buy, but not for me living in Washington, D.C., where the homes are retailing at an average of $470,000 with no chance of coming down any time soon. With the value of homes being so steep, with property taxes, maintenance costs and homeowner’s insurance sitting on top of it, it’s cheaper and more practical for me to rent. But it’s not as if I have a choice, as if I could “choose” to buy despite what’s more practical.

I simply can’t afford to buy a home in Washington, D.C., even if I wanted to. There is only one rational choice in my renting versus buying debate.

But this wasn’t how it was for my father, who had already purchased his first home by the time he was my age. He, along with my mother, bought their first home in the 1970s for their growing family, purchasing a second home in the 1990s. Along with that homeownership, my father also worked the same lucrative job for more than 30 years and has lived in the same city, affordable St. Louis, since the 1960s.

While homeownership remains a crucial part of the “American Dream,” more and more it seems like the dream of yesteryear – our parents’ dream and our grandparents’ dream. But one that seems unobtainable to many under 35, struggling for stability, or millennials, struggling to find their first job out of college.

We’re becoming a nation of renters. Not because we don’t believe in homeownership anymore, but because we can’t afford it. From lingering fears left over from the housing crash of 2008 to the fear of having all of your money tied up in a house when you may need it for other things, homeownership has become less practical for many people, despite the fact some benefits of homeownership remain the same.

A recent survey unsurprisingly found that home owners build more net worth than renters.

"It pays to be a home owner," says David Tonna, president of the Silicon Valley Association of Realtors. "Not only can homeownership build wealth over the long term, but homeownership strengthens communities, and has been shown to reduce crime, improve education and increase community involvement."

For people with good jobs and strong credit, the low mortgage interest rates make now a good time to buy a home, but they need to be prepared, stressed Tonna.

Good jobs and strong credit. Not as common as it used to be. Median wages are depressed in this country as the gap between who has benefited from the recent growth in our economy and who is trapped in wage stagnation has widened.

In today’s economic environment those who can afford to buy are already financially better off than most. Owning a home becomes the same game where if you’re already well off, of course it makes sense to buy, but the price is too out of reach for those struggling to save and build equity. It used to be that homeownership was obtainable to the blue and white collar alike, but in places like D.C., New York City and other major metropolitan areas homeownership has become the pursuit of the already wealthy.

So should you rent or should you buy? It all depends on how you answer the question: Can you afford it?

It’s not so much a choice as it is a reality.