Why Affluent Americans Chose ‘Lifestyle’ Renting Over Buying in the 2010s

VOA News By Dora Mekouar

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After living in a Washington, D.C., suburb for 20 years, Patrick Harrington had had enough. Fed up with the 25-mile commute to work, the Virginia man, along with his wife, Francine, sold their home and moved into a rental located about a 15-minute walk from Patrick’s work.

«I went from an hour-and-a-half drive every morning to a 15-minute walk,» Patrick says. «We’ve definitely undergone a lifestyle change. No doubt about it.»

The Harringtons exemplify a key housing trend of the 2010s, a decade that saw renting emerge as a choice. The days of people being forced to rent until they can afford to buy appear to be over for many. An increasing number of more affluent Americans are opting to rent as a way of life.

«Renting became a lifestyle option this past decade,» Michaela Buzec, a research analyst for RENTCafe told VOA via email. «It offers flexibility and freedom to move around and change neighborhoods or cities. It’s also a matter of affordability, since home prices in big, desirable cities increased significantly. This trend is scattered throughout the country, but it’s most evident in the expensive markets.»

Patrick and Francine Harrington in front of their Washington-area rental home, Dec. 26, 2019. (Photo by Patrick Harrington)
Patrick and Francine Harrington in front of their Washington-area rental home, Dec. 26, 2019. (Photo by Patrick Harrington)

That’s certainly true for the Harringtons, empty nesters who moved to a trendy, historic, more urban location that also happens to feature some of the Washington area’s highest home prices.

«[The rent] is way more than my mortgage, actually probably 50% more than my mortgage,» says Francine, who considers herself more financially practical than her husband. «So, you know, I was debating [the move], although our transportation [costs] have been cut — tolls, gas, wear-and-tear on our cars.»

The 2010s saw the largest increase in the percentage of renters since the 1960s, according to RENTCafe, an internet service that lists rental properties. More than 100 million Americans live in rental units. Since 2010, the number of renters increased twice as fast as the number of homeowners. There are 74% more people renting today than in 1960.

Graphic by RENTCafe

«Advantage-wise, it’s incredibly convenient,» Francine says of the rental home they’ve been in for almost a year. «Walking distance to Patrick’s job and to stores and entertainment places, restaurants and stuff. So it’s very convenient. I ride my bike a lot more. Patrick walks a lot more.»

«We want to take more and more advantage of it now that we’re empty nesters,» Patrick adds, «so, yeah, definitely lifestyle is definitely part of the equation, but for me it was 99% work related.»

The number of renters increased «across the board,» among the young and the old, in urban areas as well as the suburbs. RENTCafe, which studied data from the past decade, found reasons for the increase include high student loans and home prices, and the need to be flexible in a changing, growing job market.

Twenty cities went from a homeowner majority to a renter majority in the past 10 years, including places like Detroit, Michigan; Dayton and Toledo, Ohio; Stockton, California, and Memphis, Tennessee. Today, the cities with the largest share of renters are in the American Northeast.

Graphic by RENTCafe

«Perhaps the most surprising aspect is to see cohorts traditionally oriented towards homeownership give up this status and willingly start renting,» Buzec says. «These include seniors and high-earning Americans, who see renting as the better option for their situations. This fact supports the most prominent trend of the decade, that of renting as a choice, more than simply a solution.»

For the Harringtons, renting means they didn’t sweat it when a major appliance broke down or when heavy rains flooded the basement. As renters, they stood by while the owner took care of both problems. In addition, both appreciate living without all of the junk they’d accumulated in their old house.

But how long they’ll continue to rent remains an open question.

«Well, we have two schools of thought here,» Patrick says. «I could see ourselves renting for a good longer period than Francine does.»

Whether the «renter-by-choice» trend will continue into the 2020s remains to be seen. Looking ahead to the next decade, Francine isn’t sure what the best option will be for her and her husband.

«I don’t know if I would buy,» she says. «I’m kind of, right now, on the bubble. Maybe I would just look for a slightly cheaper place to rent, because I don’t know how long Patrick’s job will be…I’m really on the fence on it.»

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