Please help me be ok with the prospect of being a life-long renter.
September 8, 2014 3:07 AM   Subscribe

Through a series of unfortunate events and choices, I've reached middle age without being able to purchase a house (I'm single, if it matters). It looks like my financial situation won't change in the forseeable future and I'm carrying a significant load of personal debt.

It looks like I may end up renting until the end of my days. Help me reframe my thinking so that I'm ok with this. I feel like I've failed adulthood, as most people as well as all of my good friends are homeowners (although many of them purchased over a decade ago before housing prices in this part of the world exploded).

Thanks for any insight or advice that you can give. This has been bothering me for a while and I can't seem to shake it, though intellectually I know it's not a failure or that I'm a failure, etc.
posted by anonymous to Home & Garden (60 answers total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
It is tempting to make direct comparison with our parents' generation. I don't recommend it. Their circumstances were not the same. None of my peers have any hope of ever owning a home.
posted by liliillliil at 3:13 AM on September 8, 2014 [11 favorites]

Look on the bright side: not owning means not having to deal wit it breaking. You're never going to have to be responsible for putting in a new fence or replacing old windows or re-tiling the kitchen. Heck, you may not even have to deal with yard work! You just have to call up the landlord and tell them, "Hey, your house needs fixing" and they do it for you.
posted by chainsofreedom at 3:21 AM on September 8, 2014 [23 favorites]

There is no bigger lie foisted on North Americans than the notion of the absolute superiority of owning a home rather than renting.
posted by JPD at 3:22 AM on September 8, 2014 [105 favorites]

What's the big deal? I'm nearing 30 and I have never seriously considered owning a home.

Condolences on your tough money situation, but I don't think there's any reason why this particular consequence needs to weigh heavily on you.
posted by value of information at 3:26 AM on September 8, 2014

Read Capital and realise that it's not you that has failed.
posted by Ted Maul at 3:29 AM on September 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

One advantage of renting is the potential mobility it offers. You can theoretically take advantage of lower rents, interesting new locations, job offers, etc. pretty easily over time. So you might consider minimizing your possessions and doing a little investigation of better work/housing opportunities each year as your lease runs out.

I don't know how true it is, but I recall this Forbes article saying that employees who stay with a company longer than two years tend to make a lot less money than people who hunt around. Your friends who're investing a lot of time and money in their homes are probably not taking full advantage of potential employment options, but maybe you could.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 3:41 AM on September 8, 2014 [6 favorites]

Echoing the others....don't sweat this. There's truth to the old saw that "the things you own end up owning you."

Home ownership made a LOT of sense in the days when you could work 20-30 years for the same company and stay put but it's simply not like that anymore...mobility is, in my opinion, very important. The advantages of home ownership are not what they used to be.
posted by Thistledown at 3:44 AM on September 8, 2014 [6 favorites]

Count me as also mystified by the perceived cache of homeownership vs. renting. Around these parts, the living situation you get for your money is about the same either way, except that if you own you're (a) inflexibly tied to that particular place and unable to move ever without HUGE hassle and financial penalty, and (b) solely responsible for any maintenance/liability emergencies (roof turns out to be leaky? Congratulations, you fix it! Boiler goes? That's on you, bud!).

I've seen too many people burned by buying houses that they now hate for whatever reason to romanticize homeownership. IMHO it's exactly like getting married-- stability has its privileges, but so does freedom.
posted by Bardolph at 3:47 AM on September 8, 2014 [7 favorites]

My wife and I bought a house built in 1918. I admit, it's a lovely building... but actually owning the place is pretty awful. Everything breaks. We've had to replace the roof, rebuild the chimney, replace one porch and refinish another, tear down and rebuild the front steps (twice!), deal with a flooded basement, all to the tune of thousands upon thousands of dollars. Windows cost money. Trees cost money. And we'll be paying off an underwater mortgage for most of the rest of our lives, assuming we don't die first.

And why are we doing this? There's no legacy. We're not having any kids to pass this nonsense along to. Either we'll move someday, or we'll die. Somebody we don't even know is going to get stuck with this property, and assuming rising sea levels haven't rendered this whole region uninhabitable, their smartest move would be to tear down the entire monstrosity and start anew.

Society told us it was better to buy than to rent.

Society was wrong.
posted by Faint of Butt at 3:48 AM on September 8, 2014 [47 favorites]

There are plenty -- PLENTY -- of circumstances under which renting is the much smarter financial strategy. As in: even if one could afford it, the shrewd investor would not buy. Here's one calculator for that. You should probably feel smart and smug rather than embarrassed.

I will add two things.

One, I was reared in an unusual renting culture (Manhattan) but my attitude as always been that my rentals are my home, my home is the seat of my happiness, and I am 100% willing to invest in my happiness. I have replaced kitchens, re-floored, painted etc to be happy in rentals, never regretted it, and I don't think I'm actually happier in the house we bought than I was before. Don't let people tell you not to do this.

Two, I am spectacularly ill-equipped for home ownership and sort of hate it. We are stuck in this marginally problematic neighbourhood and in the last 7 years we've relined the chimney, rewired and replace the circuit board, and re-roofed, I believe twice.

I suspect that the secret truth of modern life home ownership is one of those put-on-a-happy-face things like Facebook: it's mostly lies.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:57 AM on September 8, 2014 [17 favorites]

If it would help you psychologically you could buy a tiny plot of land for the price of a used car in some remote location, put a prefab shed on it, anoint yourself a member of the landed gentry, and call it your dacha in the country.
posted by XMLicious at 4:05 AM on September 8, 2014 [28 favorites]

I'm 40 and have absolutely no interest in owning a home. The one thing I've learned from friends who do own homes is that houses can be giant money pits. A friend of mine who owns a home has to get some of her roof replaced - not too many years after spending $10,000 on a new roof. A few years ago, the house my boyfriend and I rented needed some roofing replaced. Landlord took care of it - we didn't have to worry about it. As others have mentioned, it's a huge benefit of renting that when something breaks, all we do is call maintenance to come fix it. We don't have to worry about having to do it ourselves or how we're going to afford to pay someone else to do it. I'll take that tradeoff any day.
posted by SisterHavana at 4:09 AM on September 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Despite its significant downsides, I actually like home ownership. Mostly I like it because I don't have to ask a landlord for permission when I want to make significant changes to my living environment. I'm good at fixing and building things; I have some degree of comparative advantage in this area.

But, being overburdened with debt sucks for pretty much anyone. Feeling powerless to get what you want sucks for anyone. Feeling tied to a lower status than one's friends sucks for anyone. I have no idea what the details of your financial circumstance might be. I can't guess whether a solution for you would entail a therapist, a bankruptcy lawyer or just good financial advice, but I really don't think home ownership itself is at the heart of the matter. As noted so many times above, home ownership is frequently not all it's cracked up to be.
posted by jon1270 at 4:12 AM on September 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'm seconding what "Faint of Butt" said. I have a home, but it's a huge pain in the neck. I get a tear in my eye when I think about the "good 'ol days" of renting. In particular, I really loved my old apartment where I lived just before I bought my home. I wish I had stayed there.
posted by alex1965 at 4:12 AM on September 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

There seems to be a lot more analysis around now suggesting that renting can leave you better off financially too. And that's without taking into account the points raised above. The calculator on the NYT site that DarlingBri linked above allows you to feed all the variables in.

Depending on your circumstances, it can be much cheaper to rent and, as others have noted, you have so much more flexibility. Renting can be a hassle sometimes, but property is a millstone and repair bills on things that must be fixed can be hard to afford.

That said, I just bought my first house as a single person of 53. At your age I wouldn't have been able to do it either, but circumstances change. It may well prove not to be a good investment, but my last landlord was a complete arse and, after paying off his mortgage while he let the house fall down around my ears then asked for a ridiculous rent increase, I decided to say "fuck you" to that (and him) and bought a bloody house. Just like that. Life is strange. And unpredictable.
posted by mewsic at 4:20 AM on September 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

i own where i live but this is not the right path for everyone and it's definitely not as great as the cultural lore around homeownership makes it sound. sometimes it can be a huge pain in the ass.

think of all the hassle you're escaping. you don't have to maintain the building or budget for high property taxes and expensive insurance every year. you can move if you feel like it for personal or work related reasons. you can get a job anywhere, anytime. when something breaks you don't have to shoulder the cost of a new appliance or major repair. when you wind up with a crazy neighbor or an annoying neighbor or your neighborhood changes in a way that you don't enjoy, you can move easily - and your quality of life could improve instantly. if someone in your family living in another area needed you there, you could easily move to be closer to them.

& remember there is absolutely nothing preventing you from customizing your rental with paint, flooring, decor, furniture and fixtures to make it feel just as much like your castle as someone who took out a huge mortgage. part of this anxiety might be rooted in the way your apartment feels - maybe not as much of a home or as permanent as how others regard what they bought? - i don't know. maybe there's something in terms of how the place is arranged that can help with that anxiety. feeling temporary in rentals because i never put that much effort into them made me pretty unhappy, i recall, and also like i was "failing" at adulthood as i would see other people's beautiful places.
posted by zdravo at 4:28 AM on September 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

I hated owning a home. Not at first, though. At first it was awesome. Then I realized how many hidden costs there were. Everything either cost time or money.

But the biggest thing for me was lack of flexibility. Taking a job across town doubled my commute. And forget leaving the city if you own a home. I love it here, but it's a big country and who knows what opportunities might be coming my way.

There are many things I don't like about apartment living, but it works better for me than owning a home. I wish someone had talked me out of buying a home instead of me learning the hard way.
posted by rakaidan at 4:34 AM on September 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

Try looking at a) statistics and b) history.

If you look at the statistics, only about 60-70% of people have owned homes anyway. Does that mean a full 40% of the adults in this country aren't "real adults"?

Also, if you look at the history, it's only in the past few decades that people even pushed home ownership as a Thing. Farmers owned land, yeah, but that's because the farm was also effectively their business. Most urban dwellers either rented, or they were the stinking rich folk who owned the enormous fancy-ass houses. Most of the regular middle class didn't own.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:39 AM on September 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

My parents bought me this house after my divorce. It is the ugliest house, in the ugliest town, that I have ever lived in. My across the street neighbors are thugs who do drugs that they buy from the neighbors behind me. I've had 2 gallons of saved up urine thrown on my house. I've had something thrown at my car leaving a huge dent. I've had people going through my yard, peeping in my windows. I can't move because the house is worth less now that when it was purchased. I'm stuck in this one bathroom shit-hole. My only hope is meeting a nice man and getting out of here by marrying him. Except that I'm in a shitty little town and all the men that I meet are at least an hour away, so, that doesn't help.

How do you feel about renting now?
posted by myselfasme at 4:48 AM on September 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'm 46 and I've owned 3 houses since we bought the first one in 1992. I'm counting the days until we can get out of the house and become renters. It was nice to have stability with kids in the house but now with the kids in college the house is just a big ass (underwater, and that's not a metaphor) anchor on my life. Once we bail on this place I intend to rent until I die.

You should consider yourself lucky that you aren't stuck with the overhead of owning a home.
posted by COD at 5:02 AM on September 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is something I feel strongly about, so here are a few points that reassure me (almost on a daily basis) that I'm renting because it's right for me:

1) I once rented a house next door to a lovely older couple, we became friends, then they moved and rented their house (through a dodgy real estate agency) to a meth-addicted couple of violent maniacs. After months and months of overdosing bodies on my front lawn, constant visits from the police, ambulance and fire brigade requesting statements on the latest home invasion or front-lawn-fight next door, and the tapping on the door when the neighbours wanted to use my phone to call their dealer and pay me in 5 cent pieces for the phone call... I left when the lease ended. Just gave notice, and left. Easy-peasy.

2) As a teenager, I got a job at a bank and met lots of 20-somethings who were in a mad rush to get married, buy a house, and have kids. One of them used to boast (lament) that they were saving so hard, they wouldn't buy a takeaway coffee or a magazine, and because it was cheaper to use public transport, it took them three times as long to get to work than it would if they just drove their car (they both worked at the same place). They bought a shell of a house, no landscaping, the bare necessities of fixtures, and were divorced within two years because of the financial stress.

3) The carpet in our home is wearing thin in one small section. The people who own the house are paying to replace it (without me asking).

4) The hot water system blew up. The people who own the house put in a flash instant hot water gadget which is much cheaper to run.

5) I got lucky and now have an awesome landlord who has no intentions of selling the house from underneath me, forcing me to move. I moved three times in two years because of dodgy landlords who promised they wouldn't sell/want to move in, and then decided they would. But even though those three moves were a total pain in the arse, it forced me to downsize, declutter, and think hard about what material objects are important to me. That was quite a lesson, and I'm grateful for it.

6) The real estate market here has skyrocketed thanks to the mining boom in Australia. Rents and sales prices tripled over a few short years. But now the mining boom is heading for the bust, every second house in town is for sale, and they won't be sold unless the price is slashed to below what they paid for it in the first place. Rental prices are also diving accordingly.

7) I have a nice garden. I like plants and flowers, so I build gardens everywhere I live. But I always use plants I can take cuttings from, so I can leave a nice garden, I've improved the place, and I can start another nice garden in the next place.

8) My kids are teenagers, my skills are transferrable, when my kids leave home I can move anywhere I like without having to worry about selling or renting out a house that has cost me a bloody fortune.

For me, personally, I wouldn't buy a house if I had the cash to do it.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 5:05 AM on September 8, 2014 [8 favorites]

I'm carrying a significant load of personal debt

So are a lot of your friends.

It's still debt even if they call it a "mortgage". They still have to lie awake at night worrying about how they'll pay back that debt if they lose their jobs.

It's still renting even if they call it "homeownership". How many years do they have to keep paying the bank before the house finally becomes theirs?

People who make you feel ashamed are often covering up their own fears and problems with an attitude of moral superiority. In reality a lot of them have signed themselves up for decades of wage slavery with a very limited set of options if things go wrong or if they want something else out of life.

You can still learn something from them about the importance of steady financial discipline over a long period of time. You have 20 years or more left until you retire. If you concentrate on paying down your debt and living within your means, you're a success.
posted by fuzz at 5:09 AM on September 8, 2014 [15 favorites]

Signing a lease is renting property. Signing a mortgage is renting money. Either way, it's still renting.
posted by penguinicity at 5:22 AM on September 8, 2014 [10 favorites]

My grandparents rented their entire lives. They lived in NYC, where home ownership for the working class is untenable. They had one of the most awesome relationships that I've ever seen. They raised a family in an apartment. They had rich, meaningful lives in an apartment. I still think of that space as it holds so many wonderful memories.

Buying a home isn't all that.
posted by batbat at 5:24 AM on September 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'm finally at a stage in life where I could start thinking about buying, and I really don't want to. I don't really want the responsibility: it seems like my friends are constantly pouring time and money into their houses and are constantly putting out metaphorical fires. Home ownership seems pretty stressful. I like not being tied down. I enjoy where I live for now, but I like that I could easily move if other opportunities came up. The property market where I live is weird, in that there aren't very many condos and they're expensive, but I don't think I need a house, and I don't think I want to take care of a yard. The available rental property suits me better. So basically, I'm having the same issues with reconciling being a renter in a society which sees home ownership as a mark of adulthood, except in my case it's a choice. And honestly, I don't think it's a bad choice. Twenty years ago, real estate seemed like a very safe investment that made one secure in one's old age. It doesn't seem that way anymore. There's no rational reason that owning a home should be one of the hallmarks of being a functional adult.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:34 AM on September 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm carrying a significant load of personal debt

So are a lot of your friends.

This x a million.

I remember when I was a kid there was a commercial that ran on TV for I'm not sure what, but basically it was a dude living in a huge, lovely suburban home, decked out with all the nicest stuff. He said something like "Hi, I'm Gary! I have a beautiful home, my dream car, a pool, and all all the latest gadgets! How do I do it? I'm in debt up to my eyeballs!"

My dad loved that commercial because every time it came on he'd point at it and shout "HA!" since it was justification for living within your means.

If I had a dollar for every person I know over the last few years who has sold their house in favor of renting, I would have...several dollars.

Home ownership isn't some magical adulthood panacea. Plenty of people don't want it, period. And of those that do, it works for some people, it doesn't work for others, and there's a huge chunk of people in the middle there who own homes but are just barely keeping their heads up.

Don't let this be the thing that makes you feel bad.
posted by phunniemee at 5:46 AM on September 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Fuzz:It's still debt even if they call it a "mortgage". They still have to lie awake at night worrying about how they'll pay back that debt if they lose their jobs.

Yes, this. Huge massive debt, and I know I have a long time to pay it off, but that number is scary... also, we too have the century-old house with its attendant expensive problems to fix. Recently one of the windows literally fell out of the side of the house. The railings are hanging on by a thread. Even though we've tried to add insulation our heating bills are sky-high. When I hear people planning for how they can buy their first house, I always caution them to weigh whether renting is actually a better deal. I think people get so caught up in wanting to feel like a grown-up with their own house that they overlook the impracticalities of homeownership.
posted by chickenmagazine at 5:49 AM on September 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Like everything and life, there are trade-offs to owning vs. renting. I have owned 5 houses. After a divorce, I rented for 7 years, and never really had owning again as a goal. I loved not worrying about fixing or replacing things. 3 years ago, at age 50, I met my lovely bride, and we had to find a place to rent that allowed her pets. That can be a problem, but not insurmountable. It turns out a friend of mine was moving in with his girlfriend and wanted to rent the house he owned and would allow pets and let us do basically anything we wanted to the house, so we moved in and rented for 3 years.

I would often have people ask "when I was going to buy" and comment that I was "throwing my money away" by renting. I would tell them I am not throwing my money away! I am trading it for a place to live!

I am now in the process of buying this house, hoping to close within a month, but I would have been quite happy renting for the long term. The only reason buying became an options was that the owner really did want to sell, and at some point it was likely we would have to move if we didn't want to buy it. We like the house, we like the neighborhood, and we don't want to move. Our house payment will be about the same as rent, and I have funds available to use as down payment, so it will be relatively financially painless. I don't anticipate the home to dramatically increase in value, but I do hope to build some equity in the long term. Another factor in my decision is that I am about 15 years older than my lovely bride, so the odds are she will outlive me by many years, and the idea of having some equity to leave behind is appealing, but it's still not a guarantee. (See below for why this may not even be a thing.)

But as I said, there are pros and cons, even in buying our current home:

PRO: Even though our landlord didn't care what we did, I obviously did not want to make improvements beyond painting or changing light fixtures because I didn't want to put a lot of money into things I would leave behind if I moved. Buying the home, I can gut and re-do the kitchen, change the flooring, move the laundry room to the main floor from the basement, add a carport or garage, and a number of other things that will make the house much more suitable for our lifestyle.
CON: I get to pay for all this and do all the work, and it may or may not increase the value of the home, and even if it does increase the value, that value means nothing until I sell the house, and by the time that happens the kitchen may be out-dated again, and the flooring may be worn out, and the light fixtures may be out of fashion.

PRO: We don't have to move
CON: If we ever need to move, it will be much more hassle to sell or rent this house out than to just give proper notice to a landlord.

PRO: We are supposedly "building equity."
CON: This takes a lot longer than most people think. Unless you have enough cash to put 20% down on a house, you pay Mortgage Insurance. On the home I buying, it's almost $200 a month (for a house that's under $200K) PLUS about $3000 up front. That means in the first year alone, about $5200 will be paid to something that does not decrease the balance I owe by one penny. After that, it will be about $2400 a year. And that's not including the interest! I will have to pay that mortgage insurance payment for the life of the loan. The only way out of it is to refinance conventional, which I can't do until I have 20% equity, whether through payments or adding a wad of cash to the equation (which is not likely to happen.) So, when I say above that I want to leave some equity for my wife, I realize this won't happen for a long time, if ever. I can hope that property values will increase, and I can chip away at the principal over many years. Then, of course, if I sell (or my wife sells when I'm not around) the equity is immediately reduced by the cost of selling: 6% to a real estate agent, repairs needed to pass inspection, etc, etc.

The last home I sold, I had owned for 6 years. I sold it for about $20,000 more than I bought it for. When I figured out the cost of improvements, real estate commissions, concessions to the buyer, interest paid, and initial costs in the purchase of the house, I barely broke even.

One additional note: taxes! In the U.S., people often talk about the "tax break" for home ownership because you can deduct your interest from your taxable income. Even with the house I am buying, the banker and the owner both mentioned it. But this is a fallacy, unless the house you are buying is pretty expensive, and/or you have a lot of other deductions. The standard deduction for married filing jointly is over $12,000. You have to itemize your deductions to claim your mortgage interest. So unless your interest per year, plus other allowable deductions equal more than that amount, there is no financial gain in paying interest on a mortgage.

That's a lot of info to throw at you, but I've lived it in the past, and am in the middle of it now. I'm glad I am buying my home, but I would be just as happy to rent forever. Just find a place you enjoy living, and enjoy your life!
posted by The Deej at 5:51 AM on September 8, 2014 [14 favorites]

I've owned two houses and rented too many places to count. What I'll note in relevance to this discussion is that I've never, ever in my life known someone to declare bankruptcy because of renting, but in the last ten years I've known multiple people to either fully declare bankruptcy or to be stuck in awful upside down situations because of a house purchase.

The rent/buy calculators are good and are worth playing with, but they don't include the risk that a lot of people expose themselves to with a house purchase. Personally I think there are advantages both ways, but the only way to really screw yourself is with buying, and depending on how precarious your overall situation is that can be a big factor.

Culturally we have fetishized house buying to an unhelpful degree, which pushes people who shouldn't to buy houses (and makes people like you feel bad). I wish we didn't do that, because I see a lot more costs than benefits.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:07 AM on September 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

I recently left a rental in a condo development that had lost value in recent years, because the building was full of pests and one of the owners downstairs was cooking meth. We were able to just up and leave, no hard feelings, with little notice and no financial penalty beyond the expense of hiring movers. Almost all of our neighbors were owners, and I felt very, very bad for them being effectively trapped in that situation. They were very nice people, and it was a burden I wouldn't wish on anybody.

The portion of households in the US that rents is rising. I think norms are changing, especially as people in my parents' generation retire, sell their houses, and spend their later years in rentals or age-specific communities.

It's strange to change what you always thought your default life plan was, but I think it's more important to figure out what you want from your housing, and get that. What is it about owning that appeals to you? If you want a purple living room, or space for a piano, or a yard for a dog, or a location near a good school, you can rent that. You have to make the same sorts of compromises that people who buy property do, but not all renters are unstable kids, and not all homeowners are pillars of the community. You can live much the same life regardless of whether you have a lease or a mortgage.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 6:08 AM on September 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

The only compelling argument I've ever heard for buying instead of renting is that in the ideal, old-school world, your mortgage was paid off by the time you were 65, meaning you did not have the monthly overhead of rent or mortgage payments coming out of your fixed-income retirement funds. If that's a thing you can swing, it still makes sense for some people.

But as an assumption, it is so far past busted in the US it's not even funny; my parents are 70+ and still paying a mortgage. On top of that they have insane property tax they have to pay forever because they own their home. This is just not your grandparents' American Dream.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:20 AM on September 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

Well it has other advantages - it has a tax benefit over owning, it is essentially forced saving assuming you own an amortizing loan, and its a levered investment in land, that even the most pessimistic person would tell you grows at something like inflation, and a conforming loan is something like 4 turns of leverage. Not to mention you eliminate some of the risk involved with having a landlord.

In theory the maintenance and tax costs are implicit in your rent, however rental yields float and can be under or overvalued - so at any point in time that may or may not be the case.

As recently as 15 years ago buying was a better deal than renting in Manhattan if you had cash for a downpayment.

Just that there are significant downsides. Also the market can overvalued and undervalued for very long periods of time.
posted by JPD at 6:32 AM on September 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think what you want is not necessarily a house but the feeling that you could afford a house if you wanted to. You can't, your friends seemingly can, so you're asking yourself what went wrong.
Having a house is such a symbol of having made it (that and having kids). Even when it doesn't make any sense for reasons others have described eloquently.

I would encourage you to think about what being mature and successful means to you, what kind of person you want to be in ten or twenty years. Not in terms of what you have but in terms of what you do (with your life, time etc.) and how you are towards others.

Picture mature and successful and happy you. Then work on becoming that person.
posted by Omnomnom at 6:44 AM on September 8, 2014 [8 favorites]

I view it as a math problem similar to a make or buy decision in accounting/economics. As has been mentioned above, US policy turned it into some sort of sign of having arrived a generation back, and it was unequivocally good - for banks and maybe for construction people. For the rest of us, what's important is having a place to live, not how you arrive at that point.

I think one of the "big lies" associated with it is that if you do hold onto a house for a long time you get to say "I bought this place for only $XX,XXX and now it's worth $XXX,XXX (add Xs as needed). That mostly overlooks the enormous effect of inflation over such a long period of time. My Dad may have bought a house for $75,000 which is now worth $150,000 (making up numbers, and I live in an area where housing is cheap), but he also paid interest, and bore all the cost of repairs over the years, paid taxes, and paid most of that money off with dollars that were worth a lot more compared to today. Since newer houses will always be more attractive to buyers, I'd suggest that older houses, like used cars, are really worth less in adjusted dollars than when they were new, same as any other constructed thing.
posted by randomkeystrike at 6:51 AM on September 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

There are so many reasons, on paper and anecdotally, not to own a home that it's hard to know which ones will help you! I agree with the very first person who commented. It is very easy to feel one failed compared with the previous generation, so using those standards to judge yourself can be very toxic. Even judging yourself alongside contemporaries, you are often lacking critical information. For instance, many people who own homes have been helped financially by family, either with a down payment or by having their college and graduate school paid for. If you listen to the popular financial gurus, they make it sound like the difference between someone who's doing well financially and someone who's not is a matter of attitude or something. Which is just total bullshit.

So listen to everyone who has spelled out how owning can be a liability, but above all don't feel bad about yourself because you don't own for financial reasons.
posted by BibiRose at 6:54 AM on September 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

I love my house, but I'm currently staring down $15k in repairs that need done ASAP (like, it's raining indoors sort of roof issues), and tens of thousands of things I would LIKE to do the house that I can't imagine affording anytime soon. These are the times it would be reeeeeeally nice to be a renter. Also, the house was well-positioned for public transit when we bought it, but then the economy tanked and public transit got slashed badly and for years my commute has been a nightmare. If we hadn't owned the house, I would have moved closer to work and/or a better bus line ages ago. Mobility, and making the roof (and the time the basement flooded, and the time the retaining wall collapsed, and...) someone else's problem, would have been really fantastic.

The primary reason we bought is because my partner is a recording engineer, and the kind of construction one needs to do for a good home studio, you just can't do as a rental. That was a really good reason to buy. Everything else we wanted in a home we could have gotten by renting a standalone house vs. an apartment, if we'd put aside some time and money to track down one with the appropriate pet-friendliness, and I don't think we'd have missed out.

If it helps at all, as one of those home-owning people your age-ish, I promise I'm not looking at my renter friends and thinking "they failed adulthood!" I am thinking "I wonder what awesome stuff my friend would be able to do with $15k that I can't do because of my goddamn leaky roof?"
posted by Stacey at 7:10 AM on September 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'm 39 and have struggled with elements of this too - and, frankly, F*ck that.

I've watched many, many friends get on the ladder and not a single one of them did it without significant contributions from family. My family do not have money so I've been working and saving like crazy all my adult life and have a built up a substantial nest egg but I live in London and although in theory I could buy, it would involve a mortgage so terrifying that I just cannot countenance that the level of mortgage debt in the middle of a massive bubble. And London living in the type of places I could entertain affording is not for the faint-hearted - what if I got stuck there?!

My subsidised friends all bought around 2006-8 - before the London housing market went insane. Buying with other people's money also helped dampen the fear of negative equity somewhat, however they are now happily sitting on unimaginable gains. This makes it hard to be around them sometimes. Basically I'll never catch up. Thank God I don't have kids.

So yes, I've been bitter as all hell but I've kind of come to terms with it now. I do feel like less of an adult in some ways, I just do, but this has it's upsides too - I feel free. I love where I currently live and if we get chucked out by the landlord it'll suck but I'll just get to discover somewhere else, or head to cheaper climes. I'm not dis-inclined towards the buy-a-plot-of-land-and build-a-shack notion above. I'm not going to be all "Ra Ra Renting!", but I'm done feeling judged via a stacked deck. Don't you worry, there are many of us out there.
posted by freya_lamb at 7:14 AM on September 8, 2014 [7 favorites]

I am 40. In the last year, I have gotten divorced and lost my house. My credit is destroyed. I thought I loved my house, but now I know how delusional I was.

Now, I live in a tiny apartment. Every morning I sit on my tiny balcony (that magically gets painted once a year), and gaze out at the lovely green courtyard (that some guy mows once a week) while I blissfully sip my coffee. Last week, my dishwasher made a funny noise. I called what's-her-name in the office, and some other guy (not the lawnmower guy) came over and did something and now it doesn't make the noise. He put me on the list for dishwasher replacement in 2015.

My stress level has plummeted since I got out from under my money-pit of a house. Some days I literally weep tears of joy that I am no longer a homeowner. If life gave us do-overs, I would never, ever buy a house.
posted by SamanthaK at 7:25 AM on September 8, 2014 [22 favorites]

A couple of approaches... I'm way better at preaching this than practicing it but I try to check myself when I'm talking to myself in terms of "always" or "forever". Nobody has to deal with anything forever just for right now. One thing I got out of the Seligman book Learned Optimism (which is far from perfect but if you have a pessimistic streak it can make you think) is that a lot of ingrained pessimism comes with thinking of negative conditions as universal and permanent. I'm not saying " don't give up, for sure you'll be able to buy a house some day!" Of course I have no idea if that's true or not. But the attitude of looking at it in terms of "this condition is forever" may make being okay with it a very tall order - while being okay with "this is where I am in my life right now" may be much more attainable. It's an attitude that helps me (when I can pull it off), anyway.

I will also pile on with other homeowners in saying, it really sincerely is a mixed bag. The supposed categorical superiority of owning over renting is truly a myth sold by industries that profit very handsomely from it. There are definite upsides to owning but there are very real downsides as well and there are upsides to renting ( mobility, financial predictability e.g. your landlord can't just come up to you one day and say "turns out the previous owner picked the wrong shingle supplier, so you need to get a new roof on this place 7 years sooner than you expected - time to cough up thousands and thousands of dollars! --Hint: NOT HYPOTHETICAL). If it were not for the great disruption for my family and especially young son - if I were in the financial condition I am now but single and childless- I would be looking at the pros and con's of returning to renting very hard right now. Just food for thought I guess.
posted by nanojath at 7:31 AM on September 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

I understand your feelings all too well.

Before I married someone who was already a homeowner, I was single, not making very much money, renting a nice apartment (it was ever so slightly out of my price range but right near my job), and starting to feel like a failure as an adult because I had no idea how I would ever buy property. We lived in rentals all my childhood, moving a lot because my stepdad's job as a mechanical engineer had us move around a lot within his company. My parents didn't buy their first house until they were well into late middle age. (They eventually had to foreclose on it due to my dad's illness and income.)

The house I married into was, to put it politely, very very flawed. My husband bought it for about $65K, made a lot of nice renovations, but when I moved in, there was so much that had to be done to the downstairs and we never ever got around to it. (In fact, I suspect that is why it took so long to sell it when we moved out of province this summer.) And things were always needing repairing: something on the roof, repainting, etc.

We are renting a considerably smaller space now. It's nice, but we're looking into home ownership again and I have to say I am a bit anxious. I don't know if where we are is going to be permanent, but should we decide to move to Toronto in a few years, home ownership there is completely out of the question.

You are not failing as an adult. You have just been told that this is what adults do. But as an adult, you can do as you like. If you want to continue renting, do not feel bad about that. It's really nice having not to spend your own money to get stuff repaired or replaced.
posted by Kitteh at 7:35 AM on September 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

We actually are in a situation right now for the first time where we could theoretically afford to buy a house, provided we made some serious sacrifices to raise the scratch.

We went and looked at a few, figured out where we would need to be in relation to our son's school, etc. It looked like it Might Happen.

And then I got serious cold feet. Normally I am the one who is gung-ho, let's make a major life change, damn-the-torpedoes type. But the whole thing felt wrong. Basically, all I can see is this:

1. Sacrifice all your financial flexibility to save up enormous costs to buy what is actually a quite mediocre home in a neighborhood only marginally nicer than your rent neighborhood. Undergo the enormous stress of mortgage process and closing.
2. Buy, move, be incredibly broke for a while.
3. Just as you start to come up from under that and are enjoying having equity, the first major expensive repair occurs.
4. Spend 20 more years making expensive repairs and being unable to do anything if your neighborhood takes a downturn. You may or may not be able to sell it if you want to move.
5. Enter retirement owning a house that is 30 years old and will always have something that needs repair or replacing, and that your kid won't necessarily want to keep anyway.
6. House is sold to pay the end-of-life costs for one or both of us.

The more I looked at it, the more I seriously started to question the whole system. If you already have lots of money, it's no big deal. But if you don't, it's a massive sacrifice for dubious returns.

There is a definite loss of social status that comes with refusing to own, though. People wonder if you are poor, or just shiftless, and your house is never up-to-date or a showplace of any kind. So that sucks.

But it doesn't suck enough for me to put myself in hock to the insanely expensive, weirdly fragile creature that is a house.*

*I have spent a lot of time lately wondering if much of the problem isn't that we use outdated methods of house construction, wiring, and plumbing. Maybe someday we'll have cheap 3-D printed houses with embedded solar panels, wiring, and plumbing systems that cost only as much as a car and are sturdy and long-lasting.
posted by emjaybee at 7:50 AM on September 8, 2014 [8 favorites]

I am totally pro owning. I love owning. For a variety of reasons that have to do with hating people and owning pets (and foster dogs). We decided to live in my husband's house when I got married. After the sale, I had paid the equivalent of a couple hundred a month for a two-bedroom house with a huge yard for several years (and shot an elephant in my pajamas). Several orders of magnitude less than renting even something much smaller with no yard. In my current location, the cost of owning a two- or three-bedroom home including the cost of taxes and a ballpark "repairs" budget is roughly the same as renting. This was also true in the last city I lived in - for the type of neighborhood I live in.

Right now, I know two people who have to move as soon as the lease is up because the landlord or the landlord's heir are selling the property. One if them has been in her beloved home for more than 15 years.

But that's me. That's my situation. I am fine with the stress of "what if a tree falls on the roof and I have to fight the insurance company" and cannot handle the stress of knowing a landlord can call me at anytime or sharing walls, etc.

Your situation seems to be that you think you should own a house. I think I should have nice legs, but it's not in the cards.

I agree with unpacking your question to figure out the real stressor (debt?) and how to manage that.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 7:50 AM on September 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

I dream of living in the kind of long-term secure rental that's common in parts of northern Europe, where you have a fair amount freedom to redecorate, but don't have to worry about major repairs; where you won't get kicked out at short notice, but can also leave if a new opportunity presents itself.

In much of the US (and large parts of the UK) there's not really that kind of diverse, renter-friendly housing stock, but if you can find it, you're going to be in a good place.

A house is a place to live. Ownership is a dubious investment vehicle, ties you down, and has the potential to go tits-up very quickly. It's a messy asset for those who inherit. For many decades, ownership has been made artificially cheap for certain groups because there's perceived to be political value in creating a property-owning citizenship, but that just makes the model of 'adulthood' that you see around you a newish artificial creation.
posted by holgate at 7:53 AM on September 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

There is no bigger lie foisted on North Americans than the notion of the absolute superiority of owning a home rather than renting.

I totally agree. This is a pernicious meme that has gotten a lot of folks into trouble over the years, but especially during the recent housing bubble and bust. At the end of the day, whether you rent or own is really a matter of having a place to live. Either way, your primary residence is fundamentally a cost and not an investment. If you own, it may be an asset, but it's a depreciating one that will require a lot of time and money in upkeep, property taxes, insurance, etc.

I'm a lifelong renter (so far). The reasons for that include (but are not limited to):

-- Having to pay down oppressive student loans at a time in my life when folks were typically saving up a down payment.

-- By the time I accumulated the down payment, the housing bubble was in full swing, creating a situation where owning was much more expensive than renting (which is still the case where I live).

-- Working in a profession that is unstable and where layoffs are common. Having the flexibility of renting makes things easier should I need to move to find my next job.

-- Houses are a ton of work. Being single means that all of that work falls on me. I can hire it out, but that's more money going into property maintenance that I would not have to worry about if I rented.

-- Not having to put that time and money into a house means that I have time and money for other things I'd rather be doing, like traveling, hobbies, meetups, etc.
posted by jazzbaby at 8:26 AM on September 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm 64. I've owned 2 houses, and they were kind of a pain, but not too terrible. But I lost my last house to my ex wife in a divorce, and shortly after that I had a stroke and lost my job. Long and short of it is, I had to rebuild my credit over several years because the ex and I went bankrupt (long story). So at the end of that marriage I had no home, no job, debt, and no credit. Fast forward a few years... I'm doing well with health and freelancing, I've rebuilt my credit, and have a wonderful new wife -- and she's got no more money than I do. We're okay with renting because it lets us move where and when we want, letting the landlord(s) do the work of major repairs and what-not. Life is good!
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 8:27 AM on September 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Almost all the people I know who have bought houses recently constantly have problems with the house that require expensive repairs (flooding in basement, roof leaking, etc.). Some of them couldn't afford the down payment and had to borrow money from their parents. Some of them regret their purchase. Meanwhile, I rent and never have to worry about paying maintenance expenses like that. I recently got a brand new dishwasher, courtesy of my landlord. Owning a house has its perqs but is not the end-all, be-all. There are pros and cons to both situations and one is not necessarily superior to the other.
posted by Librarypt at 8:38 AM on September 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

The reason homeownership is touted as such an end goal in American society is until recent decades, land and homes were always going to be a stable source of equity and capital for families. If you want to talk about what happens to families and inherited wealth when a specific group of people are denied the ability to get mortgages and buy homes, look into redlining.

However, we are not our parents' generation and predatory lending practices have forced many people into homeownership that had no real business doing so and landed them in a hell of debt and misery.

I'm 40 and on my third house. The first one, I had no business buying, I was in over my head and if it had been anything but a brand new construction, I would have been epically screwed. My good, nice neighbors sold their house because it flooded, and the ones on the other side got divorced and decided to rent theirs. Within 2 years of buying, I went from being surrounded by quiet, young families, to having a couple with feral children on one side and a flophouse for college frat boys on the other. So I sold and moved.

The next house was fabulous and was everything I wanted it to be. Then my boyfriend and broke up, and within two years of buying that house, I'd met an awesome new dude with his own house. Then he got a job in another state. And I followed. So in the worst housing market since the Great Depression, we had to sell two houses.

After living in rentals in the new city for a year or two, we were both at our wit's end. We don't like sharing walls or being unable to deal with our house problems ourselves. We bought again, and aside from losing our fabulous neighbors on both sides and replacing them with an okay family on one side and scrappers on the other, it's a good house. But we like fixing things, we like doing the maintenence, and we grew up doing it. We know how. Although, I just discovered that the kitchen wiring is still cloth wrapped wires from the 1920s, so that'll be an expensive fix. And I don't do electrical.

Having or not having a house doesn't make you more or less an adult. It's just a thing, for some people it's a blessing, for others, it's a curse. Enjoy the life you've got and pat yourself on the back for not taken on even more debt. You'll be happier in the long run.
posted by teleri025 at 9:34 AM on September 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

I agree with most of the posts above. I just wanted to add my personal anecdote to hopefully help you feel better about being a renter. First off, let me just say that I'd give just about anything right now to be a renter again. Five years ago, I purchased my first house with my then boyfriend. I was 25 at the time and assumed we'd eventually get married. Home ownership was great for the first few months; however, it slowly turned into a terrible situation for me. It started with a bunch of random and expensive or time-consuming maintenance to the house, such as replacing the furnace, etc. My boyfriend and I then broke up a couple years later for reasons unrelated to the house, but were still trapped in the mortgage together. My neighborhood has declined in value over the years, and as such our mortgage is now underwater. There's also been increasing vandalism and crime in the neighborhood. We've been trying to sell the house now for almost two years, and it's not going well - we get very few showings and we can't drop the price any further without having to bring a significant amount of cash to the table. I currently feel like I'm going to be stuck with the house (and my ex!) for a very long time because it doesn't look like we can sell anytime soon, and other options for unloading the house have not worked out.

Renting allows you way more freedom, and those that push home-ownership on us seem to underestimate the value that renting can bring. Not having to worry about maintenance, the ability to move to a better location or for a better job, etc. Home ownership seems to work for some folks, but it's not the answer for everyone. I'll probably never buy a house again.

Bottom line - you have not failed adulthood. Know that you are the envy of many, including myself.
posted by FireFountain at 9:40 AM on September 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have owned two houses - neither ownership ended well. I'm paying for these mistakes in many ways - 2 and 3 years after selling.

You can move whenever you want! (within a year or so) No housing market crashes to worry about, no property tax hikes! No "furnace died, need $2000 tomorrow" type of repairs.
posted by getawaysticks at 10:59 AM on September 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is a question more than a comment, but all of the very nice rent/buy calculators show the proceeds from a sale when moving.

In my head, you're generally not going to sell the house and keep the money. So you've actually spent enormously more on the house, which ends up as equity and net worth. But those aren't actually worth anything tangible to you unless you sell and start renting, sell and downsize, or get to the end of your 30 year mortgage and start to win the rent vs. buy game by not having a payment at all.

Part of my thinking is that a mortgage is 50% more expensive than renting an equivalent house where I live, and that's not counting maintenance, utilities, etc. So, I'll spend $400,000 more buying a house over the next 20 years to end up with a $400,000 asset that I can't sell because I need somewhere to live.

Again, the advantages (to me) are in selling and downsizing, selling and renting or not having a monthly payment in retirement.

The disadvantages are that I've spent $20,000 per year on housing when I could have used it on savings and investments and still had money left over to travel the world every year.

I could be completely wrong on all of this, but that's how I look at it.
posted by cnc at 11:04 AM on September 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

When I was married, we owned a home. A renter across the street turned out to be a pyromaniac. He was in love with a woman who rented next door to us, so his act of love was to set our cypress tree on fire. Of course, there was no direct evidence linking him to the fire, so he wasn't charged with anything. She moved right away.

I wanted to move so much. I was like, I am scared to be in this neighborhood. I wish I were a renter.

Now, I've been renting the same little apartment for 20 years. I'm rent controlled in a city in which it actually makes better economic sense to rent than it does to own (not even counting the looming elimination of the mortgage interest deduction). I expect to live my days out in an apartment that, when I first rented it, I expected to stay in no longer than 3 years. You know what? That's okay. It would be awesome to have a bigger kitchen and bathroom, but eh, I can navigate in pitch dark (other than the scattered cat toys). I don't want a yard, and I love my little place.

They'll take me out of it in a box. Count your blessings.
posted by janey47 at 3:21 PM on September 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

P.S. I'm 54, FWIW
posted by janey47 at 3:24 PM on September 8, 2014

When I saw your question I remembered this conversation from a recent EconTalk interview. "Russ" is Russ Roberts, the host, and GuestC is Ben Casnocha, former Chief-of-Staff of LinkedIn.

(just before the 24:19 mark)

GuestC: One of the terrible things about housing policy in the United States. If you own a home it tends to lock people in. Russ: Correct. It tends to lock people in. People seem to forget that when they talk about the virtues of home ownership. It drives me crazy, that home ownership is this religious, romantic ideal. It's silly. It's just a house, just an asset. Often a bad one, an expensive one. For some people not the right one.

If you listen to the podcast, you can hear the exasperation in Robert's voice.
posted by metadave at 4:26 PM on September 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Look, renting sucks, because you have no control over your surroundings.

I've lived in rentals my entire life, and we had to move on average, about once a year. The majority of them we did not want to move. I daydream about the security of not being moved out because a landlord wants to sell, or renovate. I daydream about being able to make the fixes that my landlords were too cheap to do (if you would just put a vent right there, we wouldn't have to run a dehumidifier constantly, and you wouldn't have your house rot).
That's the security I wish I had.

Some people have that when renting. So. If you aren't currently somewhere cheap and secure, maybe that can be your goal, instead?
Looking for a landlord who wants a long term tenant. Look for it with the commitment other people look for houses to buy. Although, I wouldn't look at advertised rentals at all, I'd keep an ear out for friends/acquaintances who have a good landlord, but have to move for whatever reason, and offer to take it over.
That's resulted in my most secure renting situations.
Maybe if you had that, you'd feel better.

If not that, what is the element that most bugs you about renting?
If it's not being able to customise, hell, ask your landlord if you can paint a cupboard if you supply your own paint.
If it's the financial situation, or you're displacing your financial worries onto obsessing about houses instead, then yeah, start working on that. Get an emergency fund, then start paying down that debt.
posted by Elysum at 5:09 PM on September 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Look, my husband sells houses for a living and I just got my Real Estate license myself. But I will be the first to tell you that it doesn't make financial sense for everyone to own a home. As a matter of fact, a few years ago we lost our house to foreclosure.


We live in an older, quaint apartment complex with a pool, close to everything I care about, in my favorite neighborhood, and I am more than content. I may or may not ever own a home again in my life, but it DOESN'T MATTER.

(Also, it may or may not be true that you would never be in a position to own a home again, if that matters to you. But I want to encourage you that your peace of mind and happiness and self-worth are not based on whether you own a home right now. The economy of the last few years has kicked quite a few butts, many of which would surprise you if you knew just who. Give yourself a hug and be happy.You are NOT a loser!)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:37 PM on September 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would never in a million years think of owning a home. I am about to turn 40, single and do not have children. What would be the point? Granted, I lost a VERY good job 8 years ago and it took me 6 years to get a job where I earn 1/3 of what I used to make. Therefore, I live in the upper of my parents' duplex rent free as I try to get my finances in order. So all in all, I don't think your situation is that bad. I am actually a property manager for an apartment complex right now and I will tell you that a majority of my tenants are middle age, single and just don't want the responsibility of being a home owner.
Just think of all the relaxation time you will have not having to mow the lawn, shovel snow (if you live in a snowy area), and gardening. Not to mention the money you will save on a mortgage and all the things that could go wrong, i.e. new water heater, furnace, roof, foundation...
I think renting is the wise choice!
posted by jenniheise at 9:18 PM on September 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

In case the 57,000 Metafilter comments you just received are not enough, here's a Reddit thread from 2 days ago to keep you entertained.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 10:39 PM on September 8, 2014

Houses appreciate on average at 3% per year, not counting property tax, school tax, and repairs (like a new roof) against the "investment".

The stock market, even after taking several shots to the groin, has appreciated at roughly 7% per year, including the 1929 stock crash.

Home ownership isn't a terrific investment of money, which is why it's marketed so heavily, among other things.
posted by talldean at 12:09 AM on September 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Another way of thinking about it: Unless you are independently wealthy, you either rent the house or rent the money.
posted by lalochezia at 4:22 PM on September 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Have you heard of the small house/tiny house movement? Some people are building houses for $20,000... Less than the price of a new car in many cases. You can live comfortably in a home under 500 square feet (just an average, some small houses are 800, some 100) and it can be built permanently on a foundation or on a trailer and made to be hauled. Here are some stats or, if you just want to see what a small house is all about, check out Tumbleweed Tiny Houses. Their houses run from tiny haulables to 3-bedroom 800 square footers.
posted by IndigoRain at 11:52 AM on September 14, 2014

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