Renting Vs. Buying: Why Home Ownership Ain’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

With the rental market red-hot, finding an apartment in Philly has never been tougher. Which raises the question: Is it really time to buy, or is home ownership a bygone national ideal? One woman attempts to find the answer (and, maybe, a weekend place).

“I HAD BUYER’S REMORSE IMMEDIATELY.”

This is my 39-year-old friend Hannah, talking about the condo not far from Spring Garden in which she and her husband have spent the past six years. “The night we closed, I told Greg I didn’t even want to go there to see it.”

Hannah is one of the smartest people I know—even more than that, she’s supremely decisive. Steady. A non-waffler. So I’m taken aback when she tells me that she and her husband Greg dream of the day when “we can just sell the place, have money in the bank and rent again.”

Walking down Walnut Street one sunny day, Hannah rattles off all the things she and Greg have done to the place. These include installing hardwood floors; remodeling two bathrooms; re-tiling the fireplace; painting everything; installing new pocket doors and window treatments; replacing outdated track lighting and the hot-water heater; and designing and picking out “every fixture, appliance and surface in our kitchen, which was gutted to the studs.”

She’s happier with the house than when they moved in, she says, “but you’re never really done. I’d say there’s still about five major things that bother me, and a dozen little things.”

The takeaway here haunts me: While I sit flipping through the stack of old Domino magazines I keep like a hope chest of homeownership, Hannah’s a few blocks away, knee-deep in spackle, daydreaming about a high-rise rental with a doorman.

Now, Hannah isn’t necessarily the norm. Many of my other homeowner friends regale me with the benefits: the equity; the comforting constancy amidst changing jobs, lovers, friends; the sense of community; even the self-satisfaction of becoming a competent DIY-er.

“I am 100 percent glad we bought,” says 33-year-old Adam, who recently purchased a house—his first—in Graduate­ Hospital. This is a bit of a surprise to me, if only because Adam’s partner, Ryan, just landed a job in another city. They’ve moved something like six times in 10 years, and now, a little more than a year after paying hundreds of thousands for a slice of permanence, they’re going to end up leaving the place.

“I mean, yes, this happened faster than we wanted,” Adam says. “We didn’t necessarily plan on being here for 10 years, but we did hope it would be longer than a year and a half.” Still, he says, shrugging, they can rent the place out for a while until home prices go up a little. It’s been worth it to him as a life experience, he says—he likes the way roots feel. He’ll almost certainly buy again after they sell. Eventually.

Roots are, for some, a tricky thing. I’ve moved 10 times among five states in 13 years; until I married my husband last October, I had no reason to think I wouldn’t continue migrating. But in this, I’m something of an anomaly: Americans are less transient now than we have been since 1948—and possibly before then, since the census only started tracking our mobility that year. A mere 11.6 percent of us changed residences last year, no doubt thanks in part to the cruddy job and housing markets. In 1985, 20.2 percent of us did.

My husband, in contrast to me, is a born-and-bred Philadelphian who left only to attend college. Expecting and craving fixedness, he purchased a house in the suburbs right before we met. When he bought, he thought he’d stay there for at least five years. But when it came time for us to move in together last year, it made the most sense to rent out his house and live in the city. Today he’s in the somewhat bizarre position of being both a landlord and a lessee.­

Like Adam, my enterprising husband absolutely reveled in the feeling of ownership­ … at first. Like Hannah, some years later—and poorer, having dropped massive sums of cash on French drains and basement floors and new garage doors at the place in the ’burbs—he prefers his lessee role. After a year of deliberation, we’ll most likely have put our suburban house on the market by the time you read this.

To be totally honest, even if that place sells and we suddenly find ourselves awash in liquid assets, diving headlong into the process of house hunting and acquiring a mortgage is largely unappealing. We don’t have any real plans to buy another place—although we toy with the idea of getting a cheap hideout in the country somewhere (we call it our “low-mortgage getaway”) that will allow us to both own a small piece of something and live our free-and-easy city life.

“Wait, so you’d have two houses?” my mother says incredulously when I share this fun but highly improbable plan. I tell her it’s just our little fantasy about having it all without the fear of sinking everything into one house. Real estate à la carte.

I’m sure that to her—and to any boomer who lived a chunk of life in that pre-bubble time when people bought and sold only when they needed to—all this noise sounds like the whining of a generation historically spoiled by too many choices—the hesitation of people over-attached to freedom from responsibility. But I actually think that in a post-bubble world, “having it all” just looks different than it used to.

When Michael Ford, founding director of Xavier University’s Center for the Study of the American Dream, conducted a national survey about what exactly that dream entails these days, only seven percent of respondents ranked “homeownership” as their first or second definition. “Homeownership,” Ford concluded, “is more important to special interests [who profit from it] than it is to most Americans, who, according to our research, care more about ‘a good job,’ ‘the pursuit of happiness’ and ‘freedom.’”

Emphasis (mine, not his) on the freedom part.

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  • Seth

    Great article as I can relate to much of it. I do, however, still feel like homeownership is right for me, but like parenthood, higher education, etc., it’s not right for everyone. Home ownership is the “crown jewel” of consumerism…as it helps quell our society’s status anxiety (among other things)…essentially our constant perceived need to buy things to make us happy.

    The American Dream is a funny thing…for it is supposed to promote our overall happiness. However, when you really think about it…it is simply an ideal which is forced upon us in order to drive consumerism. This is cynical I know, but look at not only all of the people who are unhappy in its pursuit whereas you have so many people so happy not pursuing it. Don’t get me wrong…it does fit a lifestyle for many, but telling everyone in our society that not only is it a dream to own a home, but downright “American” is nothing more than a well advertised ideal with a ton of fine print attached.