The Shame of Being a Renter

Does the perk of making your landlord fix the leaky roof trump the pleasure of choosing your wall color?

I am biased, of course, but I believe that the street my husband and I live on is one of the best streets in the city: tree-lined, sidewalked, jam packed full of sturdy brick row homes and growing young families, but still relatively replete with parking. It’s the best place I’ve lived as an adult—probably because, while we are renters, most everybody else on this street owns their place and has a vested interest in keeping the block awesome.

I have to admit that I harbor a certain self-consciousness about our non-owning status. Like the band kid amongst a pack of shiny-haired cheerleaders, I greet the owners on the street with my best Like Me smile and a hopefully not-too-desperate wave. They all know each other and are constantly doing charming sorts of home improvements and have alley gates blooming with ivy planted seven springs ago. To the extent that I can, I give my all, planting mums in our window box, keeping our stoop tidy, and even requesting that our landlord (who, it must be noted, is excellent in all important landlord regards) repaint the chipped spots on our front door—all in vain attempts to quell my underlying fear about secret block meetings being held in someone’s living room. So, I’ve gathered you all here to discuss what to do about those renters at the end of the street, with their chipped paint and and the obvious inexperience with flower boxes. Motion to snub at block parties?

The beauty and the curse of renting your home, of course, is not just that there’s a limited amount of improvements you want to make to a house that’s not yours, but also a limited amount you can make. It’s a double-edged sword: We may suffer the agony of wishing our door red instead of yellow, but we also enjoy the delicious freedom of shrugging and saying “Call the landlord” when the roof leaks.

Nobody understands this freedom better than my husband: He bought a home in the ‘burbs right before we met, and we both think it’s an imprudent time to sell the place. After calculating whose professional obligations—his out there, mine in the city—would make a commute more hellish, my work-all-the-time schedule won out, and we decided to rent out his house and lease a place to live in the city. As a result, he is in the bizarre position of simultaneously being both a landlord and a lessee.

After dropping serious cash on French drains and new garage doors for the suburban place, he currently prefers his lessee role.

I, on the other hand, am a home-owning virgin, and blame my rental self-consciousness on the fact that I’ve not yet been able to answer that primal home-owning urge that begins to form in a woman in her early 30s. To say that I feel like a freak amongst more established friends would be overstating it, but I do stifle a wistful sighs when they ask me opinions on wallpaper for the downstairs powder room. Unfortunately for me, the sudden urge to choose paint colors and varnish floors and participate in banal conversations about home improvement courses at Lowe’s has hit me with all the force of a biological clock (my architectural clock, perhaps?), just exactly as the crappy housing market and crappier economy seem to be forcing the American Dream to morph out of buying and more toward renting.

But while my mind realizes that the most prudent thing right now is to keep on with the renting (at very least, I don’t want to leave our block, where I feel fairly certain we can’t afford to buy), I still must battle my heart’s urge to look at every for sale sign I pass, to stop flipping through old issues of Domino for the perfect paint combination for our as-yet-nonexistent dining room. I wonder sometimes if I’ve simply lost out on the experience altogether, if—like the generation right under mine will say about finding jobs right out of college—I’ve just missed this big party so many others were invited to before me. Though I also wonder if I’ve bought into a materialistic lie about how fun that party was to begin with.

My husband—always quick to adjust to changing circumstances—seems to be adapting to a future where we sell his house, eat the capital gains penalty, pad our savings with the extra cash, and then enjoy the freedom of renting for a long while. I tell him I might be able to buy into this rather pleasant-sounding version of the American Dream—but I wonder if we could negotiate a right to paint into our next lease?