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).



Yellow. Yellow. YELLOW! The desire hits suddenly and hard, with an intensity that falls somewhere between my craving for morning coffee and an addict’s for heroin. Just like that, all I can think about is painting the bathroom in our small Fairmount apartment. It’s not always the bathroom, nor is it always yellow—sometimes it’s the kitchen, and it’s SUBWAY TILE or WALLPAPER WITH LITTLE MONKEYS ON IT—but the urge in my renter’s heart to a) obtain a house of my own and b) do pretty stuff to it comes over me with increasing regularity these days.

As a 32-year-old American “property virgin,” in HGTV parlance, I am regularly assured that these primal-feeling house urges are perfectly natural. So natural, insists one home-owning friend who knows about such things, that it’s actually my biological clock sounding its pre-baby nesting alarm. (“Eh,” I reply.)

Biological imperative notwithstanding, there are plenty of reasons the siren song of homeownership might suddenly be calling to me after more than a decade of renting. The first probably has to do with the growing cultural obsession with home makeover shows: According to the New York Times, HGTV draws an average of 1.3 million viewers during prime time. No big shakes next to, say, ABC’s 8.3 million, but still more than enough for the network to launch HGTV Magazine at a moment when nobody is launching new magazines. With the same gusto that we once recapped episodes of Sex and the City, my friends and I now debate the benefits of granite vs. butcher block, as seen on Property Brothers.

There’s also the long-held conventional wisdom that renting is throwing away one’s money while buying is, to quote my high-school economics teacher, an investment in oneself. And there’s Wharton-trained economist and Econsult veep Kevin Gillen, who tells me that in Philadelphia proper, I could wind up paying less monthly toward a mortgage than I spend on rent—especially­ now, when Center City’s rental vacancy rate is barely a sliver, at 1.8 percent. Midway through 2009, it was 7.6 percent. Landlords are the new real estate moguls.

Last, but not at all least, is the overwhelming power of the Great American Dream home-owning narrative, peddled by everyone from Walt Whitman (“A man is not a whole and complete man unless he owns a house and the ground it stands on”) to Suze Orman (“Owning a home is a keystone of … financial affluence and emotional security”). Fannie Mae couldn’t ask for better marketers.

And so, be it natural or nurtured, the decision to buy a home was, for people like my husband and me, always a given. We have two jobs between us, and relatively stable incomes. We like Philly. Putting down roots is supposed to be what people like us do. But now—for us and heaps of other­ American Dreamers—the urge to put down roots has come along just as those supposed to’s seem to be shifting. The headlines since the housing bubble burst in ’08 might veer toward the hysterical, but they pretty much capture the vibe out there:

“The New American Dream: Renting” (Wall Street Journal). “Renting: The New American Dream?” (MSN). “Census: American Dream of Home Ownership May Be Gone for Good” (the Associated Press). “The New American Dream: Rent, Don’t Buy” (the Fiscal Times). “White Picket Fence? Not So Fast” (New York Times). “The American Dream of Home Ownership Has Become a Nightmare” (U.S. News & World Report).

The numbers behind them aren’t particularly encouraging, either: According to Gillen’s quarterly housing study, the value of homes in Philadelphia fell 2.4 percent in the last quarter of 2011, bringing us to a total drop of 18 percent since the bubble burst. We’re 36 percent below our historic average when it comes to houses being bought and sold.

The downturn changed our focus on homeownership. It reminded us, Gillen says, that a house is first and foremost a place to live, not a moneymaker. But it strikes me that more than just our focus has changed. We’ve begun looking at homebuying through an entirely different lens.

If anything, the broken economy has made my husband and me all the more grateful for the life we lead. When our heater stopped heating, we didn’t spend a nickel—we called the landlord. When our roof leaked, I laid out some towels, then wrote an email. We adore our block, a tree-lined version of Philly at its very best. We rent for a relative song on a street where we could never afford to buy.

I think we who find ourselves considering real estate in the hangover of the nationwide house party still have options. (Well, most of us.) My husband and I could move a little further north into the hinterlands of Fairmount/Temple­ and buy a cute little place we could afford in this buyer’s market. We could change our lives a little, spend a substantial chunk of our savings. And then we could paint anything we damn well please. But the question isn’t really if we can, or even if we should.

The question is: Aside from wall color, why would we want to?