For Rent: Main Line Manse Owners Can’t Sell

The rise of the suburban lease.

Stroll along the cul-de-sacs of Collingswood, Conshy, Wayne and Wynnewood, and you can’t miss them: “For Rent” signs, invading impeccably manicured suburban lawns like ragweed. “I don’t think I’d written a single lease until five years ago,” says Main Line real estate maven Lavinia Smerconish. Now, she’s writing so many—eight to 10 a year—that she’s confident she could do it “with one hand tied behind my back.” From young professionals in search of good school districts to retirees seeking peace and quiet, the rise of the rental has officially gone where no one thought it ever would: the leafy suburbs.

It’s largely a chicken-vs.-egg phenomenon, says Smerconish. A decade ago, buyers used to be able to count on a house appreciating between five and six percent each year; today, it can take six years to hit a six percent value increase.

“People relocating often don’t know if they’ll be here long enough to appreciate value,” says Smerconish. “They’re saying, ‘If I get relocated again in two years, it doesn’t make sense to invest.’”

On top of that, sellers are frustrated with a market that won’t cough up their asking prices. Many are using renters as property-­holders until home values improve … you know, someday. So, combine disgruntled sellers with noncommittal buyers, and you’ve got a suburban rental market that was basically nonexistent until a few years ago. Mind you, this is not Craigslist: Smerconish negotiates amenities like grass-cutting and snow-plowing on five-acre properties that can rent for up to $12,000 a month.

The transient nature of renting might seem unsuited to the ’burbs, where hearth, home and equity have long been the raison d’être. But Smerconish suspects a greater psychosocial shift may be under way—homeownership simply doesn’t have the same meaning anymore.

“I don’t know that people are identifying themselves with their homes the way they used to,” she says. “When the housing market receded, it really tarnished that relationship.”

So—for now, anyway­—rent checks might just be the new mortgage payments in the Philly suburbs. While renters may not have the satisfaction of installing a white picket fence, they’ll enjoy letting the landlord pick up the tab when the time comes to repaint.

This story originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of Philadelphia magazine.