In the American mind, renting has long symbolized striving rather than achieving. But as we climb our way out of the Great Recession, it seems something has changed. Americans are getting over the idea of owning the American dream; increasingly, they're OK with renting it.
Home ownership is on the decline, and renting is on the rise. But the trend isn't limited to the housing market. Across the board, Americans are increasingly acclimating to the idea of giving up the stability of being an owner for the flexibility of being a renter. This may sound like a decline in living standards. But the new realities of our increasingly mobile economy make it more likely that this transition from an Ownership Society to a Rentership Society.
The unsentimental fact about the American dream is that Americans never really owned it in the first place. For the past three decades, especially, consumers haven't so much bought their quality of life as they've borrowed it from banks and credit card companies.
Now consumers are following the example of corporations, becoming more efficient. And it starts at home.
Housing is the biggest single component of consumption in the U.S. economy and the source of much of our present misery. The typical consumer spends about 32% of his or her budget on shelter. In the last decade, that generally meant borrowing a lot of money to take "ownership" of a home.
During the boom, the home ownership rate grew steadily, peaking at a record 69% in 2006.
Ownership-boosters failed to note that homes purchased in 2005 and 2006 with no-money-down, interest-only mortgages weren't really bought. They were simply rented until the "owner" flipped them or walked away from the mortgage.
In the post-bust climate, renting has emerged as a much more economically efficient way to pay for housing. A one-year lease represents a far less onerous financial obligation than a 30-year mortgage. It's difficult to get into too much financial trouble as a renter. The homeownership rate has fallen from its peak in 2006 to 65.4% today.
For an increasing number of Americans it makes more sense to rent. According to Moody's, by late 2011 it was cheaper to rent than to own in 72% of American metropolitan areas, (such as Charlotte) up from 54% a decade ago. And the more people who do it, the more socially acceptable and desirable it becomes. The decline in the ownership rate means that about three million more households rent today than did at the height of the bubble.
It's tempting to view the rise of renting as an economic step backward. But many would argue the rise of renting is a sign of a system adapting to new realities.
The U.S. economy needs the dynamism that renting enables as much as, or more than, it needs the stability that ownership engenders.
And the rising popularity of renting is hardly contained to the housing market.
Finally, perhaps, Americans are absorbing a piece of wisdom from Thoreau: "And when the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him."
For information on renting an apartment in Charlotte, NC, contact Auston Woods.
Wall Street Journal