Are You Being Shelter Shamed?
Millennials have been the brunt of jokes about their love of avocado toast preventing them from “adulting” by becoming homeowners like the boomers. But there may be more to the rent vs. buy equation than you think.
Marka Law, her 33-year-old boyfriend and their four-year-old cat plan to rent for the foreseeable future in New York City. Law, 26, says they like the idea of homeownership in the abstract, but they appreciate the flexibility even more.
“The world and the economy are pretty volatile right now and it seems unrealistic to pick a place to live for the next 10 to15 years when neither of us has a steady career,” says Law, who changed jobs twice in the past year. The couple intends to stay in their current apartment for at least three years, but Law isn’t sure about what will happen after that.
“Either we’ll be in completely different places in life, and we’ll think about moving elsewhere or we’ll be fortunate enough to upgrade to a better apartment,” says Law. “Buying a home means we’re ‘locked in,’ and the future is too uncertain to commit to such a huge thing. Not to mention, buying a home with someone you’re not married to is a terrible idea … thanks Dave Ramsey.”
For Danush Parvaneh and his partner and their cat, renting is practically the only option in the pricey San Francisco area. They rent a 900-square-foot bungalow with a shared backyard in Northwest Berkeley for about $2,200 a month, but it doesn't have parking, central heat or air conditioning, a dishwasher (energy efficient or otherwise) or a washer and dryer. It does have a great location near public transit and bikeable to bars and restaurants.
“To make buying even remotely possible, we’d have to move to a less desirable neighborhood with poor access to public transit and even then, it would likely be out of our price range,” says Parvaneh. “My partner is a lighting designer and would love to make design upgrades to our home, so being able to have a place of our own that we can upgrade and style as we see fit would be a huge plus.”
On the flip side, he says, the couple is cautious about maintenance costs and taxes. They also worry about buying in the right location.
“Given climate change, we wouldn’t want to buy in an area that’s becoming more prone to droughts, heatwaves and wildfires,” says Parvaneh. “It’s hard to predict how those patterns will shake out. If we get it wrong, property values might end up going down and it would be a less appealing place to live.”
Shamed Into Buying?
Parvaneh, who is in his early 30s, says he doesn’t feel peer pressure to buy because he thinks most people his age are in a similar dilemma: They want to buy but feel uncertain about where to buy and whether it’s the right financial decision. He’s getting a little pressure to buy from his parents.
“My parents see renting as a waste of money, which I understand,” says Parvaneh. “But I also see them struggle with house maintenance costs and mortgage payments. For me, it’s a lot more complicated than the simple message they’re preaching. To make it even more complicated, their wisdom when I was younger was that going to college was necessary and a worthy investment at any cost. Looking back, I’m not sure I buy into that, so it’s making any wisdom they have about homeownership even harder to swallow.”
While Law’s not getting pushback on their decision to rent, her boyfriend’s parents want him to buy his childhood home in New Jersey from them to keep it in the family.
“He doesn’t want the house because he hates doing the necessary maintenance such as the lawn, pool, roof and gutters,” says Law. “He likes living in New York City and has no interest in living in the same neighborhood he’s lived in his whole life. Plus, he’s now a minimalist and would rather have just enough space instead of a four-bedroom house with a basement.”
So far, Law and her boyfriend are resisting the pressure to move to the suburbs, which she says they’re “wholly uninterested in.”
Allison Fabian, who is in her early 30s and rents a house with her husband and their toddler son in Austin, says most of her friends are renters who don’t feel that buying is currently within their grasp.
“The few friends who do own live in areas I wouldn’t want to live, and we (mostly) respect each other’s lifestyle choices,” says Fabian. “There’s a mild societal sense of shame around renting, but the only person in my life who really comments on it is my father. It doesn’t really matter because it’s not an option at this point, but it’s disappointing and certainly makes me a little sad when I see others I know buying.”
Money, Money, Money
Fabian and her husband are moving back to Queens soon, where they have a rent-stabilized apartment they’ve been sub-letting. The apartment costs just $930 per month including utilities, compared to $2,500 per month they’ve been spending to rent a house in Austin.
“There’s no way we could buy something comparable to our rental home in the Windsor Park neighborhood in Austin,” says Fabian. “We’d have to buy something that needs renovation, is smaller or farther from central Austin.”
Although they hope to be homeowners someday, the couple doesn’t have plans to buy soon in New York because of their finances.
“We’re still recovering from the ways COVID impacted our income,” says Fabian. “Before we can focus on building a down payment there are other concerns to address such as rebuilding our emergency savings, paying student loans and funding 401ks, IRAs and our son’s 529 account. Part of the reason we’re moving back to New York City is to save more. Plus, I’ve been prioritizing paying more for childcare over saving for a down payment.”
Lauren Levy, the 33-year-old owner of AdensMom.com , spends $5,000 per month to rent an unrenovated, 1,500-square-foot house with two bedrooms and one bathroom house in San Francisco.
“My husband and I are thinking of moving to Boston because you can buy a reasonably priced home once you get 20 minutes outside the city,” she says. “The problem with the Bay Area is that you have to go pretty far outside of San Francisco to get away from the severely bloated market. Without exaggeration, there is nothing I would want to own in San Francisco for less than $3 million and even at that ridiculously high price point, most homes would need major renovations to fit my modern taste.”
Levy and her husband say they haven’t received much pushback from anyone about being renters.
“Most people in our lives understand that making a $600,000 down payment on a house would be even harder than paying $60,000 per year in rent,” she says.
Freedom of Choice: Rent or Buy
Unlike many renters who feel “shelter shamed” because they can’t afford to buy, Kyle Crawford, the 37-year-old founder of The Inimitable Path personal finance blog who lives in Ohio, believes renting makes the most financial sense for him.
“Traditionally, I feel that owning a home has always been seen as a sign of becoming a responsible and successful adult,” says Crawford. “That norm is being challenged and shifting, but it is still a common ideal. Financially, either buying or renting could make the most sense for a specific individual.”
Crawford says he was able to reach a net worth of over $1 million by the time he was 35 in large part because he opted to rent and invest his money in other opportunities.
“I’m cognizant of the fact that others in my situation face this ethos that not owning a home is somehow a failure,” Crawford says. “I get pushback from both peers and family. For my friends and coworkers, it seems to come from the refusal to entertain the concept that renting could possibly make sense from a financial perspective. To them, rent will always be simply throwing money away. They see it only as a monthly expense which does not build equity, without looking at what I have been able to do with assets which otherwise would have gone to the additional upfront cost of a home purchase.”
Madison Tong, a millennial-age digital marketing assistant with My Supplement Store , recently purchased a 1,500-square-foot house in suburban Chicago priced in the low $400,000s.
“I weighed the pros and cons and decided that buying is a good long-term investment,” says Tong. “I like the idea that I can do whatever I want to the house and have more privacy. In a rental, the landlord is in control and there’s lots of uncertainty about how long you’ll stay or whether the rent will go up.”
Tong was on the receiving end of “rent shaming” from relatives.
“My family has made renting a house a downer because they think that it’s not the most sanitary thing to do,” says Tong. “You don’t have as much freedom to do what you want to the house. Plus, they say that we don’t know who has lived there in the past and what happened in the home from previous renters.”
“While homeownership might be cheaper in the long term, I need to focus on affording the short term,” says Law. “It’s nice not to have to worry about big costs like repairing a foundation, roof or even the plumbing in the building where we live.”
Most studies show that millennials want to own a home someday, but whether they’re overburdened by housing costs or simply want flexibility, shelter shaming is an extra burden this generation doesn’t need.
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