Editorial

A Renter’s Life

Home ownership is the American Dream. To own your own home, your own castle, your own piece of the pie, is one of our ultimate badges of validation, arrival, adulthood, Americanness. According to what we’re taught from birth, you’re not real… you don’t truly count… you’re not fully living the American dream… unless you own a home.

As a lifelong renter pushing 50, I’m calling bullshit on that.

When I moved from New York back to the Cleveland area, I lived at my mother’s house for a year. Her house is in a suburb of Cleveland, and my tenure there was the first time I had lived in a house for more than two decades. After living for so long in apartments where the owner handled most maintenance, repairs and appliance replacements, it was an uncomfortable adjustment to say the least.

As the year progressed, I experienced the avalanche of things one has to deal with owning a house. Where to start… The litany of to-dos that involved cleaning, replacing, repairing, patching, winterizing/“summerizing,” trimming, weeding, sweeping, power washing — combined with all the time and money needed to complete said to-dos — amounted to a virtual part-time career.

Then there were the other bells and whistles I hadn’t thought of, like the security alarm fees paid to the police department, the water bill, garbage day (and its very specific protocols and extra fees), taxes, window cleaning, screen and storm window placement, roof maintenance and those goddamn gutters… It’s like Whack-a-Mole. Just when you think everything is all good, at least for a while, something else invariably pops up – something that costs money, time and peace of mind.

This past year, mom’s house had the added bonus of critters that had taken up residence in her attic through a breach in the roof. Between the presence and creepy noise from the raccoons themselves, along with the time and expense of getting rid of them, finding the actual point of entry, sealing it and then dealing with what is and is not covered by the insurance policy, I wanted to take a vacation after a long nap.

Let’s just say that I’m not sold on the proposed pleasures of home ownership.

As a renter in a nice apartment building, I deal with none of the above. Instead of cleaning the gutters and mowing the lawn, I get to read a book or play with my dogs. Instead of shoveling the driveway and salting the front walk, I get to make hot chocolate and watch The Shining. Instead of shopping for, paying for, and installing a new water heater or sink disposal, I get to go to the gym or take a bike ride while the maintenance guy does it – at no extra cost to me. Instead of dropping $1500 on a reliable new washer and dryer, I can drop $600 on a new made-to-measure suit, a new pair of Alden wing tips, or a few fun days visiting friends in NYC while my landlord takes care of the washer and dryer.

I do enjoy a beautifully designed and well-maintained green space, though I harbor no love of yard work. As a renter, I get to work, relax, grill and socialize in a gorgeous, award-winning green space in the courtyard of my apartment building – the enjoyment of which is included in my rent. Our building is also adding an exquisite roof deck with stunning views and handsome landscape design, the enjoyment of which is also included in the rent.

And there’s the lounge off the lobby with a fireplace and a fully functional bar, which we use for work, parties or just hanging out, in addition to the free coffee service on Saturday mornings. All part of the package.

If I owned any or all of this, the hassle and cost of maintenance would be mine. As a renter, none of it is. I just get to enjoy it, focus on other things I’d much rather do and get on with my life. This, for me, is effective living.

Last year, when I was co-hosting a podcast about Downtown Cleveland, we interviewed a man named Scott Wolstein, a developer here in Cleveland who has decades of experience in retail and real estate development. His work on the east bank of the Flats neighborhood on the Cuyahoga River has transformed a once dead zone into an attractive and vibrant community of renters. During the interview, I asked Scott why so many of the new residential developments in the area are rentals as opposed to condos. After reminding us of the new generation coming into the market right out of school, buried in student loan debt with no business taking on a mortgage, he also said made an analogy I’ll never forget: Owning is like a marriage with children, while renting is like dating. When either of them ends, one is decidedly messy and complicated, while the other is decidedly unmessy and uncomplicated.

If I decide to move to another home or another town, instead of dealing with appraisers, realtors, fees, taxes, showings, buyers (or no buyers), waiting, lowering the asking price, etc., I can just pack up and go.

At the end of my life, will I have paid more in rent than I would have paid in mortgages, fees, taxes, maintenance, repairs, upgrades, renovations, etc.? Quite possibly. But do I care? No. In the end, not having to deal with any of it is a luxury worth every dollar.

Then there’s the illusion of permanence with owning. Nothing, not even a home, is permanent. In fact, everything is temporary. Just ask someone who lost a home to flood or fire. In my experience, it pays to travel light. And traveling light is this renter’s life.

In the end, renting isn’t for everyone. If you’ve got the money and means, buying something to restore, renovate or transform into something wonderful can be fabulous. I get it. But at the same time, I think a lot of people can let themselves off the hook from the pressure to buy something, especially if they’re really in no position to do so. The sticker price of a home isn’t the whole overall cost picture, both with money and with time. Not by a long shot. As with “couplehood” or marriage, it’s okay if you don’t own. In fact, it can be fabulous. I assure you.

Note:
It is only fair to point out that my current situation is a lucky one, owned and managed by a principled and ethical developer/manager who genuinely seems to care about providing a great living experience in a beautifully maintained space that encourages community. I’ve rented many other apartments in my day, and none were as nice as this. Some were barely managed by what amounted to slumlords who gave as little as possible in exchange for as much money as possible, which is a common New York story. If I were in the market to rent an apartment today, I’d do the research. Ask around. Find out what people say on Yelp about the management, the building, the units, etc. Also… appreciate what you’ve got. In hindsight, I can look back on one or two good apartments and good buildings I never should have left. I didn’t realize how good I had it. (It’s always better somewhere else, right?) Live and learn. Things can always be better, but I believe it’s important to be able to see when something is good and be grateful, like I am now.

7 Comments

  1. If a property is owned by a good landlord, and responsibly managed, (quick to address repairs) renting is liberating. Condo ownership has its drawbacks…. like ‘special assessments.’ Very special indeed!! Try selling when your building needs quake-proofing and you’re looking at the bill.
    Home ownership vs renting is largely tied to an emotional investment.

  2. As we say here ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’, and most people do strive to own rather than rent their home. I suppose our culture is much the same as yours in that regard.

    You make some very sound arguments and I am envious of your apartment situation.

    The only question I have, which would be on my mind as a renter, is can you sustain that kind of expense into an age when working might not be an option (trying to avoid the word retirement as the definition of the word is becoming more vague by the day)?

    I know I am looking forward to having less outgoings when the house is paid, which will be in my 40’s thanks to buying an old repossessed ‘sh*t hole’ or fixer upper you might say in the US.

    Greeting from Sheffield, England.

    Dan W

    • Thanks, Dan. No plans to retire, but I do think about it. Something I’d probably take up with a financial advisor.

  3. Hi George, I own a home in London, when I say that I have a mortgage which in essence is rent, it’s just that I’m renting from the bank with a reduced rate.

    I owe the bank about a third of what it’s worth and the mortgage is very cheap 1.49% on interest only, so essentially it’s cheap living but as you say with all of the associated maintenance and responsibilities that come with home ownership.

    I couldn’t afford to rent this home around here with a family of five but as a single man or maybe a professional couple, renting makes perfect sense.

    Anyway enjoyed the arrival as always

    Paul

    • Thank you, Paul! And I totally understand that. London is extraordinarily expensive, and renting there would be extremely tough. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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