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Fallout: The Financial Crisis

The new breed of perma-renters

Marketplace Staff Jan 22, 2010
Fallout: The Financial Crisis

The new breed of perma-renters

Marketplace Staff Jan 22, 2010


TESS VIGELAND: What if you didn’t have to deal with the FHA at all? Or mortgage brokers? Or hiring a plumber to fix the faucet? Well, that would make you a renter. Home ownership used to be a given for, you know, grownups. But the down economy has spawned a new breed of financially mature specimens, the perma-renter.

Marketplace’s Stacey Vanek-Smith has more.

Stacey Vanek-Smith: Milan Mashanovitch and his wife Rebecca Eggeman live in a three-bedroom house in Santa Barbara. They can see the ocean from their backyard.

Milan Mashanovitch: So here we have a couple of fruit trees, and then on the other side, you can see the Channel Islands.

Milan and Rebecca both have graduate degrees, high-paying jobs, excellent credit, a new baby — and absolutely no plans to buy a house.

Rebecca Eggeman: I kind of got the impression that people felt sorry for us because we were renting. I’d say, “We’re moving,” and the response would be, “Did you buy a house?” You know? And I’d be like “Well, no, we’re still renting.”

Still renting. In a culture obsessed with home ownership, still renting makes Milan and Rebecca feel like social outcasts.

Mashanovitch: It has to make financial sense. I mean, look, we’re not in some weird sect.

If they sound a little defensive, they have reason to be, says Nicolas Retsinas. He heads up the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University.

Nicolas Retsinas: Rent could be, not to be too glib, but really was a four-letter word. That, you must be dumb if you’re still renting, you must be too poor. It was like, well if you did everything right, and you were smart and you worked hard, you should be an owner.

Milan and Rebecca have done all the math, and say it doesn’t make sense for them to buy right now. And when I say they’ve done all the math, I mean, they’ve done all the math.

Mashanovitch: The median income for Santa Barbara is around $77,000 a year.

Eggeman: You shouldn’t buy a house more than three times your annual income, with a 20 percent down payment.

Even though the numbers are on their side, even though they avoided the housing bust that stung many of their friends, and even though they did so much homework, they saw the crash coming and got their money out of the market before it tanked. Milan and Rebecca still sought out an online support group of die hard renters on sites like Dr. Housing Bubble.

Mashanovitch: One day I remember, I did a search, “housing bubble,” and I realized I’m not crazy. I’m not alone. There are other people who see it.

Eggeman: It’s like this underground, people in the same position that we were that just were questioning all the economists, people on Wall Street, the media, the spin.

People not swayed by government incentives and tax breaks that favor owning.

Personal finance expert Jordan Goodman says there are real financial advantages to renting.

Jordan Goodman: You’re not subject to property tax increases. You also are more mobile, since you’re not stuck in a home you can’t sell. In many cases, rents are lower than what you’d have to pay for the combination of mortgage costs and maintenance.

And Goodman says, couples who rent can invest that extra money, instead of sinking it into a house that may go down in value. A quarter of homes in the U.S. are currently underwater; that number is expected to jump to nearly half this year.

Still that didn’t deter new home owner, Matthew Bickell.

Matthew Bickell: I look at buying versus renting probably like 80 percent non-financial.

Matthew Bickell works in finance. He and his wife, Kim, just bought a house in Los Angeles. Like Milan and Rebecca, Matthew and Kim are in their mid-thirties, have high-paying jobs and a young child. But Matthew says even though this is the biggest purchase they’ve ever made, and he thinks housing prices still have a ways to fall, it wasn’t about the money.

Bickell: It’s the whole home aspect versus house or versus, I want to have an appreciating asset. It’s the place to hang your hat, all those kind of silly old sayings. You call it yours, and there’s a peace of mind that comes with that.

Kim Bickell, to daughter: Brigitte, do you want to go climb a tree?

Kim: I’ve already thought about how I’m going to decorate it and change it so that it’ll be a nice place for her, and for us as a family and for me it was all about that and not at all about a financial investment.

That version of the American dream is changing as loans become harder to get and foreclosures continue to mount. The number of households that own in the U.S. is expected to drop from more than two-thirds to around half.

Eggeman: Last night, we saw the sunset over here. It was beautiful.

Milan and Rebecca stroll through an oceanside park just down the street from their house. They come here with their son almost every day.

Eggeman: It just makes so much more sense to rent, and to enjoy the lifestyle, and to be steps away from the beach and have money for retirement, money for our children’s college fund. And to call the landlord if the sprinklers break down.

Milan and Rebecca say their rental house is home, but they’d still like to own someday.

In Santa Barbara, I’m Stacey Vanek-Smith for Marketplace Money.

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