Harrop: Why should renting seem less desirable than owning?

For many renting offers fewer headaches and more mobility. But it’s no less expensive than owning a home.

By Froma Harrop / syndicated columnist

As lockdowns sent city dwellers “fleeing” to the suburbs for more space, the prices of homes offering that space took off. To play in the bidding wars, homebuyers had to cough up big money and chain themselves to giant mortgages. This painful scenario led many to choose renting over buying, and that’s not a bad thing.

Why can’t the American dream of a detached house with a family room be rented instead, like an apartment? Actually, it can. Houses have been available for rent forever, but now real estate investors are building entire subdivisions for the purpose of renting, not selling, the homes.

For generations, the real estate industry has promoted a cult of homeownership, portraying it as a rite of passage for the upwardly mobile. Real estate agents pushed it. Lenders pushed it. Developers pushed it. And so did the government, with easy mortgages.

Perhaps the glamorization of hipster urban living, where renting is commonplace, helped make leasing a more respectable alternative.

New subdivisions of single-family rented homes may offer high-end amenities, such as fitness centers, pools and walking trails. As described in The Wall Street Journal, Las Casas at Windrose, a Phoenix-suburb development, is a gated community whose homes come with the HGTV perks: granite counters, stainless steel appliances, fenced-in backyards. And the houses are all rentals.

What are the advantages of renting? Many of the new rental developments provide lawn mowing and other maintenance services that homeowners must provide themselves. Renters who decide they want to move on can move out with minimal fuss.

Life is simpler. Renters don’t receive bills for property taxes and plumbing repairs. These costs, of course, get tacked onto the rent, but renters don’t have to burn brain cells figuring out what they should be paying to repave the driveway or for home insurance.

And if today’s renters eventually decide that homeownership is the preferred course, they will have the luxury of waiting for the right property at the right price. These real estate frenzies never last forever.

But should former city folk find they miss their urban haunts — and the boss wants them back in the office — renters can just give the landlord notice. Homeowners, by contrast, would have to unload a property they own, which is expensive, stressful and not optimal when others are unloading at the same time.

Of course, demand for rental homes has caused rents to rise as well. In fast-growing Reno, Nevada, for example, a 1,500 square-foot house that would have rented for $1,800 half a year ago now goes for around $2,500 a month, according to a real estate agent there.

As noted earlier, renting makes sense for those hesitant to enter wild housing markets where offers rocket past the asking prices. Also boosting rents are those needing a temporary residence as they actively house-hunt or wait for a home to be built.

In this gig-based economy, it was inevitable that entrepreneurs would come up with apps that bridge the divide between a traditional rental and a few days in an Airbnb. Landing, for one, rents out spiffy furnished spaces, soft sheets included, for even just a month. The rental fees are 30 percent to 40 percent above the market rate, but hey, Landing makes it easy for well-heeled nomads to try out Boston for a couple of months, Dallas for one and then move on, say, to Denver.

For sure, this is a different kind of American dream than the Cape Cod home with the vintage Formica countertops and a deed, but we’re in a different kind of America. And it’s a place where renting, happily, is now getting the respect it deserves.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. Email her at fharrop@gmail.com.

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