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May 2012
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The rise of rentership

The rise of rentership in the US, and the decline of home ownership.

http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/data/USHOWN_Max_630_378.png

According to WSJ,

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. The foreclosure crisis, which has caused millions of Americans to turn over homes to lenders, is responsible for much of this decline. What's more, given the weak labor market and higher lending standards, more Americans today have a difficult time scraping together the required down payments.

For an increasing number of Americans, though, it simply makes more sense to rent these days. According to Moody's, by late 2011 it was cheaper to rent than to own in 72% of American metropolitan areas, 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 rentership as an economic step backward. Renters can't build up equity, and they have less control over their living standards than owners. Renting is generally seen as something you do when you've failed as a homeowner or are not yet ready to be one. But I'd argue the rise of rentership is a sign of a system adapting—albeit too slowly—to new realities.

The U.S. economy needs the dynamism that renting enables as much as—if not more than—it needs the stability that ownership engenders. In the current economy, there are vast gulfs between the employment pictures in different regions and states, from 12% unemployment in Nevada to 3% unemployment in North Dakota. But a steelworker in Buffalo, or an underemployed construction worker in Las Vegas, can't easily take his skills to where they are needed in North Dakota or Wyoming if he's underwater on his mortgage. Economists, in fact, have found that there is frequently a correlation between persistently high local unemployment rates and high levels of homeownership.


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