Buying a home in many parts of the country is notoriously expensive, but that’s not what keeps Liz Gebhardt renting her 1896 Edwardian-style two-bedroom unit in the Ashbury Heights neighborhood of San Francisco.
Instead, Gebhardt, who is in her 50s, chooses to rent for a host of other reasons.
“Owning a piece of real estate doesn’t define who I am,” says, Gebhardt, senior vice president of brand strategy at Trier & Company, a Bay Area communications firm. Besides, she enjoys the flexibility of renting and not being locked into a home mortgage.
Like a growing number of boomers and retirees who have good credit and the financial resources to own a home, Gebhardt prefers renting — something she’s done since the 1980s — and has no immediate intentions to buy.
She is not alone.
Renting has been on an upswing for more than a decade in the United States, especially among boomers and retirees. A report from the Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies found that in mid-2015, nearly 43 million households rented, up nearly 9 million from a decade earlier and the biggest increase in any 10-year period on record. And since 2005, Americans in their 50s and 60s have accounted for the largest portion of the country’s increase in renters.
More recently, an April survey from Credit Sesame — which polled more than 1,000 renters about why they rented instead of owned — revealed some interesting findings about older Americans.
Thirteen percent of boomers ages 55 to 64 said they plan to buy a home in the next six to 12 months. So did 6 percent of those 65 and older. But the vast majority of renters said they have no plans to buy a home in the near future, including 87 percent of those 55 to 64 and 94 percent of those 65 and older.
When asked why they continued to rent, about half of renters said they rent because they cannot afford to buy a place where they live or work. Four out of 10 older Americans said they rent by choice. Specifically, 38 percent of those 55 to 64 and 40 percent of those 65 and older said they can afford to buy, but choose to rent, according to Credit Sesame.
It’s that latter group of Americans renting by choice with which Gebhardt identifies, and she believes it goes far beyond economics.
“A lot of people talk about millennials not buying properties because they prefer a nomadic lifestyle and they value experiences over things. But that resonates a lot with me, too,” says Gebhardt, who travels frequently for work. And she says she’s never felt compelled to “buy into a 20- or 30-year property commitment.”
Besides, her definition of success is a lot different than that of previous generations. “There is a new normal in the U.S. across generations, especially when it comes to homeownership. It’s no longer the case that you have to be married by age 27, have a kid by 32 and buy a home by 35. I don’t think those are the rules anymore,” Gebhardt says.
“In fact, I just don’t feel that homeownership is the definition of the American dream. But if you want to, you may choose to buy your first home when you’re 60, and I don’t think that’s counterintuitive anymore,” she adds. “It’s not about having things the way your parents or grandparents had them. I can’t base what my success in life is on what past generations defined as success.”
As for her present personal situation, Gebhardt feels fortunate to have what she considers a nearly perfect living arrangement.
Her flat has a garage, a backyard and a western-facing deck. “From a distance, you can see a peek of the Pacific Ocean and the [San Francisco] Bay. It’s not fancy, but it is very peaceful and quiet.”
No wonder, then, that she’s at peace with her decision to stay there for so long as a renter. And unlike most tenants nationwide, Gebhardt has been afforded the flexibility to fashion her living space into her own style and preferences. She’s even painted her residence and put up new fencing.
“I love the space, and I take care of it as if I’m an owner,” she says. “It is truly my home.”
Still, Gebhardt acknowledges that there are some drawbacks to renting. “The main downside,” she says, “is that you’re always worried that something could happen to the building that you don’t have control over.”
For example, an owner could sell the building or choose to move their adult kids into the unit. Perhaps that’s why Gebhardt doesn’t entirely rule out home ownership in the future.
But for now, she has no sense of urgency about making the leap from renter to owner. “I’m quite happy renting,” she says. “And even though I don’t currently own real estate, I definitely do have a home.”