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Jane Hodges

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10 Reasons To Rent And Call Bullsh*t On The American Dream

Posted: 03/21/2012 10:53 am

Homeownership has long constituted the American Dream.

Yes, that's right: We are a nation that has largely staked its identity on making a major purchase. I own, therefore I am! And, to convince ourselves we're less superficial than we are, we've created a narrative of infomercial-ish rhetoric around the merits of owning and relative demerits of renting, one that suggests only the owner has wealth, community, or security and that renters are tramps and thieves, a kind of un-ambitious underclass who refuse to participate in owning, since home construction is still viewed as a job-creating engine of capitalism and gross domestic product.

Of course, as the recent housing bust has made evident, homeownership, this alleged tool for upward mobility and security and personal satisfaction, has failed many of us. Despite this, mortgage brokers, real estate agents, some policy types, and sentimentalists continue propagating the idea that having a really big leveraged loan on an illiquid asset of dubious future value will provide sufficient warm fuzzies to distract a new generation of first-time buyers from the glaring reality that owning costs more--financially, personally, and emotionally--than it did just a few years ago. Of course, when owning doesn't work, it's you the consumer (not realtors, brokers or policy wonks) who winds up with debt and consequences.

Here I should confess that I'm a homeowner, and a relatively happy one--but I was willing to make sacrifices and then made some unexpected sacrifices, as a result of this decision to own. When people ask me why I wrote a book called Rent Vs. Own (Chronicle Books, $18.95), I say it's because I wanted to present a more realistic view and raise some new questions about what ownership does and doesn't do for people emotionally and financially. Because before we start exiting this housing correction, I'm guessing ownership's champions will assert the same old fantasies about what owning means and possibly lead many of the uninitiated to make the same old mistakes born of sentimentality and over-optimism.

I'd be lying if I didn't confess--as many owners do, behind closed doors--that sometimes I envy renting pals who have the domestic flexibility and spare cash on hand to pursue creative projects, arrange long-haul travel, fund their own start-ups, or subsidize the risks that make for great career leaps. I see no moral superiority in owning and forking over $2,000 for a new furnace when I'm still waiting to go on my honeymoon (I got married in '08) or could go to an amazing professional conference or, hey, write cool blog posts that pay in the currency of glitz and goodwill.

Indeed, as an owner, I'd like to tell renters that whether they're lifelong leaseholders or eyeing the other side, that there are good reasons to rent no matter what the pro-ownership set has to say.

Here are ten of them:

1. You're redefining The American Dream
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Homeownership became conflated with the concept of the "American Dream" many decades ago, when the homeownership rate was less than 50%.

Nowadays? Even after the real estate bust, homeownership is still well above 60%. Do we need to prop up homeownership--now? In a roller-coaster global economy, an era of high unemployment, a gig economy where people don't have steady long-term employment anymore, and yet, where a mortgage is a steady, long-term loan?

Some of renting's best advocates are former owners: They're tossing out lawn mowers and trading in SUVs to live close-in, within walk-friendly neighborhoods where they have the time, and, finally, a little spare coin, to shop at local mom-and-pop joints and socialize with neighbors. Not bad, right?
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