When people are asked about big life milestones, buying a house is listed almost by default, all the way up there with getting a dream job or coupling up.
For a great number of people, renting vs buying is a real dilemma. And, not being able to buy a home can be a major source of distress, with many millennials reporting that they’re missing out on becoming 'proper adults' by renting past a certain age*.
The truth is that renting, despite some recent efforts to dispel its image as transitory and vaguely shameful, is still regarded by many as a prelude to real life, best forgotten as soon as the renter has finally transformed into a thriving homeowner butterfly. We worship homeownership as the ultimate marker of financial and social stability and very often look at the failure to become a homeowner as a personal one.
Now, I am not about to argue that the housing sector isn’t broken – it is. Nor am I about to diminish the many aspects of renting in the UK that are, let's say, problematic. I’ve had my fair share of unscrupulous landlords and grim flats not to be claiming ignorance of the less savoury aspects of renting as it currently is.
What I do want to argue is that there are many aspects to renting that are truly positive. And that more and more people are becoming, like me, forever renters. Many of us are now renting without much hope or desire of actually ever buying.
I wouldn’t dream of patronising an unhappy renter with words about improving their attitude or forgetting their desire to buy a house if that is what they want in life, but a collective shift in how renting is perceived is necessary if we are to make it a good, rather than just acceptable, lifestyle option.
Here are my reasons why I will always rent – and the positive real life experiences that have contributed to my choice.
1. I can choose where I want to live
This is by far the most important reason why renting can be a better option than buying. I will never be able to buy a home in the area where I rent – and that’s not because I buy too many takeaway coffees (for the record, I hardly ever buy takeaway coffees). The leafy suburb I’ve called my home for well over a decade is where I have friends and where I’ve been the happiest. If I had aspirations of becoming a homeowner, I would have to move.
As any estate agent worth their salt will tell you, you may need to compromise on where you live if you want to buy a house. Prospective homeowners are often admonished for wanting it all – a beautiful area, an amazing house with a garden, and so on. The reality is that many of us just want to continue living where we like living. If the choice is between moving far away from where you currently are (a big trend during the pandemic) and not being close to friends and other albeit 'simple pleasures' to have my foot on the property ladder, and renting and continuing to live how I like, I'm choosing the latter. Especially if you're likely to have to compromise on the size of your home anyway, it really isn’t irresponsible to want to stay where you already, happily, are.
2. I am actually fond of those magnolia walls
There, I’ve said it. And it may sound odd coming from someone in the interior design world, but I have lived in a flat painted in the good old-fashioned Magnolia shade for many years and it hasn't bothered me in the slightest. And, although painting walls is a relatively easy DIY task, I don't particularly want to do it.
Of course, you have to be honest about this one – if you have a burning desire to paint your living room charcoal grey, renting is definitely a constraint. But there are so many other ways you can bring a house to life – with beautiful lighting, well-chosen furniture and indoor plants, among other things – that painting or replacing walls and floors isn’t necessarily the be-all and end-all when it comes to adding more personality to your space.
Oh, and it’s not true that you absolutely can’t put up pictures on walls if you rent – all you have to do is ask, and very often, landlords really don’t care about a couple of nails in the wall. If that fails, you have The Command Brand strips to help.
3. There are reasonable landlords out there
This is not to say that awful landlords don't exist – oh, they do. But the vast majority of people I’ve rented from have been reasonable and even occasionally kind. I’ve had a landlord reduce my rent once because they remortgaged and felt it was fair to pass on the savings to their tenant. I’ve also had a landlord who bought us beautiful new appliances to replace broken ones – well above the standard they could’ve got away with – landing me with a great fridge, oven, and all the rest. And, let's face it, it can be a little long-winded, not to mention expensive, having to deal with replacements and repairs in a home. A great landlord helping you out makes life far more manageable.
Asking questions about who you’re renting from is key if you want a good relationship. And nowadays, even if you can’t get much information from your estate agent, there are many websites that offer landlord reviews. These reviewing platforms are the best we’ve got in lieu of tighter legal standards, and the more people use them, the more landlords will become accountable.
4. Buying isn’t always the great financial investment it’s presented as
This is a somewhat contentious point, and, undeniably, many people have made huge amounts of money via home buying and selling. But, aside from my view that a home should be first and foremost a home and not an asset, buying a house doesn’t guarantee you massive profits. I know a friend who struggled to sell their London flat for years and ended up selling at a loss because of all the work they’d had done to it to sell in the first place. You really need to know what you're doing when it comes to renovations to make a profit on a sale. I also know someone who ended up moving into a property they failed to sell altogether.
But perhaps the real question here is about life goals and the way they correlate with financial goals. Someone who has settled down in a job and has started a family and wants to provide maximum long-term stability for their children may well be better off with a mortgage. But is this the best-case scenario for absolutely everyone? I spoke to Kristy Shen, who is one of the co-founders of the FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) movement and the author of Quit Like A Millionaire. Several years ago, Kristy made headlines with her book that details her journey towards financial freedom, and part of the book’s argument is rethinking homeownership. Shen argues that many people (if not everyone) need to stop thinking about homeownership as the soundest investment and start thinking of it as debt. A huge amount of debt for the rest of your working life.
Shen shared how she thinks the benefits of homeownership will come to seem less clearcut to a lot of people in the coming years: ‘Renters are often seen by society as idiots and losers because renting is just "throwing money away" while homeowners are building equity, but over the past few years a new reality has dawned. Low-interest rates have pushed so many into getting into so much debt to buy overpriced real estate, and in doing so traded away their hopes of retiring in the future for a house they won't be able to afford once interest rates start rising (which is already starting to happen).’
Of course, this argument is the opposite extreme of only seeing homeownership as a straightforward positive. The truth, for many of us, will be somewhere down the middle. Ultimately, whether homeownership is a sound financial decision for you will depend on what you’re planning on doing for the next 25-30 years of your life. Shen now spends her time traveling and living in different locations with her husband. She has been able to do this by investing money into stocks and shares rather than paying a deposit on a house. It’s not what everyone wants, but if you do, then a mortgage will absolutely prevent you from leading this more freewheeling lifestyle.
5. I am simply happier renting
This last one is more of an existential point, but homeownership is so often discussed within the framework of happiness (or rather unhappiness about not being a homeowner) that I feel compelled to quote some research on the subject. The results are mixed, but every study on homeownership and happiness points to the fact that it’s not a straightforward relationship in which homeowners are guaranteed more happiness than renters. A 2011 study of women homeowners in particular found that homeownership actually brought them more stress and ‘pain’ than renting. A German study from 2016 found that homeownership did bring people increased happiness – but only for the first five years. Once the novelty wore off, homeowners reported that it made no difference to how they felt about their lives overall.
Ultimately, what makes us happy is a sense of belonging, community, and neighbourliness. These do not depend on whether people are homeowners or renters: some of the most generous, welcoming, and wonderful neighbours I’ve had have been renters like me.
People who share dense urban areas need to get along to be happy, and we all need to treat each other with respect for that to happen, no matter our homeownership status.
Two-thirds of the UK’s adult population say that they will be renting for the rest of their lives, and fighting to improve renters’ conditions is a must for all of us. The negative social stigma associated with renting for life needs to be removed and the renters’ experiences made more visible – the good and the bad.
Much has been said and written about how normalised and well-regulated renting is in European countries such as Germany and Belgium. As more and more people rent in the UK, it will no doubt move in the same direction, but we will get to a point where renting is better supported much sooner if more of us view it as a valid and positive life choice.