Image: Joanne and Mark Cleaver
Nathan Weber  /  for msnbc.com for msnbc.com
Joanne and Mark Cleaver lost two-thirds of their equity when they sold their home after six years. “It definitely soured my view of home ownership,” Mark Cleaver says.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/27/2010 10:43:37 AM ET 2010-07-27T14:43:37

When Mark and Joanne Cleaver sold their 3,000-square-foot Arts & Crafts-style bungalow in Milwaukee earlier this year and relocated to Chicago, they did something they hadn’t done in 28 years: They became renters.

As a 50-something couple who’d moved up the property ladder — from a starter condo to a Victorian duplex to a metro Chicago bungalow and then to the Milwaukee home they bought in 2004 — they never thought that they’d spend their middle years renting.

But after selling their Milwaukee home in May for $13,000 less than they paid for it, a loss compounded by costly renovations and a 6 percent agent fees on the $280,000 selling price, they decided to embark on what Joanne Cleaver calls a “reset” of their life and real estate’s role in it.

“We lost two-thirds of our equity,” says Mark Cleaver of their Milwaukee home. “It definitely soured my view of home ownership.”

The Cleavers say they may rent for the rest of their lives. Their monthly costs to live in downtown Chicago are about $200 more than the costs of owning in Milwaukee, but their budget is more predictable — no more surprise $20,000 porch repairs or replacement snow blowers. And no taking a bath on the investment.

As the real estate market has turned, so too has the real estate consumer. Many adults are no longer sold on the merits of owning a home. Indeed, some are just as happy to rent — and instead of seeing owning as a benefit, they see it as equal to or even less appealing than renting.

The Commerce Department reported on Tuesday that the percentage of privately owned homes in the U.S. slid in the second quarter, but rental vacancies held steady.

At Trulia.com, which introduced rental listings to its site earlier this year, about 30 percent of visitors are “crossover” home shoppers tire-kicking both ownership and renting at the same time, says Tara-Nicholle Nelson, a consumer educator for the company.

“This is very new,” Nelson says. “This represents a wholesale rethink of whether the American dream includes homeownership.”

At Zillow, the real estate values and listings portal, Chief Operating Officer Spencer Rascoff says that roughly 25 percent of consumers using the company’s site this year have been  “dual-track” home shoppers. Rascoff says these people figure out the monthly payment they can afford and run searches both on rentals and for-sale listings within their budget.

To help the “crossover” home shopper, Trulia periodically publishes research on the “price-to-rent” ratio in major American cities, comparing the annual cost of ownership to the annual cost of renting comparable condos/townhomes and apartments. While consumers use factors aside from cost to make their decision, Nelson says, the index can give them an idea whether ownership and renting conditions are improving or worsening over time.

The Cleavers are lucky. They have a choice to rent vs. own, but others don’t. The current homeownership rate of roughly 67 percent could fall to 62 percent over the next two to three years, according to John Burns, chief executive officer of John Burns Real Estate Consulting of Irvine, Calif. He estimates that six million of eight million American homeowners currently in default won’t be able to modify or otherwise resume paying their mortgages and will be forced to return to renting.

“The wild card is government intervention,” Burns says. The ultimate homeownership rate could be affected by how the government addresses the role of government-controlled mortgage companies Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.

Burns says that his research indicates once consumers have seen the market behave the same way for three or four years straight, they assume it will stay that way forever.

“When housing bubbles burst, homeowners think of real estate as a poor investment,” he says. “It may take awhile for this idea to work itself out of the collective psyche.”

Where people are still buying, they’re using more conservative loans and thinking about debt differently. That’s partly because the loans available have stricter criteria, but it’s also partly the consumer’s request, says Anthony Hsieh, CEO of lending firm loanDepot. Seven years ago, he said, less than 20 percent of customers requested a loan with a term shorter than 30 years. Now he says 37 percent of LoanDepot.com’s customers are asking about shorter-term mortgages that would allow them to build equity faster.

“The number of people choosing these mortgages had doubled. People understand that a home is debt,” Hsieh says. “Real estate is a lot less liquid now than before.”

Hsieh predicts that the average age of the first-time buyer will rise, both because flat or falling home values have stripped a sense of “urgency” from buyers’ eyes and because in many markets rental housing may offer more luxury than a purchased home.

Where buyers are pursuing homes, they’re planning to stay longer, according to The National Association of Realtors. In 2007, buyers indicated they planned to keep their homes for at least eight years, according to the Realtors' Walt Molony. As of last November buyers were  indicating they plan to stay a decade.

While the Cleavers are happy with their move to a 1,500-square-foot tower apartment that offers views of Lake Michigan, indoor parking, a workout facility with a pool, free bagels on Friday, and a walkable commute for Joanne, they’re still coming to terms with their sentiments about real estate.

As a self-described “army brat,” Mark Cleaver says he grew up believing owning was a ticket to success in the middle class. As the daughter of a pastor, Joanne Cleaver said her family lived in church-owned parsonages for all but three years of her youth. She says she vividly remembers her mother’s tears when her family moved out of the one home they had owned.

“It’s kind of ingrained in you that when you’re an adult, owning is a part of your life’s financial underpinning,” says Mark Cleaver. “Needless to say, now that’s a lot of bunk.”

Still, he catches himself watching HGTV.

“That feeling about owning is still hanging over me,” he admits. “I think ‘This is stupid!’

For more on the new rules of rent vs. own, see the explainer below.

Jane Hodges ( www.janehodges.net ) is a Seattle-based business journalist.

Explainer: The new rules of rent vs. own

  • What has changed about homeownership? Just about everything. Here is a look at the new rules of owning vs. renting your home.

  • Home as investment

    Old idea: A home is an investment that helps you make money.

    New idea: A home is a place to live, and if you make money when you sell, that’s a perk.

  • Rent vs. own

    Old idea: You’re either a renter or an owner.

    New idea: You make a housing payment. Whether it’s to a lender or a landlord doesn’t matter.

  • Home values

    Old idea: Home values always rise, so buying isn’t that risky.

    New idea: Home values fluctuate, so buying carries risk.

  • Payoff time

    Old idea: Own a home for four or five years, and it’ll work out.

    New idea: Own a home for a decade — with a short-term mortgage — and it’ll work out.

  • On renting

    Old idea: Renting is like throwing money away. Why give your cash to a landlord?

    New idea: Renting lets you predict your monthly housing costs. No more expensive home fixes!

  • Building equity

    Old idea: Owning helps you passively build equity while also providing a home address.

    New idea: What do you “own” when you’ve got negative equity?

  • Interest rates

    Old idea: You can't afford not to own when interest rates are this low.

    New idea: Yeah, whatever … they’ve been low awhile.

  • What's a mortgage?

    Old idea: A mortgage is like free money. You make money in real estate through leverage.

    New idea: A mortgage is a form of debt. You have to pay if off eventually

Vote: Would you rather rent or own your home?

Data: Latest rates in the US

Home equity rates View rates in your area
Home equity type Today +/- Chart
$30K HELOC FICO 4.65%
$30K home equity loan FICO 4.97%
$75K home equity loan FICO 4.33%
Credit card rates View more rates
Card type Today +/- Last Week
Low Interest Cards 11.09%
11.09%
Cash Back Cards 16.44%
16.42%
Rewards Cards 16.04%
16.04%
Source: Bankrate.com