Eleanor “Cookie” Adam feels as if she’s on vacation every day. After selling her 2,400-square-foot house in Garnet Valley in 2016, she and her husband, Chuck, now rent an apartment about half that size at Riverworks in Phoenixville, Chester County.
“It’s total flexibility and freedom and adds so much more fun to our lives,” said Adam, 67. “We don’t have to worry about the mail or the grass being cut — we worry about nothing.”
The couple take advantage of the complex’s walking trails, doggy spa for pets Alfie, 3, and Tuffey, 11, swimming pool, and social activities.
“Some of our friends are 24, one is 82 — and about 20 of us all get together once a month to walk to dinner at one of the local restaurants or meet in the lounge for potluck dinners,” she said. “We are surrounded by such beautiful landscaping and grass that it makes it not worth having a house.”
Baby boomers who once owned a home are discovering the joys of renting: no more shoveling snow or dealing with maintenance. They also save money on property taxes, and many take advantage of communities where restaurants, shopping and parks are within walking distance.
In the Philadelphia metro area, rentals among 55-and-older households increased 36 percent (from 184,000 to 250,000) from 2008 to 2017, slightly less than the 38 percent growth nationally, according to Apartment List. By comparison, the number of renters younger than 55 grew less than 8 percent (from 485,000 to 521,000) locally, about the same as nationally.
Renting is about affordability and lifestyle, said Igor Popov, Apartment List chief economist, based in San Francisco. “Even though in many places rents have gone up, home values have gone up by even more.”
Renting made more sense after the housing bubble burst in 2009, which forced buyers to take notice of the potential risks of home ownership, said Timothy Hewitt, financial planner and senior wealth adviser at Wiley Group in Conshohocken.
“They saw it wasn’t this linear, straight-line return — that real estate can go up and go down,” he said.
Riverworks at Phoenixville is one of many suburban complexes that attracts people who want to leave their large houses, but who still have jobs, friends, family and attachments to their community.
“They want to downsize and live a maintenance-free lifestyle,” said Charles Elliott, president of Toll Brothers Apartment Living. “Being able to rent in the same community they owned homes in lets them keep their social networks. Their kids may have grown up and bought their own house in the neighborhood, and they know the entertainment scene.”
Baby boomers most value a pool, fitness center, and social spaces — whether they want to be able to still host Thanksgiving dinner or they just want a place to have a few drinks with friends, he added.
Other baby boomers give city living a try. When a job relocation brought Mark Heim and Paige Carlson-Heim to Philadelphia in September, they sold their house in Princeton and opted to rent a rowhouse in Queen Village.
“Renting gave us the change that we wanted, without the long-term commitment that buying a house would involve,” said Heim, 57.
They chose a house — 1,700 square feet with three bedrooms and 2½ bathrooms — over an apartment or condo so they’d have plenty of room for visitors .
“Our youngest son is still in college, so we expect to have him back for summers and breaks, and though I don’t expect our older two to ever come back, you never know,” he said.
Single-family home rentals are especially popular in Philadelphia — a 78 percent increase (45,000 to 80,000) from 2008 to 2017, according to Apartment List, outpacing the 50 percent national increase. While multifamily units are up, they have grown at a much slower rate — a 21 percent increase (from 140,000 to 169,000), versus a 33 percent increase nationally.
When making the decision about whether to buy or rent, Hewitt encourages doing your homework. Consider the monthly mortgage compared with the cost of rent, your maintenance responsibilities versus the landlord’s, and the value of any amenities. For example, does the rental offer access to a gym or pool, or would you need to pay extra for that?
“It comes down to how that fits into your financial plan,” he said. “You also want to get into the emotional side: What are your goals for a new residence?”
Some people stay in an Airbnb or rent for a while to test a new neighborhood and lifestyle.
That’s how Lisa and George Halbruner found themselves in Westmont after selling their home in Voorhees in 2017.
“It was a large house, the taxes were super high, and we just didn’t need it anymore,” recalled Lisa, 57. “We didn’t know where we wanted to live, and renting gave us the flexibility to try out a new town and to see if we could survive in a smaller home. When we had school-age kids, it didn’t bother us to pay high taxes, but once they were out of school, it seemed we were throwing our money away.”
Their two-year experiment has been a success. The couple has adapted comfortably to their 2,500-square-foot apartment, with two bedrooms, a loft, two bathrooms, outdoor space and a small balcony. The apartment complex is quiet and offers a small gym and community events. The couple especially enjoy walking to restaurants, bars, the grocery store, and the PATCO rail line.
“We literally do not have to get into a car if we don’t want to,” she said. “And when you need any maintenance, you just call somebody. We do not own a shovel or rake.”
Renting is not always cheaper financially, but it may be a better emotional decision, said Hewitt, who also has a real estate license.
“You might be selling a $600,000 … home in the suburbs and purchasing a 1,500-square-foot condo that’s brand new in a walkable community and realize it costs about $400,000. You may think you’ll have more left over after that transaction than you actually do."
But, he said, the upsides to renting — reducing your monthly costs, infusing equity into your portfolio and finding a lifestyle that makes you happy — may well be worth it.