For empty nesters and retirees, that is the question: Rent or own?

Among the myriad decisions we face when we reach retirement age is whether to continue living in the home we own, purchase a smaller one or venture into the realm of renting. The decision to rent can be daunting, particularly for those who have lived in a home they’ve owned for many years. But according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of Americans age 55 and older choosing to rent increased 28% between 2009 and 2015, adding approximately 2.5 million renters to the market. 

To many of us, the shift from owning to renting might seem illogical, particularly for homeowners whose mortgages are fully paid off and who might view monthly rent as a needless, even foolish, added expense.

But experts like Joe Hermann, a financial advisor with Albany Financial Group in Albany, point out that renting can offer significant advantages, including financial benefits, over homeownership. Hermann notes that a fully owned home is often regarded as an asset that’s not generating any costs. In fact, though, the costs of lawn care, snow removal and other forms of home maintenance, plus homeowners’ insurance and property taxes, can really add up. 

“The ‘carry cost’ for many homeowners, depending on where they live and how old their home is and what kind of upkeep, repairs and maintenance it requires, can range from $1,000 to $1,200 a month,” Hermann says. “And,” he adds, “there’s always something when you own a home, like replacing a hot water heater. Those things add up, too.”

Hermann observes that many senior couples choose to remain in their homes rather than rent because “the husband doesn’t mind maintaining the house, doesn’t mind tinkering.” But that often changes when the husband passes away. “Widowed women often get to the point where they don’t want to be bothered,” he says. 

Hermann advises seniors who are considering their options to rent for a year and see if it’s a fit. “Some people aren’t sure they’re going to like (renting),” he says. “I suggest they test-drive it for a year, especially if they’re moving to a new area.”

For those with accessibility requirements, Hermann notes, renting can be financially advantageous because much of the burden of making buildings accessible is the landlord’s. “For instance, if you’re moving into an apartment you can’t access because there’s no ramp, the landlord is responsible for making it accessible,” Hermann says. The tenant may be responsible for any access-related improvements inside the unit, he adds.

Linda Kaska, 80, of Schenectady, is a longtime client of Hermann’s who accepted that suggestion. After her husband died 10 years ago, she stayed in the family home for four more years. “Everyone told me not to make a rash decision,” she says. But as those four years progressed, she found “the stairs got harder,” with the bedrooms on the second floor and the laundry room in the basement. Kaska also noticed that her neighborhood had changed, “and I just started feeling not right being there alone.”

Kaska’s initial inclination was to buy a condominium, and in fact she found one she loved and was “all ready to sign.” But legal issues involving the condo property popped up. “There was a problem going on,” she says, “and I need no problems.” And, she notes, “the HOAs [homeowner association fees that cover common expenses such as maintenance and security] are outrageous at most of the places I looked at. Plus, most had stairs, and I don’t do stairs.”

That’s when Hermann suggested she rent for a year while she sorted out her options. “If you don’t like it at the end of a year, then buy something,” he told her.

Kaska heeded that advice and eventually landed in an apartment she loves. She lives on the first floor — no stairs required — and has carport parking (under a solar-panel cover, no less!) that minimizes her snow-removal needs. Further, she finds that management responds swiftly to maintenance requests — everything from replacing a lightbulb in her refrigerator to unclogging a drain. 

“I still think it’s cheaper all in all to live in a house, especially since you have equity,” Kaska concedes. “My family still says, ‘You’re throwing money away’ by renting. But it’s my money, and I’m perfectly content. I get a lot of satisfaction from living here, a feeling of independence, and that’s worth more than money.”

Arrows pointing in opposite directions: Pros and Cons
Image by ogichobanov from Getty Images Pro, via Canva.com

Comparing the Pros and Cons

Renting

  • Services such as lawn care and snow removal may be covered by rent
  • Can “test-drive” renting before committing long-term
  • Landlord is responsible for ensuring building accessibility
  • Rent creates an additional monthly expense

Owning

  • Good for those who like to tinker and “work around the house”
  • Comes with “carry costs” for upkeep, repairs and maintenance
  • Requires payment of homeowners’ insurance and property taxes
  • High homeowner association fees (HOAs) for condos

Top image: iStockphoto.com/KTStock.


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