Why is homeownership the biggest marker of success in 2021? Three women explain why they choose to rent instead of buying a home, despite the societal pressure to get on the property ladder.
Homeownership is the ultimate goal, right? When we talk about the housing crisis, the crux of our frustration is the inability to get on the property ladder. Because owning a house would surely provide security, autonomy and, ultimately, happiness. It would put an end to bad landlords, extortionate rents and the precariousness of living in a home that someone else calls the shots on.
But, hang on a minute… if the private renting sector was fairer, more secure and cheaper, would we still be so fixated on buying a house? Does homeownership pressure come from our parents’ generation (who likely bought a first home when it was a breeze)? What’s with the stigma around renting? Why is homeownership the main marker of success?
Look, there’s no denying that millions of people in the UK would much rather live in a fairer society that enables homeownership more for those who want it. And so much work needs to be done to ensure that private renting is safe and affordable for everybody. But renting is not synonymous with individual failure. And renting, for many, is either a lifestyle choice or a way of living that people are happier to accept than resent.
Just look at Germany, where renting is actually seen as the norm. In 2018, The Guardian reported that it is the European country with the fewest homeowners – 46% of households owned their own home at the time. It reported: “Culturally, there is nothing like the drive to want to own as there is in other countries.”
With all this in mind, Stylist spoke with three women who say they prefer to rent.
“I love the freedom to live anywhere with no commitments”
“I moved from Norway to the UK back in 2008,” interior designer Kiran Singh tells Stylist. “Since then, we’ve moved home four times: the first two times were within Harrow, then we moved to the countryside of Hertfordshire, and then to the seafront of St Leonards last year. I love the freedom to live anywhere with no commitments – the world is my home and I can live anywhere at anytime. I just pack my stuff and go.
“Admittedly, I’ve been blessed to have had kind, understanding and helpful landlords and I am truly grateful for that. This means that they deal with any issues and emergencies – any leakage, appliances break down, etc. And I like not having to deal with all that stuff.
“Honestly? No, I wouldn’t be able to afford to buy a house even if I wanted to. Society says we should own our own property when we reach a certain age, but I totally disagree. You should do whatever works for you. My future plan is to buy a houseboat in 2023, live and travel for a few years, then maybe get a tiny house when I turn 50 – but that’s not an ‘end goal’.
“I guess my thinking is: we came into the world empty handed and we’ll leave the world empty handed too – what’s the point of leaving anything behind for others?”
“Our quality of life is so much better”
“We previously owned a property but went back to renting when our children were babies because we needed more space,” says 40-something Gemma, who runs a marcomms agency in Oxfordshire. “We were both self-employed at the time, so it was difficult, if not impossible, to secure a mortgage. Renting gave us the opportunity to enjoy all the benefits of a bigger property than we could have afforded without over stretching ourselves financially.
“We now live in a beautiful cottage with a huge garden in the countryside – a lifestyle and property we most likely couldn’t afford if we didn’t rent. We’re not completely ruling out buying in the future but we’re really quite content to continue renting. I had awful experiences of letting agents and landlords in my 20s, but I think having my fingers burnt back then taught me that, if you can, it’s better to have a tenancy agreement where you have a good relationship with the owners.
“I think there’s a lot of stigma in the UK around renting, which is such a shame. Our quality of life is so much better than when we owned our own home. I think if the stigma wasn’t there more people could lead a much more contented way of life.”
“Renting fits my character”
“I’ve rented ever since I left home at 17 and buying a house has just never been on my trajectory,” says 40-year-old website manager Maeve*. “Sure, there have been times when I’ve felt a twinge of jealousy over the stability I think my homeowning friends have (having to move home if the landlord decides to sell up is stressful). But I do not envy homeowners.
“Renting fits my character. I’m a commitment-phobe: I don’t even like having a phone contract for longer than a year. The prospect of having a mortgage for longer than five years frightens me, in the same way entering a long-term relationship does. I’ve moved in and out of London a lot, and I love having the freedom to do that. I also like the fact that if the washing machine breaks, it’s not me who needs to fix it. And if I don’t like a place, I can just leave.
“My father is quite old school and he always tells me I’m throwing my money down the drain. Other people think I’ve ‘failed’ to grow up, and haven’t quite ‘made it’. I think it ties into the whole ‘you need to be married with kids and a house in your 30s’ narrative.
“But when I think about what would have happened if my parents gave me money to buy a house (isn’t that how all homeowners get on the property ladder these days?) – the thought of buying a house is like a noose around my neck. I’ve learned that having a mortgage doesn’t say anything about your maturity.
“It can be a lovely way of living if it suits you (although I’ve definitely had my share of bad landlords and flatmates to get here!).”
Caitlin Wilkson from campaign group Generation Rent says renters who choose to do so should not be in the minority: “In many places across Europe, private renters enjoy flexibility and convenience while having enough stability to plan for the future and the freedom to adapt their home,” she tells Stylist. “But in the UK, private renters are less likely to be satisfied with their tenure than homeowners or social renters, and it’s not difficult to see why.
Wilkinson says the successive governments have focused too much on boosting home ownership at all costs, while treating private renters as an afterthought: “As a result, renters spend a third of their income on rent, often in return for cramped, substandard or even dangerous conditions, all in the knowledge that their landlord can evict them at short notice, and without reason.”
The solution? Generation Rent is calling for the upcoming renters reform white paper to ban no fault evictions, improve standards and make it easier to prosecute landlords who break the rules, so that renting is something that can be enjoyed rather than simply endured. It would also be nice to get to a point where people genuinely do have the choice to buy or rent. But for now, let’s just tune out of the pressure to own a home, OK?
*Name changed at contributor’s request