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The Big Fix

How Can Renters Have More Control Over Their Homes?

How Can Renters Have More Control Over Their Homes?
Reuters

This week, The Big Fix examined the challenges of being a "forever renter." Contributor Emily Badger explained why renting can feel "fundamentally demeaning," forcing you to ask permission before making any changes to your home. Badger doesn't want to buy a house, but wonders if there is a way for renters to take more control of their space. Below, some of the best ideas from commenters.

Journey93 suggested a hybrid ownership model:

I've wondered about a hybrid model where your payments are partially acquiring stock in a tenant-owned company. The company has different kinds of units and maybe over a wide geography. Instead of building equity in one property, you build equity in the company. If your unit is modest compared to your ownership stake, you pay little for the unit, and can choose how much more to pay for increased ownership. (There would be some minimum.) If your unit is grand/large compared to your ownership share, most of your monthly amounts to something rental-like, but some minimum still goes to increasing your ownership. (Not much different from most of your mortgage payment going to interest in the early years.) New tenant-owners might buy in with either cash, property they own, or a combination (e.g., empty nesters could buy in with their larger than needed property, and select a right-sized unit.)

Mobility might be preserved by the company having enough units with some small percentage vacant. Perhaps there would be a one time fee for changing units. Damage bonds could be used instead of deposit, but a board of owner-tenants (or an independent appraiser) would make the determination - not an arbitrary landlord). Moving to another city might mean moving to a unit your company had in that city, or it might mean you company had some sort of reciprocal trade agreement with similar companies in that city.

Commenter Colin Peppard:

A rent-lease-own hybrid is a brilliant notion, if you ask me. How about mid-term leases (~4-6 years w/ predetermined increases in payments), severability with a preset fee to preserve mobility, and landlord-overseen customization options?

Some suggested movable homes. Jane Anonymous writes:

For a hybrid model, what about mobile home parks? You buy the house, but you rent the land underneath it. Just a few months ago, my husband and I finally cast aside our renter status (sharing the same sentiment as the author) and purchased a mobile home -- 1,450 sq feet, 3-bdrm, 2-bath, for $88k, and we pay approx $850/month for "rent." Granted, there is a reason mobile home parks carry with them a stigma -- plenty of them are, um... pretty bleak, if not downright trashy. We happen to be in Mountain View, CA (heart of the Silicon Valley), and our park is extremely nice, all the homes are very well-kept. Given that listings for 3-bdrm residential houses around here start around $750k (waaaaay out of our price range), we're delighted that we get to be actual homeowners without having to sacrifice an easy commute, good schools for our kids, etc, etc. If you can just stomach the stigma that comes along with telling people you live in a mobile home, it's a very ideal situation!
 
Julie Roberts recommended a boat:
I live on one. Rented for a couple of years and decided I was ready for my own boat. You can afford one comfortably (I have a mortgage and pay rent in the form of a slip fee), but it is moveable, if you so choose. And sellable. You can always buy a different boat. You need to change some visions of your life (like plumbing, etc.) and a yard, but I have plants on the docks.
 

Some said the solution lies with the landlord. Leff Behind recommends renting from individuals rather than corporations:

We have a system where people are allowed to put into a contract what changes they may want to make. Want to repaint the walls? No problem - I ask for a deposit equal to the cost of painting it back white. If they want that deposit back, they can just repaint everything white before they leave. No yelling, no drama. If they want to change out the sink, no problem - but when they leave, they will pay to have it changed back if the new one doesn't meet my standards. If they want to stick up pictures or whatever, they are welcome to do that. I'm happy to show them the finer points of spackling and painting over nail holes. If the holes are too evident when they leave, why, that's what the Picture Hole fee is for. If they want to have a plant on the yard or throw a party in the patio, why would I object?

Commenter Craig Erlich says:

Before signing the lease, I'll next time try to get the contact info for the prior renters. I'd like to see the provision of this info become customary--much in the way that renters are expected to provide references from prior landlords.

Others highlighted models from abroad. Commenter Wendy Waters offers insight from Vancouver:

You may also be describing the co-operative housing model. I'm not an expert, but there are a few in Vancouver where I live. They have several different rent/tenure systems, but essentially you apply to join a co-op and pay rent to the co-op and in return you get a unit (typically in an older, converted mansion/house) appropriate for you and your family. Often the rule is that you can't have a home with more bedrooms than people so empty nesters have to downsize to make room for families with kids. You can make changes to your suite (likely subject to co-op approval). Many of the home-ownership chores are shared and assigned (so in addition to rent you might also be in charge of lawn mowing for example).

The government provided the seed money for these back in the 1970s. It would be harder to do in Vancouver today because of land costs. But in many US cities that currently have inexpensive housing, such an investment is possible.

And the last word, from Saacnmama from Germany:

I have twice lived in rental homes in Germany, where something like 60% of the population rents. Contracts there are different than in the US. It is expected that tenants provide their own cabinets, for one thing. Yes, that is an expense we don't have to bear in the US, but the feeling of setting up one's kitchen in the arrangement and with the colors and styles one wishes is priceless. Many people put down carpeting--not throw rugs, but real, honest-to-goodness carpeting. Tenants agree to paint the interior of their unit every few years. Yes, by law, you select the colors and finish of the paint in your home. All of these things give rental housing a completely different feel. It doesn't feel like you're raising your children in a precarious situation, and if there are too many dishes in the sink when someone comes to do repairs you'll be thrown out. It feels like home. Your home.

Photo credit: Jason Lee/Reuters

Amanda Erickson is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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