Homeownership has long been touted as the great Kiwi dream, but not everyone’s looking for a permanent fix. Jihee Junn explores the rising phenomenon of renters by choice.
Even if I had a hundred grand sitting in the bank for me to spend right now, I’m not sure buying a house would be my first or even my second option. Instead, I’d probably use it to pay off my student loan (which is still well into five figures), do a bit of travelling (a few months in New York City would be nice), and maybe even treat myself to few luxuries (an iPad, a new-ish car, perhaps).
More likely than not, I’d probably use that money to source myself my dream rental – an apartment all to myself, centrally located with clean, modern facilities. Not too big but not too small. A balcony and a room with a view would be good too; in-built air conditioning even better.
Other than the obvious financial barriers, there are a few reasons why owning a home has never really been a priority for me. Personally, I’m not really a fan of making huge commitments, and I value being able to move around as I please, unshackled from the responsibility of long-term material possession. I’ve also witnessed how hard and long-winded it is to pay off a mortgage first hand (it took my parents pretty much my whole life to finance the family home), while I’ve been lucky enough to live in decent rentals with decent landlords who haven’t ruthlessly kicked me out.
Renting has long been considered a temporary state of being in New Zealand – a mere layover before reaching your final destination, often in the form of your own house in the suburbs with a partner, kids, and job for life. But homeownership over the years has become increasingly unaffordable, leaving many with no choice but to rent. In 1991, 26.2% of households rented, but recent Statistics NZ data suggests the percentage of renters has risen to 34% with the number of households renting their homes increasing at almost twice the rate of those who own.
For the most part, house prices have unwillingly forced New Zealand into becoming a nation of renters, and while many still aspire for homeownership, others have started to see renting as a more logical option. In Australia – which has a similar culture around homeownership to New Zealand – a recent survey of 600 private renters in Sydney and Melbourne found that a third responded positively to the prospect of renting for 10 years or more, mainly because they considered it to be more affordable, more flexible, and with fewer worries and liabilities.
On top of all this, many of our lifestyles have changed drastically since the days of peak homeownership. Fueled by technology and a shifting workforce, we tend to move cities more, change jobs more, and live in denser, more urban areas. We also marry less and have fewer kids, making stability – often a top priority for buying a home – far less of an incentive than for previous generations.
Based in Wellington with her husband, Claire* says being able to move “at the drop of a hat” for job opportunities serves as an important factor behind her choice to rent.
“We see ownership in this current environment as a form of shackling ourselves to a millstone. It’s expensive to have a mortgage, plus you have to administer all the boring bits yourself. We’re also reasonably career-focused and have very little patience for DIY and repairs. We like to outsource as much of our lives as possible and focus on what we care about,” she says.
“Renting also allows us to live centrally which is important for our lifestyles. To buy would mean living on the outskirts of town or out in the regions, and we’re not into long commutes.”
Auckland-based Naomi also cites similar reasons for being a renter by choice. “I’ve already moved cities twice for work and will inevitably move again, so renting suits me as I’m not tied down,” she says.
“Secondly, I’ve been very lucky and have had great landlords, so I enjoy not having to sort out household stuff myself. Broke the loo seat? Tree branch down? It’s great handing that stuff over.”
Sam, a Wellington-based renter in their forties, also values being able to live centrally and admits they have “zero interest” in the sort of maintenance work that often comes along with owning a home. “I also don’t have kids, and it’s unlikely I ever will, so I’ve never had the pressure to provide a stable environment or continuity of school zone, [although] I really think it would be different for me if I had kids.”
The current state of New Zealand’s housing market is another recurring factor among renters by choice. Jane, who lives in Auckland, says she chooses to rent because the downsides of buying are simply too big. “As a renter, I share a warm, well-ventilated, affordable Grey Lynn flat with people I like. I can afford to travel when I want and have a decent amount to invest in the (currently booming) share market each month. As a homeowner, I’d be poorer, less comfortable and more stressed. And for what? Just to live by myself? It doesn’t seem worth it.
“Every few months I reconsider my decision not to buy, but 20 minutes scrolling through Trade Me fixes that quickly. I find myself getting irrationally angry by the state of ‘affordable’ housing in Auckland. The idea of spending half a million dollars on a place I don’t want to live in – a shoebox city centre apartment or a dilapidated Mt Wellington unit with breezeblock walls – seems completely crazy.”
Meanwhile, Wellington-based Maria says she now chooses to rent after losing her home in the US following the 2008 global financial crash. “My partner lost his job and our house value had fallen such that we were completely unable to sell it. We let the bank have it and moved here. We haven’t looked back since,” she says.
“While we could probably manage to buy a house [in New Zealand], what I’ve come to believe is that homeownership only puts you into debt to the bank. It gives the bank control over your life in ways that really constrict what you do.”
“I don’t want to get on the property ladder again in the hopes that house prices will climb forever and screw future generations. I’d much rather just rent and advocate for strong tenant protections, more state housing, and radical alternatives that make it possible and desirable to transform our ways of living so that we don’t destroy the planet.”
In fact, all renters by choice unanimously agreed that tenants rights in New Zealand needed drastic improvement, especially when compared to countries like Germany or Sweden where long-term renting remains a common practice.
“I’m appalled by the lack of rights tenants have in New Zealand and how poorly you’re treated by agencies. It truly is the only negative thing about this country,” says Laura, a Wellington-based renter originally from Ireland. “We’ve never missed a week’s rent in over three years, always have perfect inspections, and we’re still treated like scum by the agency we rent from.”
“I do think that New Zealand would greatly benefit from some of the rental protections put in place elsewhere in the world, such as rent control and decade-long leases, to cultivate a sense of security for those people who prefer not to buy. But let’s face it, I’ll have to move back to Europe if I want this type of thing in the near future.”
While some improvements to renter’s rights have been made in the past year, such as banning rental bidding and limiting rent increases to once a year, rental insecurity remains a constant source of stress for many tenants. Research from Australia suggests subpar tenancy law reflects broader cultural values that associate the meaning and making of home with homeownership. As a result, many tenants struggle to feel at home in their rental property which subsequently impacts psychological health and overall well-being.
“Most rental properties are barely liveable… and that messes with my mental health,” says Sam. “I’ve spent some time in the US where, for all their problems, long term rentals [in cities like] LA and San Francisco are warm and dry, while rentals in New Zealand are mostly damp and sad. Short term leases are a real downside – I’d sign a five-year lease in [a heartbeat].”
A lot of people in their 20s and 30s right now will likely be resigned to being long-term renters. Many will be disappointed – a lifetime of property inspections and yearly rent increases seem pretty depressing. But to be honest, so does 30+ years of mortgage repayments and thousands spent on rates.
There are so many positives to renting, and in many countries, it’s a mature thing to do. But our appalling state of housing, lack of tenant protections, and out of control prices means many of us are forced to experience renting purely at its worst – cold, damp, crowded, stressful, and wildly unaffordable. I‘ve been lucky enough to avoid this in the last few years I’ve been renting in Auckland. Now we just need it to be a rule rather than an exception.
* All names in this story have been changed