Philadelphia Metropolis


Rent to Own

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By Lauren Hall

Last summer, my husband and I relocated to Philly from Boston.  I gave myself a weekend to find an apartment in Center City, and lined up several appointments with local realtors well in advance.  I figured it would take a couple of hours to find a decent place within walking distance to my office.  And at these prices?  Philly was looking like a rent controlled heaven.

That is, until I actually entered one of the rentals.  Lurking inside the lovely brownstones of Society Hill and Rittenhouse Square were some of the most disgusting, uninhabitable hovels I'd ever seen in my adult life.  (And I'm including grad school.)  My mother, who bravely accompanied me on this adventure, ran out of Purell before lunch.

"Where are the good apartments?" I finally asked one flustered realtor.  "You know: washer/dryer, hardwood floors, doors that actually remain on their hinges when closed..."

"Oh," she said, eyes lighting up in recognition.  "You mean places for sale!  I have some I can show you in the next block."

It turns out that Philadelphia loves a homeowner.   And in stark contrast to most other East Coast cities, young professionals are lining up to grab a few thousand square feet of their very own.  Low prices, gentrifying neighborhoods, and tax breaks are drawing more twenty-something attention these days than Center City Sips.

One young couple in my social circle, barely 30 and barely employed, just bought a townhouse.  An even younger colleague just went in on a condo purchase with her boyfriend.  And a 27-year-old recent grad I know is setting up house in West himself.  In the past year, I've attended more housewarming parties than I've attended in my entire life before moving to Philly..

"I think we're doing it wrong," I told my husband, perusing Craigslist from our rented living room in Rittenhouse.  "We could buy an entire house in South Philly for what we're paying for this place."

"But then we'd be homeowners," he countered.  "In South Philly."

He has a point.  Part of the appeal of being young, urban and childless is the freedom to travel frequently, relocate on a whim, and throw all of our disposable income at shiny new consumables.  Moreover, in every other city we've ever lived in or considered  living in - Boston, New York, San Francisco - buying a home is so outrageously expensive that few of our peers even gave it a thought.   Far better to live in the best neighborhoods, pay the inflated rent, and commiserate over potluck dinners in our miniscule eat-in kitchens.

Do I want the responsibility of owning a home?  Not in the slightest.  But do I want full control over my bathroom fixtures, pet policy, and overall building cleanliness?  I'd be lying if I said there isn't a certain appeal.  Oh, granite backsplash!  Oh, non-neutral wall paint!  Your siren song calls to me every time I open the front door to my building and am greeted by 1970's carpeting that smells of ancient cat urine and my neighbor's hiking boots.

But is it enough to pull me from the rental market?

Last month, a dear friend and new homeowner was robbed while on vacation.  She and her husband returned home to find their TV missing and their indoor cats wandering the streets.  There was no landlord to call.  There was no renter's insurance to foot the bill.  Instead, they called the police and researched better home security systems.

That scenario terrifies me.  And more importantly, it tells me I'm not ready to buy.  I'd rather face a thousand shocked expressions and baffled headshakes ("Really?  You rent?") than one sleepless night Google stalking ADT Home Security.

Still, it's never easy to be an outsider.  Lately, I've found myself collecting fellow renters as friends; it's like having my very own in-crowd.  There's my girlfriend in Fitler who loves the solitude of having her own place, but has no interest in managing it.  A fun, hip couple in Rittenhouse who are saving up for their wedding next year.  And an attorney in Old City who just isn't sure what her next move will be.  All of us taking our time, living our Center City lives, open to (but not waiting for) what comes next.

And if what comes next involves a mortgage and a granite backsplash?  Well, so be it.

Until then, I'll be proudly writing my monthly rent checks...and checking Craigslist every now and then, just in case.



Lauren Hall writes and proudly rents on Lombard Street in Center City.



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