An Introduction to Renting

The American Dream, some say, is all about owning a home. Here’s how you can live the dream without the picket fence or the mortgage.

I rent. There, I said it. As more and more friends sign the closing papers and put down roots, I remain transient, a dandelion seed drifting over their landscaped lawns. Sometimes this makes me feel like a failure at adult­hood. Other times I look around and breathe a sigh of renter’s relief. I can pick up and go anytime, without worrying about market value. Plus, it’s nice to have someone else deal with leaks, pests, and jiggly doorknobs. Liberty, mobility, and someone to complain to: This is the American Dream.

But the history of renting is not exactly a tale of unbridled indepen­dence. Under the feudal system in medieval Europe, peasants occupied thatched-roof quarters but paid rent to their respective lords in backbreak­ing, Black Death–ridden labor. Russian serfs of the 17th century didn’t have it much better: In 1649 Tsar Alexis enforced an article in the Ulozhenie, a code of laws that formally tied serfs to the estates where they lived. The Russian gentry essentially owned its serfs and, if displeased, could kick them over to another landowner.

The despotic-lord style of property management eventually gave way to the more modern phenomena of the crooked landlord. In early-19th-century Ireland, a middleman system created a class of absentee landlords who sub­divided the land into smaller and smaller increments to reap more profits, while doing little to maintain the property. Tenants could barely harvest enough on their tiny, depreciating plots to survive and feed their families, to say nothing of saving and one day owning their own land.

In the United States, urban industri­alization and boatloads of immigrants caused the number of renters to sky­rocket around the turn of the 20th century. Early Manhattan tenements were built on 25-foot-wide lots with something like four apartments per floor. These lots were intended to house a single family but many came to hold 20 or more families in build­ings stretched several stories high. Owners were not required to provide any utilities, not even water.

Renters got one back with New York State’s Tenement House Act of 1901, which enforced standards of structure, sanitation, and occupancy for residential units. More 20th-century reforms conferred more rights to tenants, including the Fair Housing Act of 1968, a key antidiscrimination law. Renting no longer had the whiff of the downtrodden.

Further, in today’s foreclosure-a-minute society, "mo’ mortgage, mo’ problems" might be a realistic refrain. The New York Times reported that in May 2011 home prices in 20 large cities were down 33 percent from the July 2006 peak. Thus it should come as no surprise that renting is on the rise.

Fear not, proud property owners. An upsurge in renters could actually be good news for the housing market. According to US News & World Report, "Research firm REIS estimates that rents will rise an average of 3.6 percent in 2011. That sounds like bad news for tenants, but it indicates that more people can afford the added expense, and that parts of the economy are getting back to normal."

So, just as we shopped our way out of the post-9/11 malaise, then borrowed our way into the Great Recession, let’s rent our way out of these troubling eco­nomic times. With this in mind, we take a spin through the wild world of renting, from unscrupulous brokers to bizarre lease clauses, and discover the drawbacks and advantages in living life month to month.
Words You Should Know
Broom Clean: The condition your apartment should be in when you move out: swept clean, all personal property removed, and all surfaces wiped down. As any landlord will attest, tenants interpretations of the term vary wildly.

FDR: Yes, these are the initials of our 32nd president, either celebrated for renewing the national spirit during wartime or reviled as a diabolical socialist who turned this great land into a welfare state. You can argue about this with your libertarian uncle in your formal dining room (FDR).

Guarantor: A person who is legally obligated to pay the rent in case the tenant is unable to. If you don’t make enough pretax income to meet the landlord’s minimum salary requirements, you may be required to have a guarantor (see: Mom and Dad).

House Rules: You and the landlord have to play by the same rules. These house rules mostly applying to noise, the use of common areas, trash, and recycling—–but can extend to pets, smoking, and even overnight guests.

Like for Like: The phenomenon of landlords and tenants renting to and with people just like them. Despite stringent anti-discrimination laws, it is not entirely surprising that rental units in the artsy-cool, lofty area are full of artsy-cool tenants.

Pwdr rm: A half-bathroom (aka "powder room") usually featuring a sink and toilet. The pwdr rm comes in handy when cohabiting with a significant other for the first time.

Quiet Enjoyment of Property: As a tenant, you are entitled to "quiet enjoyment" of your space. This means—barring an emergency—your landlord can’t just bust in like Mr. Furley or Mr. Roper to observe your wacky antics without proper notice.