“It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
I’ve come to the opinion that our culture is obsessed with owning as opposed to renting. Maybe because Thom and I have a background in real estate, or because we do our best to spend time away from our home every summer when it gets really hot—a reoccurring question we’re asked is, “So when are you going to buy a vacation place?” To be clear, we’re not against owning property—we just prefer to rent our temporary homes instead. But it’s easy to tell that many people don’t understand that we’re perfectly happy renting and have no desire to own regardless of how much we like the properties or enjoy the location. And that got me thinking that perhaps our culture has gotten a bit too attached to owning things and forgotten the fundamental fact that everything in life is impermanent—and ultimately every thing is just a temporary right-to-use or leasehold estate.
Let’s begin by recognizing that ownership, especially home-ownership as we know it, has only been around for a relatively short period of time in the course of human history. As hunter-gatherer societies, and like most indigenous cultures that remain in the world today, it was believed that all living beings shared the land and everything upon it. Native Americans were actually shocked to discover that Europeans could “own” something that they considered a living being unto itself. Unfortunately, that belief made it very easy for those peoples to be manipulated and controlled.
Clearly, those from Europe and more industrialized and overcrowded parts of the world had discovered that whoever owned the land, controlled the land, and strongly influenced anyone who lived there. So, whether you were technically a slave or not, few were completely free when it came to land. However, in the U.S. for the first 100 to 150 years there was so much land available that most people (at least Anglo people) felt fairly grounded and content on a plot of property. With land came the responsibility and opportunity to farm, grow your own food and create a future for yourself and your family—and that led to many individuals feeling they owned their land.
Then gradually as more and more people moved to the city, farming became more industrialized and populations grew. Slowly the connections between wealth, power and land ownership grew more firmly entrenched in our culture. In an effort to develop and support a strong and healthy middle class in the U.S., the idea of home ownership was promoted and flourished during the mid-1900s and beyond. Individual farms were replaced by the suburbs. It worked precisely because people longed for a sense of “place” and the relative security that a home for a lifetime provided.
Naturally, after the mid-1900s people started learning from the rich and powerful that homes and property could be more than individual security and shelter. In a relatively short period of time, homes became an investment toward prosperity. Rather than live in a home for a lifetime, people started seeing homes as investments and mini ATMs. Meanwhile, banks and other investors recognized the money trough and began easing the rules for credit and promoting the idea of get-rich-quick with real estate—and soon everyone jumped on board. Surely I don’t need to tell you what happened then.
With all that said there is still another element of home ownership that is seldom realized—and that is that most people don’t actually OWN their home in the first place. The bank does! Even if you managed to escape the recent home mortgage crisis with a low loan-to-value mortgage—if you have any loan (or common area rules or associations) against your home, you don’t really own it—you have partners. You may have privileges that extend beyond a leasehold, but it doesn’t fully belong to you. And if you are paying more in your mortgage than what you could rent the property for—then you are going backwards—plain and simple. And never forget that the government is also your partner in every property ownership, because there are rules and conditions about what you can do on and with your property—and sometimes the government can even take it away from you.
But when it’s all said and done that still doesn’t address the impermanence of ownership in the big picture. Clearly the Native American’s (and those ancient others) had the right idea. We never really own anything that’s alive. We might control them, or break them or even kill them—but we never own their aliveness—be it a person, an animal or a planet. Whatever essence that animates a living being is something that can’t be owned.
Plus, beyond that is the awareness that all of life is in constant flux. Everything, I mean everything changes. Anything we own today will eventually belong to someone else. Our bodies will change, our minds will change, and our relationships will change. Everything in form will be different than it is today. History is filled with dynasties and empires that have crumbled—so why should your real estate holdings (or lack thereof) be any different?
The best news of all in this is that it isn’t cause for sadness and despair. Quite the contrary. Instead we have reason to rejoice in the now! The only thing we can hold on to is actually what is right in front of us, right where we are, right now. The property you are sitting in doing whatever you are doing is yours—now! The relationship you have (good or bad) is yours—now! The stuff you have accumulated is yours—now! All right now. That’s it. That’s all you really own in consciousness. So instead of worrying about what investments you should have made in the past, what you hope to accomplish or own in the future, perhaps the shear appreciation of now will make you the richest property owner possible.
So when Thom and I travel to Baja for a month and rent a condo on the beach, we are more than happy to just lease the time and experience of the place temporarily. We don’t have to worry about what will happen when we leave, we can leave repairs and maintenance to the landlord and the complex, we can forget the illusion of “equity,” we can walk away from a couple of the neighbors who have been less than welcoming, and we can move on to the next adventure. Sometimes consciously renting something can be the most rewarding (and wealthy) thing possible.
Is there ever a good time to own? Of course. Not only can a home provide a wonderful sense of place to a person, it can also provide a wonderful experience of connection, plus the feeling of security and individual expression. But as I’ve written about before, everything is a trade-off so every single thing you own—to an extent—owns you. That means you must not only pay for it, but maintain it as well. Whatever we claim in ownership becomes our responsibility and takes our time, resources and energy. So if a property doesn’t fit consciously into our big picture or one’s life or intentions, then it is probably SMART to just rent it.
Lastly, from a simple living or minimalist perspective we need to stay conscious of a desire to purchase and own things when we don’t really need them to begin with—that includes property or stuff in general. After all, most of the time when we want to buy something (anything) we are looking for a feeling that we think the purchase will bring us. A home to live in is particularly susceptible to this attraction. How many people end up buying a home or vacation property to feel proud and successful, only to have to slave at a job they hate just to pay for it and never even get to enjoy it? First identify the feeling—and then decide if there is a way to get that same feeling in a way that is more sustainable to your lifestyle. Always remember that everything you own, owns you to a certain extent. Sometimes renting is all we need.
A leasehold is a real estate term that suggests that you have a temporary right-to-use a piece of property. Remember—no matter how long or healthy we might live—none of us will get out of here alive. Regardless of what you believe comes after this lifetime or plane of existence—the leasehold of your life, this life, must be forfeited to embrace the next. If we celebrate what we hold right now in this moment, it makes sense that it doesn’t really matter if we rent or own.
Wow! Hi Kathy, I came upon your post from Deb’s Badass site. This is a great article! All of your posts are thought-provoking and filled with great information. My husband and I decided long ago we did not want a specific vacation home. We like the flexibility of renting an RV or a Cabin. We also have an eight foot camper on a truck. This works out great for us and our philosophy on a vacation home.
I loved your sentence “Everything, I mean everything changes.” And “the shear appreciation of now…” I agree with Deb on how much I like “everything you, own, owns you…” I added more thoughts to Deb’s post. Always a treat to read your insights Kathy!
Owning a home is a great feeling compared to renting. I’ve been renting for how many years and I realized that I’ve just wasted my money, I am paying without having a return, so i decided to save money to buy a condo. I am still single so I think condo is a perfect choice. I’ve already researched about the cost and expenses and so far I’m okay with it.
Argh, it’s depressing to think of this stuff. Completely agree with you… sort of 🙂
For year’s I didn’t buy a house because I worked out that the interest I would pay of the value of a house (including opportunity cost of money I had already paid off but was trapped in the house) was greater than the annual cost of renting a similar sized house. So (excluding inflation and the idea of buying then selling years later to rent), I would say that renting CAN be cheaper than owning.
On the other hand, I’ve recently bought 2 investment properties, and they’re already returning massive dividends (read my blog for more details).
In terms of happiness, this is a tough one. The idea of impermanence may in part be a lack of willingness to accept ones own mortality? I certainly have this problem, but my problem runs deeper. I’m not enjoying my life because I focus too much on the future (retirement plan). I can’t stand the uncertainty in my finances and feel that I can’t start enjoying life, until I retire and have the weight lifted.
Reading articles like the one you wrote is good to keep me on track every now and then!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Lewis! Thank you for stopping by and sharing some of the complexities of this issue. I agree that there are many ways to look at it, and that’s why there is never a “one-size-fits-all” answer to these things. Sometimes renting can be the very best way to go. But remember, a house is NOT an investment. Thinking that way can really suck you down the rabbit hole. Did you ever read “Rich Man, Poor Man” ? In it the author makes that point very clear. Our housing costs are always a cost. An investment is something we purchase to make money on and by its very nature, a home is where we decide to live. Definitely two different things. (I recommend that book if you are interested in more along that line.)
But I also get the old PPL anxiety issues. That’s what we call it in our house. PPL stands for pipeline and as self employed people we are constantly tweaking that to make it work for us. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have ongoing uncertainty with our finances. Actually we have probably just gotten used to it so we refuse to let it decrease our happiness. We have always lived by the axiom that “no one puts a limit on your income except you” and when you think about it, that applies before and after when you decide to retire. Thanks again for stopping by. I will have to check out your website to see how you are handling your investments. ~Kathy
Ronald S. Chappell says
Renting is always the best option when an individual plans to travel. Besides what’s is the use of getting a property if there will be no one who will live there.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Ronald! Yes! Renting (especially on vacation) makes so much sense. Let the owners or the managers deal with all the details and just come and enjoy. Thanks for stopping by. ~Kathy
I think renting is a good idea if your vision is not a long term but owning is definitely the best when you have a long term vision and the capital to invest.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Cassandra! Yes, owning can be highly beneficial. But did you ever read the book, “Rich Man, Poor Man?” I think there is a lot to be said that a home is not an investment. It is where you live. Investments are where you invest money with the purpose of a return–and that’s what every single one of our real estate investments do for us. We don’t buy it if it doesn’t bring in the return on our capital that we require. A home on the other hand “might” return some of the investment but often doesn’t (think of the last 10 years!) And second homes are even worse. Just something to think about and consider before taking the leap. Thanks for your thoughts on this! ~Kathy
Home Finder says
Thanks for giving us this great post. It is really something worth to think about and to read. Thanks for sharing.
Kathy Gottberg says
Glad you found the post helpful. ~Kathy
Donald Quixote says
I can see the benefits of both renting and owning but when it comes right down to it I think I would want to own at least one house. I want a place that I am able to keep all of my stuff and never have to worry about moving it. However I like what your doing with a summer home. If you don’t own one you get to try out different places you’ve never lived before every year. I like that idea.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Donald! Thanks for your thoughts on this. I do agree that having a home base offers tremendous benefits. And if you are able to get the property free and clear without a mortgage then you can literally live there cheaper than any place else for as long as you want. I think the biggest problem with that is over-leveraging yourself into a property that you can’t afford. If you can keep that home-base in a price range that is very comfortable, and then rent any vacation type places you want to live, you will likely be very happy. Thanks again for stopping by. ~Kathy
I loved this article and although I resist the `belief without proof`, I have to say that the way that I currently live my life is constantly showing me that these things have merit in the real world. So I love the science that you put together for this post. thanks!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Kelly….glad to hear your own experiences valid the idea I was hoping to communicate. With my background in real estate I sometimes forget that not everyone has the same resources as me. But I do find that people are either open to the train of thought or not interested to begin with. For instance, this post was linked on reddit and several readers said that anyone who could rent a place for a month in Mexico was too “rich and famous” to have anything valuable to say about renting vs. buying. Ha! If they only knew how cheaply we were able to rent a place–and how hard we worked for the freedom to be able to do that, they’d know that my illustration had merit. But like I said, if people aren’t open to the idea it doesn’t really matter how I try to explain it. Fortunately, I’ve found a group of people who also enjoy thinking things through and arriving at their own conclusions. Welcome to the mix Kelly!… ~Kathy
Rigel Thurston says
Great post Kathy!
This is a topic dear to my heart. It makes me think of lyrics from a Tom Waits song, “…all that you’ve loved is all you own.” The way I see it is that you can only love anything when you’ve set it free.
I really liked what you said about “home” becoming purely an investment opportunity. I’ve been in the real estate business for 12 years and it’s nearly impossible to circumvent this idea.
I think a big part of it has to do with how fragmented our culture is: our food being disconnected from where it’s grown, our “community” being disconnected from organic conversation that uses eye contact, and people being disconnected from the place they live–all for the sake of keeping our options open.
In my own blog I try to connect the values of community with the not-so-community-oriented culture of the real estate industry. I would enjoy your thoughts.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Rigel….nice to meet you and thank you for stopping by SMART Living! I so appreciate your comments as a fellow real estate professional because I know that there doesn’t seem to many out there who recognize the differences between a home and a house–and a community/place versus an investment. Worse yet, I think too many Realtors see houses as just something to sell–you obviously know the difference. I just popped over to check out your website and am excited to see what you are creating there in Austin. (BTW–we love Austin and actually own part of an investment there.) I think a home can offer many advantages but only if you can do it without too much stress (buying more than you can afford, etc.) What is really important, at least too me, is feeling that you belong where you live and caring for it as your place on the planet. I will stop over and connect your page too….~Kathy
Cathy Chester says
I am so glad I came across your post! We are getting ready to put our house up for sale, and since we’re not sure what we’re doing (except wanting to downsize) we want to rent. There seems to be a silly stigma about it.
I will miss my house – it’s my dream house – tremendously. Especially my 16 peonies that my dad planted years ago! But I look forward to renting a place where I no longer have to fix everything myself.
If we also save money, more the better (is that grammatically correct?)
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Cathy! Thanks for stopping SMART Living and leaving a comment! I’m glad this post helped you think through a few issues while selling your home. I also have a few others that might be helpful like Right sizing Vs Down sizing and Seven SMART & Safe Tips For Buying a New Home I do agree that there are some really great things about owning your own property–but never at the trade off of putting stress on yourself to pay for it or putting yourself into debt to maintain it. If we can save money–the MORE the better 🙂 ~Kathy
Kate O'Connor says
A really interesting post Kathy!
I live in Sydney with two flatmates, and the apartment we rent is probably worth $1.1 million. I find the housing market to be so overpriced, that I would never want to own a property here. To me, a mortgage like that just sounds like a trap to keep me working like crazy, to still be in a LOT of debt. Selling the great dream of owning your own home, suits the banks who make so much in interest on their loans. I am much happier renting for the time being; I might never want to own a house.
It’s funny, whichever side of the fence you’re on, there are fierce arguments for and against ownership. I think it shouldn’t feel like a pressure, an obligation – something you do because everyone else does it. A very thought-provoking piece!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Kate! Your are so right–lots of people do get rather worked up over the whole ownership issue but I think so much of it is just unconscious programming. Sorry to hear the real estate market is so out of whack where you are living too. Like you say, if you feel pressure, obligated or are only doing it because everyone else is–it’s SMART too take a look at it and decide if it’s REALLY in our best interest. ~Kathy
After owning homes for 25+ years, we sold our most current one and are renting for the first time since we were first married. I have feelings…part of me loves the freedom of not having to worry about paying bills to fix the roof, boiler, lawn…the list goes on and on. But part of me is having a tough time feeling like our apartment is “mine” although as I put more and more personal touches, it is beginning to feel that way.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Sheryl…good for you for down scaling (or right-sizing!) as Thom and I like to call it. When we sold our larger house we also rented a place for about 8 months before buying again (our primary home). It was so good for us because we found out how much space we really needed AND we were able to pay attention and decide where exactly we wanted to live. I would STRONGLY recommend that you live in a place for a while just to see what amenities you really want to pay for. AFter 8 months of renting we decided we only needed a smaller home than originally thought AND we decided that living close in to a small downtown-village like atmosphere with a lovely park was very important. We do like having our own home so we can make it ours–plus we have gone over the top with energy efficiency too–and you can’t do that if you rent. Whether you decide to buy again or not–I’ll bet that you will begin to feel like your “place” is more your “place” the longer you live there–if not, you can more easily move now right? Thanks for your thoughts 🙂 ~Kathy
Christine Somers says
Boy this has been a big discussion point in our house and we have come to the conclusion that there are many advantages to somethings renting as opposed to owning them. I understand owning in some case, such as your primary home but we decided that renting a vacation home makes more sense for us. It gives us the freedom to return each year to the same place or go someplace else for a different experience. Plus as you have stated, it takes more work to own than to rent and we don’t want to dedicate more of our time taking care of our “things”.
We now test all purchases against the “can we rent this model” instead of just going out and buying it.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Christine….I like your test! “Can we rent this model?” That’s a very good question to ask yourself. It reminds me of the “new” sharing practices that are trying to be promoted in some circles today. To me it makes so much sense to share things–like tools or even some kitchen equipment that you only use once in a very long while. Who needs all that stuff stored up just for the one day you might actually need it. Or what about the car-sharing movement? I love in some of the big cities now that you can rent a car for an hour or even a couple of days rather than owning it outright. (wouldn’t that work great for a truck if you needed to haul something around once in a while?) There are so many things we can rent or share if we just start thinking along those lines…
Buying rather than renting is worth it. Having to live with white walls, fussy HOA, and not being able to haul off and repair something that went wrong… I’d rather be able to put holes in the walls without worrying about someone else’s approval.
The cats do not like vacations.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Kelekona…Yes, you are right. There are some advantages to owning. Having a bad landlord or having space you can’t decorate can be a real drag. But owning with a fussy HOA can be equally as bad…and having to spend all your time and energy constantly making repairs or maintaining a property (ownership) can also be painful. It ALL depends upon whether the trade off is good for you or not. Thanks for your comments and sharing your perspective 🙂 ~Kathy
You’ve described to a tee, where I have arrived recently. I feel like we all own it all, because we’re here. Just because a beautiful garden is on property with someone else’s name on the deed, doesn’t mean that we can’t look at it.
In my case, land ownership was just another possession that was more of a burden than a joy. I will be happy when I can purge it.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Bethany! I actually had a little of your current experiences in my mind while writing this. I’m glad you resonate with some of the ideas here and that you maybe found them helpful reminders. It’s so easy for us ALL to get caught up in hanging on to “stuff” in one form or another–and real estate is a tricky one because it seems so darn “real” 🙂 and big and permanent. As with so many other things on the material level, I think it’s wise for us to “use it–rather than let it use us!” ~Kathy