Your Money, Your Future
Your Money, Your Future

Retirement living: Renters are outpacing homeowners

Kelley Holland, special to CNBC

Don't look now, but it's getting harder for older Americans to hold on to a key piece of the American dream.

Homeownership patterns are shifting for Americans over age 55, even as the senior population grows. Particularly among those age 55 to 64, renting is becoming more common, and that trend is likely to continue, according to Rolf Pendall, director of the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute.

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Pendall and his colleagues have observed a decline in the share of 55- to 64-year-olds owning homes since 1990, which accelerated between 2010 and 2013 in the wake of the financial crisis. He and his colleagues forecast a roughly 10-percentage-point decline in the rate of homeownership for this age group between 1990 and 2030.

In addition, Pendall and his colleagues see the overall number of seniors rising, and the number of senior homeowners increasing as well, from 20 million in 2010 to 33.7 million in 2030. But the growth in the number of renters will outpace the growth in homeowners, rising from 5.8 million to 12.2 million.

Both shifts, Pendall said, bring potential risks.

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"For a senior, having a house is much better than not having your own house," provided the home is both affordable and in decent shape for a senior's lifestyle and limitations, he said. "Not having that control over your unit is an existential threat."

Demographic changes are a major reason Pendall and others see rapid growth in the number of older renters. For one thing, there are tighter credit standards for mortgages, which have persisted since the financial crisis.

"If you start out as a 44-year-old and you don't have a house, it would be very difficult for you to achieve homeownership in the next 10 years with the same probability as was true 10 years ago," he said.

In addition, America is becoming increasingly ethnically diverse, and homeownership rates historically have been lower for Hispanics and African Americans.

In the fourth quarter of 2015, the homeownership rate for non-Hispanic whites was 72.2 percent, while for Hispanics it was 46.7 percent and just 41.9 percent for African Americans, according to Census Bureau data.

Income is a key factor in those different rates: White Americans' real median income in 2014 was $60,256, well above Hispanics' at $42,492 and African Americans' at $35,398, according to 2015 Current Population Survey data.

That said, seniors' homeownership rates may not change as much as the next youngest age group. The Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard found that while overall rates of homeownership fell through 2014 — nearly erasing the increase over the previous 20 years — seniors saw the smallest decline.

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But number of renters aside, those who will be renting are facing severe cost pressure in many markets — a pressure that does not confront homeowners with fixed-rate mortgages. The decade from 2004 to 2014 saw one of the highest rates of renter growth in history, the Harvard center found, and boomers played a big part. Households age 55 and older accounted for 42 percent of household renter growth during that period, even though they accounted for just 25 percent of 2014 renters.

Meanwhile, the number of renters who are burdened by their housing costs hit 20.8 million, almost half of all households that rent.

Part of their problem likely relates to changes in how people save for retirement and employers' shift away from traditional pensions, said Angela Boyd, managing director of the Make Room campaign, which advocates for affordable rents. She argued that many Americans are reaching their fifties without the financial cushion they would need to afford a home or navigate a hot rental market.

The campaign earlier this month released findings showing that the overall senior population rose 25 percent between 2005 and 2014, but the number paying more than half of their pretax household income for rent and utilities rose 34 percent, from 1.4 to 1.8 million.

"We know a third of adult Americans have no emergency savings," she said. "If you don't have emergency savings, you likely don't have much in retirement savings. Now we have people getting up in years continuing to work or having to rely solely on Social Security."

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Renting may not be a bad thing, Boyd said.

"People can be mobile for their job. People may not have had the ability to save for a down payment, and people have seen what can happen when you put zero percent down on your home," she said. "The possibility that you can be underwater is quite real."

But that positivity comes with a caveat, especially given today's high rents.

"It's helpful to know what your rent is going to be," she said. "We want people to be able to stay in their homes."

By Kelley Holland, special to CNBC