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In shaky economy, renting increasingly tops owning

It's an ideal time to buy a home, but many potential buyers in Sioux Falls are forgoing home ownership and the American dream.

Instead, despite historically low interest rates, a drop in home prices and an ample inventory of houses to chose from, many are opting for short-term rental agreements.

Some question whether there's still value in owning a home .

Others say the popularity of renting is a trend that will be a short-lived function of economic uncertainty. Many potential first-time homebuyers don't want to be tied down to a home. They don't know whether the future will bring a pay raise or a layoff. So they opt for an apartment or town home.

The trend of renting will turn around eventually, but it's going to be slow, said Michael Roach, assistant professor of economics at the University Center and Dakota State University.

"That's a short-lived phenomenon we're experiencing simply because of where the housing market has gone for a couple of years," he said. "(Homeownership) is still the American dream; people still want homes. People still want to own their own home, but they want to do it in an environment that makes economic sense."

As the local economy grows and adds jobs, and as new businesses pop up, Roach said home ownership will pick up.

"Especially for younger people, younger families, nobody likes uncertainty when they're dealing with that amount of money. It's the biggest investment most people will make in their lives," he said. "People are gun-shy still, and it's going to take a little while to get over that."

Fear is the No. 1 reason for the shift from home ownership to renting, said Tony Ratchford of the Ratchford Group with Hegg Realtors.

He said although home inventory has dropped in Sioux Falls, and business is better than last year, it's not as good as he had hoped. He's had clients who sold homes and moved into rental properties to get out from under some debt. He also owns five rental properties that he said he gets calls about weekly.

"It's just been absolute fear. ... They just don't have confidence in the economy," he said. "People were careful with their money. They realized the cost of gas, cost of food and have a fear of the economics of the world that brought them to the realization to pay off debt, pay off credit cards and just hunker down a little and make life cheaper."
Ratchford said he thinks Sioux Falls has hit bottom and predicts things will pick up by summer. At that time, he said the market will be more balanced, home values will increase, rentals will be mostly full and prices will be up. People will realize it's cheaper to buy than rent.

"The American dream of owning your own home, it's such a great investment, but the last three or four years we haven't seen that," he said. "Some people are questioning whether or not there's any value in owning a house anymore. I know there is, and long term it's going to be a big deal. It's part of the cycle of what happens when you have a down dip."

Kayla Pederson, 27, never has owned a home, and said financially, she can't buy a house now. This month, she moved into a two-bedroom apartment with her 4-year-old son after living with a friend and saving money.

"These days, it's more common. I'm hearing friends and acquaintances move in with friends or parents to catch up until they're ready to get out on their own," she said.

Pederson recently moved back to Sioux Falls from Colorado. Although she has a degree in business management, she was unemployed for more than two months before she was hired as an IT support technician in June. She plans to own a home someday but said renting is the best option now.

Pederson passed on buying a foreclosed home in the Denver area. She's glad she did.

"With the economy, you could get more bang for your buck, but when we had time to think about it, we decided renting was a better option," she said. "I knew eventually I was going to be moving back home."

Matt Larson, president of the Realtors Association of the Sioux Empire, said pending home sales were up 16 percent in October compared with last October. Pending sales this year are up 0.9 percent. New listings and inventory are down.

Larson said people remain cautious.

"It should start improving in 2012, and I think we're going to lead the country out of it in the Midwest, because we didn't have the terrible downside," he said. "I think we're going to outperform most markets."
Rental vacancies in Sioux Falls are at an all-time low of 4.58 percent, said Dan Siefken, executive director of the South Dakota Multi-Housing Association. That's the lowest the organization has seen since it began the vacancy survey in 1996, he said.

It's also down substantially from a record-high of 13.28 percent in January 2010.

"I think (apartment living) is back in vogue," he said. "People went through a period of time where they were sold on the fact that home ownership was for everybody and that you were throwing your money away if you rented. Now they're realizing that renting is a good bargain."

Siefken said the high vacancy rates of 2010 can be attributed largely to the first-time homebuyer tax credit perks. Now, he said, renters are finding a savings in renting when they don't have to pay property tax, maintenance, insurance, lawn care and snow removal and other costs.

Today's renters don't want homeowner costs, but they do want more than a couple bedrooms, a bathroom and a kitchen. They want units with dishwashers and a washer and dryer. They want complexes with heated garages or underground parking, fitness facilities, pools and Jacuzzis, Siefken said.

"They're pretty much must-haves," he said. "Those apartments are getting harder and harder to find; those complexes have almost zero vacancy."

Angie Stingley, manager for Boulder Creek and Boulder Pointe Townhomes, said she has 184 units and expects one vacancy this month. She said if there is a vacancy, it doesn't last long.

The Dunham Co. will start construction next spring on a 262-unit apartment complex on South Grange Avenue. CEO Don Dunham expects it to be ready for tenants next fall.

"The old days of Section 8 housing and 4-plexes, that's not good enough for young professionals today," he said. "If you make enough money, you want to live someplace nice, but that doesn't mean you want to buy a house."

That's why Dunham hasn't built any single-family homes in more than two years. There's no demand.

He said the company used to have 40 to 50 spec homes for sale at all times throughout the area that includes Sioux Falls, Dakota Dunes, Yankton and Elk Point. Dunham said the company has about 150 lots fully developed and ready for single-family homes, but there's no plans for buildings.

"We're just trying to liquidate what we still have," Dunham said. "There is no demand. People are seeing that a home is not the deal it used to be anyway."

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