Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Trust and Respect - Rent or Buy

I've spent the last decade diligently following the rules so I could attain the respect of being an independent adult; capable of paying my bills and a credit report to prove it. Then It took me just 24 hours to cross an ocean and wipe the slate clean. Without a physical address I am not to be trusted. Sure, I only arrived 3 days ago, but I'm good on my word - trust me, I'm an American!

I can't get a tax ID or a driver's license, I can't register for a library card, the city bike sharing program, or a car sharing service. I can only get a bank account because I opened a US account with HSBC before I left and they know who I am. I also can't get a new phone, partly because the local providers won't give me a contract and partly because AT&T will not release it's stranglehold on the iPhone. I'm going to guess they won't trust me when I call to tell them I've moved out of their coverage area. So today I purchased a pre-paid pocket wi-fi device instead of getting it for free with a 12 month contract. Worth every Aussie penny because now all three of my devices can Skype; take that AT&T roaming charges! And so my quest for a legitimizing address is on - fueled by a pocket wi-fi connection to and and the largest tram network in the world.

I've always thought of renting as a respectable choice. After all, buying is fraught with risks, as the housing crisis has taught us. But I'm starting to realize that renting puts you in a class of people that is somehow less respectable. You are untethered, which makes you just a bit less trustworthy. I've been wondering what the big deal is with the "American dream" of owning a home. But it seems this aspiration is not uniquely American - we just seem to expect to achieve it as if it were in the bill of rights. Every time I consider it, the numbers don't add up for me. I'd spend more to get less AND have more responsibility; therefore more risk - that the market will turn down or that there will be unexpected property maintenance expenses. And now I have one more reason to avoid it: the Foreign Investment Review Board. I am an outsider, so my intentions are instantly suspect and subject to additional scrutiny.

In Australia, your tenancy history actually gets stored in a central location for easy access by future landlords. There is a "big brother" factor to this but I suppose it is more convenient than the looser methods of tenancy verification in the US. In a way it makes renter histories as accessible as homebuyers. But without the cash investment it just doesn't garner the same amount of respect. When you walk into a real estate office they get very interested, then you tell them you are renting and they seem interested in getting you out of there quickly. When I look around at buildings and find ones I'd like to live in, they often turn out to be condos - not for lease. The best spots are owned, the rest get rented.

Tomorrow I have 3 "inspections" of "flats" scheduled. Assuming one of them pans out and they accept my application I'll become somewhat legitimate, but not quite as respectable as if I owned something.

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