The Rude Question: Do You Own or Rent?

An urban house for rent.
An urban house for rent.

For the Independence Day weekend I traveled to Boston to celebrate with long-time friends by doing summertime things like BBQs and fireworks. At these gatherings I had the opportunity to make new acquaintances and meet new people. I was running though the basics in a conversation with someone new: name, occupation, had I been there before, hometown, etc. I told my new acquaintance that I live in downtown Tampa, Florida--and then stuffed my face with another piece of apple pie. However, I almost spit out that perfect piece of patriotic goodness when this new person asked me: do you own your home or do you rent?

On the surface this may seem like an innocuous question that does no harm and exists to go further down conversational trails of the housing market, taxes, stackable appliances, and a referral of a reliable handyman. I, however, argue that in public circles and with people other than good friends this question is anything but sterile--it's probing and somewhat rude.

Here is why I believe the "do you own your home or rent" is an off-putting and personal question that should be lumped with salary and religion on a first encounter in social and work situations.

1. We make assumptions. Perhaps when someone hears you own a home it means you have put down roots, or have the "security" to afford the property and all the characteristics that accompany having a mortgage (or at least a deed). Of course in demographic deduction when we learn someone lives in a nice neighborhood AND they own a home there -- they may have some money or at least a wealthy spouse. I mean, how many times have we driven through a ritzy zip code and uttered, "What do these people do to live here?" I know I regularly think this in some nearby million dollar neighborhoods.

2. Responsibility. When someone learns you own your home they want to discuss all those things that "grown-ups" discuss. Which high school will junior attend in that district? Who is your HVAC guy? Did you vote for the penny referendum to put sewers down the side streets? Seriously. All our parents' conversations we swore we would never have--we have. You can't have these conversations with renters. Nope. Renters do not know the pain of having to find a flooring guy in Florida. It's not their problem. A home owner's struggle is real.

3. But the market is so good. If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone talk about property in my area--I would spring for the monthly mosquito add-on to my pest control service. Swat! Seriously though, unless you own your home and pay your taxes, or are looking to buy, you cannot possibly know just how great of a market it is--right? So others tell you. Whichever side of this discussion one falls, at least here in Florida it gets tiresome. In my neighborhood specifically houses will sell in a week, for cash--and when I tell people this they do not believe me. But they should.

4. Thoughts on wealth. Just yesterday an acquaintance of mine on Facebook was telling me that I should buy more property. I told him that one home was plenty; yet as a proud home-flipper he proceeded to tell me that the best way to build wealth is through real estate, totally disregarding the unknown current status of my wealth or my thoughts toward money in general. In short, it seems when someone learns you own one home the thing you need to do is either flip-it or buy more. Not in all cases, but in downtown Tampa and in Florida--yes.

The simple list above is not exhaustive and may not affect many people. I do think, though, that several of the conversations within the above overarching themes should not be had with a "new friend" whom you've known for all of a slice of pie and a turkey burger.

On a brisk fall afternoon Dr. Mary Keener who was one of my favorite professors at Purdue University in the 1990's professed a communication concept that I will never forget. The concept is called, "terministic screen." These are words we utter that while we mean one thing by saying those words, we at the same time are also implying something else completely. To understand this, think of when you first told your friend she "looks great today." To which she replied, "You mean I look like crap every other day?" This is a perfect example of a terministic screen. Of course the complimenting party meant no insult, and in most cases the one receiving the compliment knows that--but what about the cases where the receiver DOES NOT know how to take the terminisitc screens and their meanings. This is exactly how I feel toward "do you own or rent?" If I tell you I own my home it says just as many things as it is not saying. The same goes for when I tell you I rent.

Disclosure time. I rent. My partner and I rent an aging home in a nice neighborhood in Tampa. I will always answer someone honestly when they ask when we bought it. Sometimes when people are inside the house for a party and they learn of our status as renters, they go down the path of all the things that we should do with the house if we were to buy it. I have one friend, and he truly is a friend, who constantly tells us what we should tear down and rip out. Terministic screen: your house is a dump. Other people consistently tell us, "you guys should buy this place, you guys should buy this place." Of course, when I tell them the going rate of the comps in the neighborhood (think sub-one-million dollars), they say, "nawww...impossible." Again, see item 3 above--everyone knows the local market, right?

Further disclosure time. As I intimated in item 4, I also own a property as well. This sometimes comes up, and sometimes it does not. I have a colleague at work who I really enjoy but he constantly tells me that "you have to buy something." I secretly think it is because he wants me to be as miserable as him fixing up a short-sale in the suburbs. But overtly I have to constantly remind him that I do own something--this way I can still be part of the "responsibility" club mentioned above in item 2. I am fully capable of talking about how busy Home Depot is on Saturdays and I have a handyman I can send his way. Yet, secretly it drives me crazy--what is the difference if I own something or not?

My main intent in this article is to ask others to think of the terministic screens involved in these conversations of owning or renting. Of course with the person at the 4th of July barbeque in Boston I did not go into detail of explaining that I looked up what our landlord pays in taxes each year and it is more than some folks make in a quarter. Or, that in Florida we have flood insurance tacked-on to our mortgages beyond those taxes. Or, that within my values system I would rather spend all that money on trips to Boston to make new friends and watch fireworks, than to sit at home and be house-poor while waving sparklers around hoping not to burn down my pricey house. Nope, I would never say any of these things to a new acquaintance. Typically I just shove another piece of pie in my mouth and smile.