Renters buy time to relax Their choice: More renters are staying in apartments longer, even when they have other options.

February 25, 1996|By Jana Sanchez-Klein | Jana Sanchez-Klein,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

What would make someone want to rent an apartment for a long time? People used to ask Mark Bowyer Jr. that question often.

"My father owned four houses, and every time I turned around, he was doing something to one of them. But I wasn't much for cutting lawns or trimming bushes," Says Mr. Bowyer, 61, who has lived for 25 years in the Sutton Place Apartments.

He and his wife, Joyce, have raised two sons in their spacious Bolton Hill abode.

As is Mr. Bowyer, many long-term renters are happy where they are. They like their apartments, their complexes and the neighborhoods in which they live. The reasons range from location, safety and convenience to being able to dodge maintenance and repairs.

Certainly those who stay are in the minority: Less than 22 percent of all renters in the Baltimore metropolitan area live in the same apartment more than five years, according to the 1991 National Housing Survey.

Only 12 percent stay 11 years or more.

But some in the rental housing industry expect to see more renters staying longer, and choosing to rent over other options.

"There is a new phenomenon -- the lifestyle renter," says Leonard Frenkil, president of Maryland Chapter No. 16 of the Institute for Real Estate Management and senior property manager at the Time Group.

"We are seeing a larger and larger number of people who can afford to exercise other options, like buying homes or townhouses, but who are choosing to live in apartments," Mr. Frenkil says.

"Renting is no longer the scourge of the American Dream."

For those who can afford to buy a home, but choose to rent instead, home maintenance is generally a major concern.

"I often thought about buying early on," says Gerald Van Airsdale, 72, a retired school administrator who has lived in the Woodcrest in Glen Burnie for 30 years. "There were many disadvantages to owning a home. I would have had to paint it and learn how to repair it. I didn't have the time, for that.

Some of these long-term renters enjoy renting so much that they stay even if they think it is not the best decision financially.

"For the rent we pay, I could be buying two or three houses, but it's not worth it," says Mr. Bowyer, who retired from a job as a supervisor at General Motors Corp.

In many cases, however, renting may not be financially disadvantageous.

"While it is often assumed that homeownership is in everyone's best financial interest, this is not universally the case," says C. Theodore Koebel, director of the Virginia Center for Housing Research at Virginia Tech. Decreasing demand for homes and increasing ownership costs (such as taxes, transactions fees, interest and maintenance costs) have made homeownership more expensive, and made renting comparatively less so, Mr. Koebel says.

The demand in the 1980s for homes to accommodate baby boomers pushed up the prices, making homeownership an excellent investment, he noted. But demand has flattened, and home appreciation will be slower as a result, according to the Virginia Tech professor.

Staying in the same apartment may be particularly advantageous, since there are generally discounts given to long-term tenants in order to prevent vacancies, says Mr. Koebel.

These discounts are more likely to be given at older, smaller properties, however. Larger apartment complexes are more likely to strive to maintain or increase services as a way of retaining tenants, or to keep rent increases small for all tenants.

Rent at the Woodcrest, a 347-unit property in Glen Burnie, is raised about 2 percent to 3 percent a year, across-the-board. "We try to keep the rents low to encourage people to stay," says Diane Bradford, the resident manager. Ms. Bradford says many of her residents have lived there 15 to 18 years.

"Some are single parents, some are elderly, and many have sold homes and moved here," she says.

Many elderly residents find themselves living in apartments after the death of a spouse, or when they no longer can keep up with maintenance or the financial responsibilities of homeownership. Apartments often offer companionship with fellow residents and safety. Apartment density means neighbors are more likely to hear or see suspicious activity. Some complexes offer 24-hour patrols and emergency numbers.

Estella Lally, a 79-year-old widow, has been living at Stansbury Manor in Chase for 10 years and fully expects to live there "until I go."

Ms. Lally was a homeowner in the past, and she also lived on a boat for 12 years, which she described as constant work. She says she is spoiled by the safety and ease of apartment living.

"I'm comfortable here; everything is taken care of," she says.

As do other long-term renters, she likes both the apartment community, the way of life and her own unit. Her one-bedroom apartment has hardwood floors, 10-foot ceilings, thermal windows, central heating and air conditioning, built-in book shelves and other amenities. She has added many appliances, such as a freezer, washer, dryer, trash compactor and microwave, to make her apartment truly her home.

Another renter, Cal Schumann, describes his Sutton Place apartment as "a conglomeration of good taste."

He particularly enjoys his sun deck, where he dines nightly seven months of the year. As much as he loves his apartment, however, it's the intangibles that have kept him there 38 years.

"I love the sense of security, the family quality of the reception staff and management," says the 66-year-old antiques dealer.

He also enjoys being within walking distance of the Lyric Opera House and Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

"It's an easy-living kind of thing," agrees Mr. Van Airsdale.

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