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Priced out of the market, millennials are turning to single-family rentals

Buying Renting
Ana Belsano and her fiancé, Matthew Karlsson, rent a home in West Medford.
Ana Bersano and her fiancé, Matthew Karlsson, rent a home in West Medford. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

When Ryan and Sarah Wilensky relocated from New York to Newton, they gained many things: more space, proximity to relatives, and a community they love.

They also traded in a preconceived version of adulthood. Because they couldn’t find a single-family house in their price range — they were routinely outbid — the family rents a split-level ranch in a neighborhood filled with kids that Ryan, 38, found on Craigslist.

“There’s this perception of the American dream, where the thing you do when you grow up is buy a single-family house. It’s what our parents and grandparents did and what so many of our friends did,’’ said Sarah, 40. “But my husband and I really said that we need to shift our perspective. The things that are important to us are living in a community with shared values in a place we’re comfortable.’’

Sometimes friends and relatives ask why they’re not buying, she said. But four years into renting and now with two school-aged children, they have no plans to move.

“We feel some of the outside pressure sometimes,’’ Sarah said. But life is different for her generation. For them, a mortgage is no longer the Holy Grail of adulthood. It can’t be.

“Many people I know who do own their homes had significant financial help. The financial constraints are so different than what our parents had in terms of the cost of child care and college and grad school loans,’’ she said.

Real estate experts say some millennials are opting to rent standalone homes in the suburbs to try out different towns before committing. Some have divorced and want to remain close to former spouses and kids. Others can’t afford to buy at all, as home prices continue to inch upward. The median price for pending single-family home sales in January saw a nearly 7 percent year-over-year increase to $406,000, according to data from the Massachusetts Association of Realtors. Some millennials relish the ability to pack up and move at a moment’s (or a month’s) notice.

In fact, a November 2019 Apartment List survey noted that 10.5 percent of millennials in Boston never plan to buy. (The report used the parameters outlined by the Pew Research Center, which defines a millennial as anyone born between 1981 and 1996.) Nationwide, nearly half of millennials have no down payment savings, the survey said.

Ana Bersano, 39, emigrated from Brazil to the Boston area 15 years ago. She and her fiancé, Matthew Karlsson, rent a home in West Medford with her 12-year-old son. They plan to rent for the foreseeable future.

“We don’t have a down payment. It’s very expensive to buy a house in this area,’’ she said. “My fiancé still has college debt. Even the rent in this area is very expensive, but that’s the only solution that we have if we want to live here for now.’’

And they do: Her son likes his school, her ex-husband lives in town, Karlsson is an engineer in Lexington, and she works as an interpreter throughout the Boston area.

“I know there are programs or financial assistance for first-time home buyers, but I didn’t look too much into it because the normal route is a 20 percent down payment. We’re aiming to do that when we buy a house. Some people say, ‘No, you can do a very low down payment,’ but it doesn’t seem like it’s a great idea in the long term,’’ Bersano said.

For others, homeownership has lost its luster completely. According to a recent Lending Tree survey, more than 1 in 4 millennial homeowners are considering a return to renting; 28 percent plan to go back sometime this decade.

Fred Smith, 38, of Acton became a devoted renter after two real estate fiascoes. He and his then-wife put a little money down for a starter home on a busy street in 2006, when he was 25. They financed the down payment with a second mortgage.

They outfitted the home with a finished basement and an improved heating system. Then came the recession. The couple stayed put longer than anticipated. In 2014, with two children and another on the way, they needed more room, so they sold and took a $10,000 loss, despite the enhancements. The home had languished on the market for nearly a year, Smith said. Nobody wanted a small house on a main street.

Meanwhile, the real estate market was hot in other parts of town. Smith was routinely outbid on larger homes. Ultimately, he found a new four-bedroom in Indian Village in West Acton.

“It was a very hot market, very hard to get into, but no room for negotiation, no room for low-ball offers,’’ he said.

By 2019, he and his wife were divorcing, and the market had cooled. They put the home up for sale and took another loss, despite upgrades, including solar panels.“The market is fickle, especially when you’re under a time crunch,’’ Smith said. “The long and the short of it is that I’ve been burned twice by the real estate market in Acton, and I was not interested in getting back into that situation. … It was significantly more expensive to live in Acton owning real estate than it would’ve been to rent over the same time frame.’’

Not that renting is without its woes. Fay Wong, a real estate agent based in Framingham, points out that unlike apartment renters, single-family renters are typically responsible for paying utility costs, such as heat. Want to paint your living room flamingo pink? You’ll have to run that by your landlord. Meanwhile, interest rates remain relatively low — who wants to miss out on that? And, of course, there’s the nagging knowledge that you’re paying someone else’s mortgage.

But for some, peace of mind is worth more than equity. Smith now rents a “wonderful little house’’ in South Acton, which he found on Trulia. He likes his landlord. His three kids and his dog are content. His ex-wife lives nearby. Most of all, he’s no longer worried about the real estate market dictating his fate.

Owning a home, he said, “is not everything it’s made out to be. Unless you’re lucky, you’ll probably end up spending more by buying a home than you would if you rented the same house.’’

Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.comSubscribe to the Globe’s free real estate newsletter — our weekly digest on buying, selling, and design — at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter @globehomes.