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By Aly J. Yale
September 22, 2021
Nests built on For Sale/For Rent signs, and birds moving from one to the other.
Kiersten Essenpreis for Money

Cramped in a one-bedroom, new parents Kristina and David Mahon were desperate to buy a larger home. But after scouring the Pompano Beach, Florida market for nearly a year (and losing out on 20 houses in the process), the pair eventually gave up.

Now, the couple — with a 10-month old baby in tow, no less — are renting, a decision Kristina says they felt “forced” into.

“I feel like I’m wasting money for something that’s not mine,” Kristina says. The rental“options were very limited, and the prices were on the high side of what we were comfortable spending on a rental.”

The Mahons’ is a common storyline these days, according to those in the industry. Burned-out house hunters are tired of bidding wars, rising prices and dwindling options and are bowing out of the purchase market, opting to rent instead.

“It’s common given the current market and environment that we are in,” says Kaley Tuning, the Native Realty agent who worked with the Mahons. “It just becomes frustrating for the everyday buyer. I’ve had buyers bid upwards of $40,000 over asking price and still get outbid.”

Unfortunately, the pivot to renting isn’t always easy. While the move may afford frustrated buyers time to wait out the competitive housing market, it often means entering an equally hot rental scene — one where rising rents and dwindling supply are growing concerns.

According to Realtor.com, median national rents grew a whopping 11.5% between August 2020 and August 2021. And rent applications? Those are up as much as 95% in some cities, according to apartment listing platform RentCafe.

For hopeful homeowners, it’s made for a unique catch-22 that’s as frustrating as it is costly.

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Rents are on the rise

It’s no secret the housing market’s been hot this year. The purchase market has boomed in nearly every corner of the nation since last spring. Home prices are up 17% over the year, and inventory, while improving, is still near record lows.

The rental picture has been more mixed, though. At the start of the pandemic, vacancies in big cities rose and prices dropped, while demand for suburban rentals skyrocketed. Now, rents are bouncing back across the country, reaching well above pre-pandemic levels in many areas.

According to Realtor.com, the typical rent now clocks in at $1,633 per month — $169 more than this time last year and almost $200 more than 2019’s numbers. And in nearly half of the country’s biggest cities? Monthly starter home payments are more affordable than average rents.

The hot housing market has a lot to do with this spike in rent costs. With rising home prices and limited for-sale listings, more and more buyers are stepping back. This puts pressure on rental inventory and drives up rents.

As Lisa Harris, an agent at RE/MAX Center in Braselton, Georgia, explains, “Fewer homes listed for sale and much higher prices for them have kept many want-to-be buyers in their rental units, taxing the rental supply.”

The pandemic plays a role, too. Eviction bans have kept many non-paying renters in place, tying up units for much of the last year. While the CDC’s eviction moratorium was shot down late last month, the experience has made many landlords warier than ever.

“Not only have the prices increased, but the demand on tenant screening seems to be getting much more stringent,” Harris says. “Landlords are seeking tenants with higher credit scores, higher deposits, no pets, a clean criminal history and more.”

The trickle-down of higher rents

Alex Lashner, like the Mahons, has experienced the difficult rental market firsthand. She even had to expand her rental search to account for price increases and is now looking as far as 90 minutes from her office just to stay on budget.

“I'm hoping it will be a short-term sacrifice so I can buy closer to my workplace a few years down the line,” she says.

Lashner was originally looking to buy her first home somewhere in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, but due to the competitiveness of the market — and her refusal to waive contingencies or overpay (as many buyers are forced to do lately), she lost out on every property she bid on. She finally opted to rent, only to find rising prices there, too.

“I'm frustrated that buying a three-bedroom home in my budget is cheaper than renting when you compare the monthly costs of a mortgage, property taxes and HOA fees versus the rental costs for a two-bedroom or even a one-bedroom apartment,” Lashner says. “That's where my real sticker shock is.”

Rising rents are more than just a budgetary strain for hopeful buyers, though. They also make it harder to save, which could push back those homebuying goals even further. The Mahons are one household in that camp, something Kristina calls “frustrating.”

“Instead of us paying down our own mortgage and building equity, we are paying someone else’s mortgage,” she says. “For the next year or as long as we are renting, we will not be able to save as much as we had hoped.”

Buyers who are forced to sign long-term leases have another dilemma, too: What if mortgage rates go up?

Interest rates have been hovering near historic lows for months now and have played a major role in boosting buyer demand. Kristi Nowrouzi, a mortgage loan officer with Geneva Financial, says many buyers who have backed out of the market recently are concerned those conditions could change.

“There’s a fear of missing out on the low-interest-rate environment,” Nowrouzi says. “Inflation is blowing up and who knows what rates will look like next year at the end of an annual lease agreement.”

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What’s the solution?

One option for buyers facing sky-high rents is to opt for a month-to-month lease. The flexibility usually comes with a slightly higher monthly rent, but it ensures you can act quickly should the right house hit the market.

“By doing a month-to-month lease, even though rent might be slightly higher than signing a long-term lease, they can be ready to take action,” says Shmuel Shayowitz, president and chief lending officer at Approved Funding, a mortgage lender in New Jersey. “They can also continue to actively look for homes and, even if pricing doesn't soften, be in a better position to act.”

Fortunately, strategies like this might not be necessary for long. Buyers still face plenty of challenges, but recent data points to growing housing supply — particularly in the starter home segment. Existing home sales have also slowed, falling 2% in August, and price growth has decelerated as well. According to Realtor.com, 17% of all listings had price reductions in August.

“The market is absolutely shifting now, and prices are decreasing a bit and sellers aren't getting as high price per square feet as they were a few months ago,” Nowrouzi says.

A completely cooled-off market, though? That could be a long way in the future. Until then, Tuning says, “Patience is a virtue.”

More from Money:

Paying Your Rent on Time Can Now Help You Qualify for a Mortgage

Some Homeowners Are Wishing They Never Agreed to Sell

'FOMO Took Over.' Some Buyers Who Caved to a Hot Housing Market Now Regret It

'I Can Do This Myself.' A New Generation Is Ditching Convention and Changing How America Buys Homes