In 2019, about 19% of U.S. households with six-figure incomes rented their homes, up from about 12% in 2006, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of Census Bureau data that adjusted the incomes for inflation. The increase equates to about 3.4 million new renters who would have likely been homeowners a generation ago.
It isn’t unusual for high-earners to rent in pricey coastal cities like New York and San Francisco, where sky-high real-estate prices have long limited homeownership. Yet these markets account for less than 20% of the new six-figure renters, according to the Journal’s analysis.
To accommodate well-off renters, developers have raced to erect luxury apartment buildings around city centers. Investors, meanwhile, have bought hundreds of thousands of suburban houses to turn into rentals and are increasingly building single-family homes specifically aimed at well-heeled tenants.
The average tenant of the country’s two largest single-family landlords, Invitation Homes Inc. and American Homes 4 Rent, now earns $100,000 a year, the companies say. These companies own some 133,000 houses between them in attractive neighborhoods with good school districts around growing cities, like Houston, Denver and Nashville, Tenn.
In each of those cities as well as in Seattle, Cincinnati and Ann Arbor, Mich., the number of six-figure renters doubled or better between 2006 and 2017, making them the fastest-growing segment of renters in these markets, according to the Journal’s analysis.
The big home-rental companies are betting that high earners will continue renting. Bankrolled by major property investors like Blackstone Group Inc., Starwood Capital Group and Colony Capital Inc., these companies snapped up foreclosed houses with the expectation of renting them to educated workers who could afford to pay a lot every month but perhaps not buy.
High earners also tend to stay put and are willing to absorb regular rent increases if it means not having to move their children to new schools. That translates to lower turnover and maintenance costs for the landlords. “These tenants are treating our houses as if they are their homes,” American Homes CEO David Singelyn said at a real-estate investment conference this summer in New York.
Invitation and American Homes have reported record occupancy and rent growth as well as ever-growing retention as their average renters’ income has risen into six-figure territory.
Those who do want to buy a home face the additional hurdle of high prices that have surged beyond the reach of even relatively high earners in cities with strong jobs growth. Prices in 75 of the country’s 100 largest metro areas have surpassed their precrash highs, not adjusting for inflation, according to mortgage data and analysis firm HSH. Many of those cities, such as Salt Lake City and Raleigh, N.C., also have some of the fastest growth in high-paying jobs. The sharpest recovery, according to HSH, has been in Denver, where home prices have doubled since 2012 amid an influx of California tech workers and New York finance firms. Prices are nearly twice their precrash high.
It takes an annual household income of about $90,000 to afford Denver’s median-priced house, which costs around $471,000, according to HSH. But that is assuming buyers have 20%, or about $94,000, for a down payment.
“The lack of savings for a down payment in this country is grossly underestimated,” said John Pawlowski, a housing analyst at Green Street Advisors, who estimates that the typical renter’s net worth is about $5,500. “Consumer balance sheets are not good.”