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Would-Be Millennial Homebuyers Fuel the Rise of Lifestyle Renting in 2021

The number of higher-income Millennials who are renting instead of buying a home is on the rise. The share of applications for apartments from renters who earn more than $50,000 is at its highest level in five years, 39%, as many would-be homebuyers were priced out of an overly competitive real estate market in 2021.

Renting continues to be the go-to option in 2021 for a growing number of people with incomes that might allow them to purchase a home. According to our most recent analysis of rental application data, as many as 39% of applicants in 2021 had individual incomes above $50,000 — up from 32% five years prior.

This year’s rental applicants are making on average 10% more than those who moved last year, the equivalent of $4,300 more in annual wages. Of all renter groups of typical homebuying age, the share of Millennials with incomes greater than $50,000 saw the fastest increase in 2021 — a significant 20% more than in the previous year.

Lifestyle renters have above-average incomes that would allow them to buy in a less competitive market. Renting with a bigger budget allows them to live in amenity-rich, higher-quality apartments.

And, although the trend is most evident among Millennials, the homebuying market frenzy is deterring other generations, as well. For example, Millennials, Generation X and Baby Boomers all saw a rise in applications from higher-earning renters in 2021. Specifically, the share of Millennial rental applicants who earn more than $50,000 was 43%, up from 36% in 2020, while Gen Xers in the same income range represented 55% of rental applications within their generation, up from 49% the year before (Slide 2).

2020 Swayed More Millennials to Ditch Buying in Favor of Upscale Renting

A 2020 RentCafe survey revealed that the pandemic hindered the plans of 43% of renters who were about to take the leap toward homeownership last year. Besides soaring home prices, experts believe that rising inflation and interest rates make it increasingly difficult to save money for a down payment: “Buying a home is out of the question for them, while lifestyle renting suits their financial condition much more,” says Dan Beaulieu, real estate expert, contractor and founder of Burlington House Buyers.

To that end, up until 2020, the share of higher-earning Millennial rental applicants was rising slowly. But, 2021 marked a significant spike, bringing their share to 43% of all lease applications by Millennials (Slide 1). What’s more, Millennials who applied for a rental this year don’t have the same profile as the ones who moved last year: now, they’re $4,300 wealthier (Slide 2).

The growing percentage of lifestyle renters is due, in part, to many Millennials realizing that the benefits of homeownership don’t outweigh the difficult path to get there, argues Noah Echols, Vice President of Marketing at Carroll, a national real estate investment company. “Housing prices have been rising for years, making it more difficult for renters to transition into homeownership,” he said. “Student loan debt has also increased, making it difficult for young people to save for a down payment.” 

Accordingly, with the number of high-earning renters rising, the demand for high-end apartments is rising, too: 42% of Millennials applied to live in upscale apartment buildings in 2021, versus 38% five years ago.

Would-Buy Millennials Are Renting Large in Small Cities

Generally seen as homeowner territory, small cities also saw a surge in applications among successful Millennials looking to rent comfortably while waiting for the hot real estate market to cool down. More precisely, cities with populations of less than 300,000 residents dominated the list of hotspots for Millennial lifestyle renters.

Click on the map below to see where the share of Millennials who make more than $50K is the fastest-growing of renter generations:

For today’s Millennial renters who find themselves somewhere between forced circumstances and lifestyle choice, affordable small cities make good scouting grounds for when they do eventually end up buying a home. In fact, small cities made up 43 of the 50 cities with the highest increases in rental applications among Millennials who make more than $50,000.

First, Macon, GA, saw the highest surge in share of high-income Millennial applicants since last year — 83%. And, while home prices and short supply fall in line with the national trend, the Heart of Georgia is also dealing with a lack of developed lots — leaving those with the means to do so to rally toward renting high-end apartments. Here, applicants’ median incomes jumped by 17% in 2021 compared to 2020. Notably, another Georgia entry, Smyrna, stood out with the highest spike in median income among apartment applicants at 41%.

Next up, the share of Gen Y-ers with higher wages applying for rent in Mesa, AZ jumped by 78% in one year. This is a good example of what urban experts call “the donut effect”, when residents move out of denser urban areas to the suburban ring.

To the north, Spokane, WA now has 75% more Millennials making $50,000 or more and applying for rent. Here, the county seat experienced heightened demand prompted by out-of-towners flocking from larger cities to more affordable, smaller locations during the pandemic.

Big-City Millennial Renters Are Rising the Fastest in Indianapolis & Las Vegas

While stepping across the $50,000 threshold doesn’t guarantee landing a luxury rental in high-cost-of-living markets — particularly in large cities — it does allow for a wider range of quality options. Check out the large cities with the highest increases in rental applications among Millennials earning more than $50,000:

Compared to 2020, there are now 51% more Millennials in the $50,000 or more income bracket who applied for rent in Indianapolis, IN. Here, the individual median income grew by 11% since last year, further solidifying Indy’s status as an emerging job hub and increasingly attractive spot to call home.

Across the country, surging home prices make lifestyle renting in Las Vegas a viable option for many. The share of rental applications among upper-income Millennials went up 43% year-over-year. Notably, a large portion of these renters were recent transplants, particularly from neighboring California, for whom Vegas offers more space at a more affordable price while working remotely and waiting out the pandemic.

Phoenix also continues to be an attractive destination to move to, especially for Millennials. This year, Phoenix had 39% more rental applications from Millennials who earn over $50,000. As home prices encourage members of this generation to embrace renting, Phoenix is ready to meet the demand, thanks to a surge in new apartments delivered this year alone.

With Millennials adapting to the idea of not owning a home, lifestyle renting is spreading fast as a viable option for those with means. “Previous generations put an emphasis on homeownership as a marker of achievement for an adult. Lifestyle renting has been normalized by Millennials, removing the pressure to purchase a home in order to feel successful,” says Noah Echols.

Methodology

  • Rental application data was sourced from RentGrow, Inc. and was received wholly anonymized and aggregated. No personally identifiable or other confidential renter information was disclosed or used in conjunction with this article.
  • RentCafe is a nationwide apartment search website that enables renters to easily find apartments and houses for rent throughout the United States.
  • The analysis is based on 5.9 million rental applications from RentGrow, Inc. from 2017 to 2021 (January-August) for approximately 40,000 apartment communities. Only properties that had data available for all years & months pertinent to the analysis were included. 
  • We considered the following homebuying age generations: Millennials are defined as the generation of people born between 1981 and 1996. Gen X – 1965 and 1980. Baby Boomers – 1946 and 1964.
  • Small cities are areas with populations of 300,000 or less, mid-sized areas — populations between 300,000–600,000, and large cities — over 600,000.
  • For the purpose of this study, we considered cities with populations of 20,000+, 20+ rental properties, 1,000+ applications overall and a minimum of 100 applications among Millennials, Gen X and Baby Boomers.

Fair use and redistribution

We encourage you and freely grant you permission to reuse, host, or repost the images in this article. When doing so, we only ask that you kindly attribute the authors by linking to RentCafe.com or this page, so that your readers can learn more about this project, the research behind it and its methodology.

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Alexandra Ciuntu
Alexandra is a creative writer and researcher for RentCafe. With a background in e-learning content writing and a passion for knowledge-sharing platforms, she's covered topics from prop-tech to renters insurance to interior design tips. Very familiar with the renter lifestyle herself, Alexandra enjoys researching and writing about renter demographic shifts and residential real estate market trends as much as she loves writing about how to get along with roommates. You can connect with Alexandra via email. Alexandra’s work includes collaborations with financial and business publications. Her articles have been featured in several national and international online publications, including the New York Times, Barrons, Inman, Forbes, Architectural Digest, Marketwatch, Bisnow, and Curbed. Her educational background includes a B.A. in Japanese and English and an M.A. in Journalism and Cultural Studies.

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