When Paul and Irene Buehner moved into the Eagle Gate apartments at South Temple and State nine months ago, they left behind a large house in a prestigious neighborhood - a home in which they had spent their entire married lives.
A traumatic move? Maybe a little. But the Buehners aren't looking back. They are among a growing number of retired Utahns who have found it makes sense for both their finances and lifestyle to stop owning and start renting."We discovered that we can pay the rent with what we're saving by not maintaining a home, and at the same time earn interest on the money that used to be tied up in our home," said Paul Buehner.
Mrs. Buehner agrees. "The move was surprisingly simple. Of course, we loved the location where we'd lived . . . but, for a variety of reasons, it was a good time to make a change."
Is there a time when people, especially "empty nesters," should stop making mortgage payments and start paying rent?
The popularity of the new "upscale" apartment buildings, such as the Eagle Gate, Parklane and Bench Tower, as well as luxury downtown condominiums that offer rentals, such as American Towers, Governor's Plaza, Zions Summit and The Wilshire, among others, suggests that a growing number of retired Salt Lake couples think so.
Even real estate brokers, always quick to cite the advantages of home ownership, agree that renting makes sense for some people at certain times in their lives.
"When you're young and just starting out, you need to create an asset. You don't want to be pouring your money down the drain by renting," said Dan Lawler, president of the Salt Lake Board of Realtors. "But once you've bought your home, your kids have flown the nest, and you've entered another stage of life, renting can be a viable option."
Lawler said renting looks even better in today's market where inflation is not pushing up housing prices as it did in the '70s.
"Home ownership is a good investment, but in the current market a home should be viewed more as a consumer purchase and as a form of forced savings and less as a money-making venture."
Ed and Mildred Porter also moved into the Eagle Gate earlier this year and they agree with that philosophy.
"I'm a firm believer that there's a time for everything," said Ed Porter. "A young couple needs a house and yard and needs to be near a school. But at this stage of life, you don't need to rattle around in a big house and have your money all tied up. If you want to shed yourself of responsibilities, there's nothing like renting over owning."
Still, a return to high inflation in real estate, such as Utah experienced in the 1970s, could once again tilt the scale decidedly in favor of ownership, at least from an economic standpoint.
"While home prices are currently stable, they could begin rising at any time," said Lawler. "We do expect them to turn around in the future."
But saving maintenance costs and freeing up home equity aren't the only reasons some retirees are forsaking house and yard for a downtown high-rise address. According to Athalie Yeiter, assistant manager of the new Parklane apartments at First South and 7th East, many are looking for a whole new lifestyle.
"People move in here for a variety of reasons, but a main one is because of the safety and security we offer, especially for people who are alone," said Yeiter. "Then there is the association with folks their same age and who are, usually, in the same circumstances. That means a lot."
But it's not the whole story, she said.
"It's a relief for them to no longer worry about the house and yard work involved with home ownership." Unlike the Eagle Gate, Parklane is strictly for retirees. Minimum age for renters is 62.
nd then there's the financial responsibility of paying taxes, repairs and utility bills that go along with owning a home, said Yeiter. "They can avoid all that. And it's important to them that they don't have to burden their children with responsibilities that they are no longer able to handle themselves."
Yeiter said many Parklane residents have been pleasantly surprised at the financial freedom they can enjoy by selling their home and adding the proceeds to savings, Social Security and insurance policies.
"We've noticed an amazing change in people as they've moved in. Often, when they first move in, they are lost and alone, especially if they just lost a spouse. Here, we see them become active again."
Yeiter said the oldest current resident is 94, but the average is about 75. Typical rent for a one bedroom with kitchen and balcony is $995 per month. The 94 units are currently 60 percent occupied.
Paul Buehner agrees with Yeiter that security can be an overriding factor for retirees, even for a couple. "It can be very uncomfortable being alone in a house, especially at night. When you're renting in a situation like we are, there's security to get into the building. There's security into the garage. And if you go out of town, you just walk out and feel very secure."
Security, of course, comes with a price tag, but one that must be put in perspective with home maintenance costs.
According to Bill Cannon, residential property manager for Zions Securities Corp., owner of the Eagle Gate, two-bedroom apartments rent for $665 to $995 per month. But residents pay no monthly assessment, as they would if they owned a condominium, and the rent includes heat, air conditioning and a covered underground parking space. Lights and telephone are the only utilities paid by tenants.
Lee H. Van Dam, president of property management firm Van Dam & Associates, said many apartment buildings are making a strong marketing effort to attract seniors, including offering discounts.
"What this is saying is that apartment owners are anxious to get seniors," said Van Dam. "They pay their rent well and they're good tenants to have. And seniors like that - the fact that someone's showing interest in them."
Van Dam said that, generally, rents in the Salt Lake area are 15 to 20 percent lower than they were two or three years ago. "There have been virtually no rent increases for a couple of years, so that adds some appeal to older people."
Connie Harris, property manager for Derrick Enterprises, which manages 80 units at American Towers (both sales and leases), agrees. "In the three years I've been in property management, I've seen a lot more older people rent than I expected. It's especially surprising in Utah, where people are so adapted to family living."
But many people are giving up their six-bedroom homes in favor of high-rise living, said Harris. "They're finding this is a much easier way of living - no snow to shovel, covered parking, 24-hour security. And if they travel a lot, they just lock the door and leave."
Jackie Bryant, executive officer of the Apartment Association of Utah, says Harris is on the mark.
"I think people like the idea of having someone else close by. When you get older, your neighborhood changes a bit, and you don't feel as secure. The larger percentage of people needing housing these days are older people, so it's natural for property owners to try to cater to their needs."