Is renting right for your lifestyle?

The 16th floor pool at The Tides of Lakeshore East. For many folks over 50, renting rather than buying, is a good fit.

A few years back, downsizing empty nesters tended to follow the same well-established path. They sold their homes, invested in condos or townhouses, and sat back to watch the value of their new domiciles shoot skyward.

But that was before the mortgage mess and subsequent plunge in home prices led to a return to the old-time realization that a dwelling really is shelter, not necessarily a sizzling investment. In the aftermath of that wakeup call, downsizing empty nesters have given renting a brand new lease on life.

In essence, today's downsizers are being freed to make decisions based on lifestyle, not their homes' investment potential, says Kim Duty, vice-president of communications at the National Multi Housing Council in Washington, D.C.

And that makes sense, because better money can be earned even in today's stock market than in housing. Had you invested $100 in housing in 1985, it would be worth $235 today. That same $100 put into the broad-based stock market would be worth $1,292, more than five times as much, Duty says.

"If I can earn better money elsewhere, what makes sense from a lifestyle perspective, as far as my shelter goes?" she asks. "An apartment is convenient, maintenance-free living. Renting also tends to provide superior locations in pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. And it offers increased social interaction."

In addition, she says, many apartment communities deliver the luxury features and finishes of upscale homes, and give residents such niceties as pools and business centers, enabling them to avoid having to pay for those amenities elsewhere. What's more, renting offers mobility to those needing it.

Let's examine each of these advantages of renting separately:

Freedom from maintenance

"A few years ago, the American dream was a house, a house, a house," says Diana Pittro, executive vice-president at RMK Management Corporation, known for such apartment communities as the Parc Huron and McClurg Court in Chicago and Bristol Station in Naperville.

"Now people are realizing they don't need all that responsibility . . . At a certain age, you want to ease up on the responsibilities."

There's no need to worry about maintenance chores and expenses in an apartment at The Shoreham or The Tides at Lakeshore East, Robin Loewenberg Berger, chief marketing officer of Chicago's Magellan Development, says.

"It's an easy, hassle-free lifestyle. If you're coming from a home where you had to fix the roof or fix the boiler, here it's all taken care of for you. You have professional management at your service, and 24-hour maintenance."

Former homeowner Celia Perrier became a renter at The Shoreham in Chicago two years ago. "After having two homes, it's definitely a stress reducer," she says of renting. "When you have a home, you have maintenance to do." Renting at The Shoreham, by contrast, is "basically maintenance free," she says. "If something happens here, I just call management and they'll put in a work order for the maintenance and engineering staff. Often, they come ASAP."

Perrier also enjoys the opportunity to socialize at events like Lakeshore East's movies in the park. "These are all free for us," she says. "They're included in the rent."

Great locations

Imagine not having to rely on a car so much. Many well-situated apartment communities give their residents that flexibility.

Renters at Lakeshore East and a number of downtown rental communities are mere steps from many of Chicago's civic treasures. "Our proximity to Millennium Park, the Harris Theater, Art Institute and Michigan Avenue shopping is so conducive to a culturally aware, older adult demographic," Berger says.

Living social

Professional staff at many upscale apartment communities pride themselves on their imaginative means of bringing residents together. "We have a very organized community relations program," Berger says, noting Lakeshore East holds "movies in the park, wine tastings, tango lessons, yoga programs, educational programs like home d├ęcor seminars and sushi making, and architectural boat tours. There are a lot of interesting programs appealing to all age groups. And they're for everyone in Lakeshore East."