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Despite having to pare his record collection, Mark DeWolf of Halifax sees an upside to apartment living. (Roma Luciw/The Globe and Mail)
Despite having to pare his record collection, Mark DeWolf of Halifax sees an upside to apartment living. (Roma Luciw/The Globe and Mail)

Why a couple left home ownership behind and chose to rent instead Add to ...

Until they sold and moved to a rental apartment, Mark DeWolf and his wife were typical homeowners.

“Our house had its expenses, as they all do, but generally we were quite happy with it,” the 69-year-old retired teacher said in an interview in the couple’s spacious two-bedroom apartment in Halifax’s Clayton Park West neighbourhood.

Happy homeowners gone over to the dark side. It’s a story you have to hear if you’re a baby boomer wondering where to go after selling the family home and looking for a measure of financial freedom.

Mr. DeWolf said the house he and his wife lived in was purchased in 2003, after returning from a six-year teaching gig in Singapore. The decision to move out of the house was made in part because his youngest son had left, partly out of concern that house values could decline if a wave of baby boomers start selling and partly to get away from the financial uncertainties of home ownership. Looking ahead, the couple figured their house would need a new roof and repairs for both a cracked driveway and a crumbling wall in the backyard garden.

Apartment living has offered a level of protection against these costs that particularly appeals to his wife, Mr. DeWolf said. “She finds the simplicity of living in the apartment so much more gratifying than the constant worry of maintaining the house, a good part of which we weren’t living in.”

There have also been financial rewards. Even after paying off a small mortgage, the couple was able to put money in tax-free savings accounts, bump up their registered retirement savings plans and put some cash in savings accounts. “We wanted to free up money that we had in our house to invest,” Mr. DeWolf said. “Neither of us had been able to do much with TFSAs before.”

The couple sold their house in April and now live in a four-storey building in a complex of similar apartments. Rent on their 1,600-square-foot unit is $1,385 a month (after a 2-per-cent increase not too long ago), including a storage locker in the basement and a second parking spot. Mr. DeWolf figures he’s saving at least $500 per month, but that’s compared with the cost of mortgage payments and other household expenses. Monthly costs are a few hundred dollars more expensive in the apartment if you remove the mortgage from the picture, with the offsetting benefit that he’ll never face a crushing repair bill.

Naturally, the couple considered a condo before renting their apartment. But they were dissuaded by stories of rising condo fees and special assessments to cover maintenance projects. Mr. DeWolf ultimately found the apartment by looking at listings on Kijiji, the online marketplace. The couple went to look at one unit that was to be sublet, missed out on it and then found another apartment in the same building. In total, they saw seven or eight rentals before deciding on one.

Pluses for the building they chose include its proximity to a library and a recreational facility, as well as to shopping, the highway and a park. There are also some premium features for apartment dwellers, including a walk-in closet in the master bedroom, ceramic tile in the hallway, a dishwasher and an en suite washer and dryer.

Mr. DeWolf said rental living does demand compromises, notably in how much control they have over their living space. “When they built this place, they could have placed a little more attention on what we might call detail. For example, the laminate on the kitchen cupboard doors tends to peel off if things get too humid and warm. You’d like to see something a little nicer.”

Also, the water pressure in the kitchen and shower is weak. Mr. DeWolf said it’s better even in his cottage. Finally, there is getting used to having neighbours directly above, beside and below one’s home, and the space limitations that boomers face whether they downsize to a condo or apartment. This was especially painful for Mr. DeWolf, who had a large collection of books, old rock and roll albums, letters and more. “My record albums were seriously depleted when we moved,” he said.

The challenge of renting is finding something you like at a price that makes sense. Mr. DeWolf’s story shows it can be done, and that there are rewards for people who want to be freed from the financial demands of home ownership.

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