written by:
illustrated by:
November 16, 2011

The American Dream, some say, is all about owning a home. Here’s how you can live the dream without the picket fence or the mortgage.

renting 101 an introduction to renting illustration

I rent. There, I said it. As more and more friends sign the closing papers and put down roots, I remain transient, a dandelion seed drifting over their landscaped lawns. Sometimes this makes me feel like a failure at adult­hood. Other times I look around and breathe a sigh of renter’s relief. I can pick up and go anytime, without worrying about market value. Plus, it’s nice to have someone else deal with leaks, pests, and jiggly doorknobs. Liberty, mobility, and someone to complain to: This is the American Dream.

But the history of renting is not exactly a tale of unbridled indepen­dence. Under the feudal system in medieval Europe, peasants occupied thatched-roof quarters but paid rent to their respective lords in backbreak­ing, Black Death–ridden labor. Russian serfs of the 17th century didn’t have it much better: In 1649 Tsar Alexis enforced an article in the Ulozhenie, a code of laws that formally tied serfs to the estates where they lived. The Russian gentry essentially owned its serfs and, if displeased, could kick them over to another landowner.

The despotic-lord style of property management eventually gave way to the more modern phenomena of the crooked landlord. In early-19th-century Ireland, a middleman system created a class of absentee landlords who sub­divided the land into smaller and smaller increments to reap more profits, while doing little to maintain the property. Tenants could barely harvest enough on their tiny, depreciating plots to survive and feed their families, to say nothing of saving and one day owning their own land.

In the United States, urban industri­alization and boatloads of immigrants caused the number of renters to sky­rocket around the turn of the 20th century. Early Manhattan tenements were built on 25-foot-wide lots with something like four apartments per floor. These lots were intended to house a single family but many came to hold 20 or more families in build­ings stretched several stories high. Owners were not required to provide any utilities, not even water.

Renters got one back with New York State’s Tenement House Act of 1901, which enforced standards of structure, sanitation, and occupancy for residential units. More 20th-century reforms conferred more rights to tenants, including the Fair Housing Act of 1968, a key antidiscrimination law. Renting no longer had the whiff of the downtrodden.

Further, in today’s foreclosure-a-minute society, “mo’ mortgage, mo’ problems” might be a realistic refrain. The New York Times reported that in May 2011 home prices in 20 large cities were down 33 percent from the July 2006 peak. Thus it should come as no surprise that renting is on the rise.

Fear not, proud property owners. An upsurge in renters could actually be good news for the housing market. According to US News & World Report, “Research firm REIS estimates that rents will rise an average of 3.6 percent in 2011. That sounds like bad news for tenants, but it indicates that more people can afford the added expense, and that parts of the economy are getting back to normal.”

So, just as we shopped our way out of the post-9/11 malaise, then borrowed our way into the Great Recession, let’s rent our way out of these troubling eco­nomic times. With this in mind, we take a spin through the wild world of renting, from unscrupulous brokers to bizarre lease clauses, and discover the drawbacks and advantages in living life month to month.

Words You Should Know

Broom Clean: The condition your apartment should be in when you move out: swept clean, all personal property removed, and all surfaces wiped down. As any landlord will attest, tenants interpretations of the term vary wildly.

FDR: Yes, these are the initials of our 32nd president, either celebrated for renewing the national spirit during wartime or reviled as a diabolical socialist who turned this great land into a welfare state. You can argue about this with your libertarian uncle in your formal dining room (FDR).

Guarantor:
A person who is legally obligated to pay the rent in case the tenant is unable to. If you don’t make enough pretax income to meet the landlord’s minimum salary requirements, you may be required to have a guarantor (see: Mom and Dad).

House Rules:
You and the landlord have to play by the same rules. These house rules mostly applying to noise, the use of common areas, trash, and recycling—–but can extend to pets, smoking, and even overnight guests.

Like for Like: The phenomenon of landlords and tenants renting to and with people just like them. Despite stringent antidiscrimination laws, it is not entirely surprising that rental units in the artsy-cool, lofty area are full of artsy-cool tenants.

Pwdr rm: A half-bathroom (aka “powder room”) usually featuring a sink and toilet. The pwdr rm comes in handy when cohabiting with a significant other for the first time.

Quiet Enjoyment of Property: As a tenant, you are entitled to “quiet enjoyment” of your space. This means—barring an emergency—your landlord can’t just bust in like Mr. Furley or Mr. Roper to observe your wacky antics without proper notice.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

dining room lighting
These renovations connect rustic, classic, and modern design in Italy.
February 10, 2016
12362509 211441865858796 1743381178 n1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most viral design and architecture shots of the week.
February 10, 2016
modern outdoor garden room plastic polycarbonate
From colorful living rooms to a backyard retreat, Belgian designers reimagine vernacular forms and materials for the modern world.
February 10, 2016
Tel Aviv kitchen with custom dining table and Smeg fridge
Would you go for an out-of-the-box palette for your major appliances? See how these kitchens tackle the trend.
February 10, 2016
Exhibition view, of Klaus Wittkugel works at P! gallery, New York
On view through February 21 at New York's P! gallery, a new show explores the politics of Cold War-era graphic design with a presentation of works by Klaus Wittkugel—East Germany's most prolific graphic designer. Curator Prem Krishnamurthy walks us through the highlights.
February 10, 2016
Reclaimed cedar and gray-stucco home outside San Francisco.
The new kid on the block in a predominantly Eichler neighborhood, this Menlo Park home breaks the mold and divides into three pavilions connected by breezeways.
February 10, 2016
A third floor addition and whole-house renovation modernized a funky cottage on an unusual, triple-wide lot in San Francisco.
From modern interiors hidden within historic structures to unabashedly modern dwellings, these seven renovations take totally different approaches to San Francisco's historic building stock.
February 10, 2016
Delphi sofa from Erik Jørgensen and gyrofocus fireplace in living room of Villa Le Trident in the French Riviera, renovated by 4a Architekten.
The Aegean's all-white architecture famously helped inspire Le Corbusier; these five dwellings continue in that proud modern tradition (though not all are as minimalist).
February 10, 2016
San Francisco dining room with chandelier and Eames shell chairs
Brooklyn-based RBW's work—from diminutive sconces to large floor lamps—shape these five interiors.
February 09, 2016
Glass-fronted converted garage in Washington
These garages go behind parking cars and storing your drum sets.
February 09, 2016
Modern Texas home office with sliding walls, behr black chalkboard paint, concrete walls, and white oak flooring
From appropriated nooks to glass-encased rooms, each of these modern offices works a unique angle.
February 09, 2016
picnic-style table in renovated San Francisco house
From chandeliers to pendants, these designs make the dining room the most entertaining space in the house.
February 09, 2016
Midcentury house in Portland with iron colored facade and gold front door
From preserved masterworks to carefully updated time capsules, these homes have one thing in common (other than a healthy appreciation for everything Eames): the conviction that the '40s, '50s, and '60s were the most outstanding moments in American architecture.
February 09, 2016
Modern living room with furniture designed by Ludovica + Roberto Palomba
These oases by the sea, many done up in white, make stunning escapes.
February 08, 2016
A Philippe Starck standing lamp and an Eames chaise longue bracket the living room; two Lawrence Weiner prints hang behind a pair of Warren Platner chairs and a table purchased from a River Oaks estate sale; at far left of the room, a partial wall of new
Texas might have a big reputation, but these homes show the variety of shapes and sizes in the Lone Star State.
February 08, 2016
Montigo gas-burning fireplace in spacious living room.
Built atop the foundation of a flood-damaged home, this 3,000-square-foot Maryland home features vibrant furniture placed in front of stunning views of a nearby estuary.
February 08, 2016
Studio addition in Seattle
An architect couple sets out to transform a run-down property.
February 08, 2016
West Elm coffee table, custom Joybird sofa, and matching Jens Risom chairs in living room of Westchester renovation by Khanna Shultz.
Every Monday, @dwell and @designmilk invite fans and experts on Twitter to weigh in on trending topics in design.
February 08, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment living room vertical oak slats
For the modernists among us, these spare spaces are a dream come true.
February 08, 2016
The square fountain at the courtyard's center is a modern rendition of a very traditional feature in many Middle Eastern homes.
From a large gathering space for family or a tranquil sanctuary, these seven designs feature some very different takes on the ancient idea of a courtyard.
February 08, 2016
stdaluminum 021
Since windows and doors are such important aspects of your home, it’s always a good idea to take the time to evaluate how they fit within the lifestyle you want. Whether you’re in the middle of constructing a new home, or you’re considering replacing your current setup, there are multiple elements to consider when it comes time to make the final decisions. Milgard® Windows & Doors understands how vital these choices are to the well-being of your home and has developed ways to turn the process into a journey that can be just as enjoyable as it is fulfilling. Not sure where to start? We gathered some helpful insights from their team of experts to help us better understand what goes into the process of bringing your vision to life.
February 08, 2016
modern fire resistant green boulder loewen windows south facade triple planed low-e glass
These houses in Broncos Country prove modern design is alive in the Rocky Mountains.
February 08, 2016
french evolution paris daniel rozensztroch living area eames la chaise butterfly chair moroccan berber rug
A tastemaker brings his distinct vision to an industrial loft with a centuries-old pedigree.
February 07, 2016
senses touch products
The haptic impact can’t be underplayed. The tactility of a material—its temperature, its texture­—can make the difference between pleasure and discontent.
February 07, 2016
senses taste products
Ambience is a key ingredient to any meal—materials, textures, and mood all impart a certain flavor.
February 07, 2016
senses smell products
The nose knows: Though fleeting and immaterial, scent is the lifeblood of Proustian memories, both evoking and imprinting visceral associations.
February 06, 2016
design icon josef frank villa beer vienna
Josef Frank: Against Design, which runs through April 2016 at Vienna’s Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art, is a comprehensive study of the prolific architect, designer, and author.
February 06, 2016
senses sound products
From an alarm to a symphony, audio frequencies hold the power to elicit an emotional call-and-response.
February 06, 2016
Italian Apline home with double-height walls on one facade.
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
February 05, 2016
A built-in sofa with Design Tex upholstery marks the boundary between the two-level addition and the bungalow. Leading up to the master bedroom, a perforated metal staircase, lit from above, casts a Sigmar Polke–like shadow grid on the concrete floor.
From a minimalist Walter Gropius design to a curving sculptural stair, these six stairways run the gamut.
February 05, 2016