Most people grow up thinking that one day, they’ll buy a house. It’s a classic part of the American dream, to natives and immigrants alike — but the times, they are a-changing. Depending on where you live, renting a home may be significantly more attractive than owning one. Home prices are heading back up after the Great Recession, and they are sky-high in some popular areas, like California.
If you have the money and you aren’t worried about the actual ownership, which option is better for the planet?
There are a lot of benefits to both choices. The environmental impact each one has, however, might be a little more elusive. There are several factors that go into each, such as where you live, the kind of house or apartment you’re considering and what kinds of modifications you can make.
Let’s start with the least eco-friendly option: building a new home. The work of clearing land, bringing in new materials and building a new home from scratch is pretty labor-intensive, and all that has an environmental cost. It’s significantly simpler to work with an existing property. This goes double if you’d like to build a home out in the middle of nowhere, amid native flora and fauna, disrupting their habitats.
On the other hand, buying a pre-existing home has significantly less impact on the environment. You eliminate the building costs, but there are other factors to consider. Any modern home will have an HVAC unit, which is a significant portion of a home’s carbon footprint, and natural gas is quickly becoming the most popular option for heating. This doesn’t really give us a reason to choose homeownership, however, because a rental will have the same option.
The biggest difference is that with a home, you can change the way your HVAC system works. You can alter it to be greener, either by using solar power to heat your water, turn on your lights or just light your garden path. That’s one of the biggest environmental benefits of owning a home: You can change it to be greener.
There’s a benefit to rentals that you really can’t get with homeownership, and that’s the idea of moving multiple families into a single home. You could get a good deal on buying a duplex, but that makes it difficult to make green updates to. Rentals, on the other hand, can take a large, single family home and turn it into two to four apartments. That’s a great way to utilize space more efficiently.
As far as what else you can do to an apartment, you’re a bit more limited. If you’re dealing with a private rental, then you might be able to talk the landlord into making some significant green changes. Most apartments, especially those found in cities, are more likely to be run by an organization. In some cases, the areas might have some serious benefits.
Some apartment communities offer shared resources — such as gyms, pools, party rooms and playgrounds. All of those can have a positive environmental impact. By sharing a pool or playground with what’s basically a neighborhood, there might be almost a thousand families that won’t try to install their own pool or buy a home playground for their kids. A swimming pool can greatly increase your family’s carbon footprint. Even after it’s installed, you still have to maintain it, and that adds to your CO2 output every year.
What’s the Verdict?
Ultimately, there is no better option. It really depends on your personal situation. Some people will be better off buying a home because they can either afford one that’s already green, or they have the money to make it that way. If that’s not you, or you simply aren’t interested in doing that kind of work, then renting might be the best option.
Landlords have to update things in order to keep their units attractive to renters, so you might be able to convince them that greener options are for their benefit. You might also be able to get a pool or gym pass for free as well. The real benefit is being able to house a lot of people, and share the need for water supplies, HVAC systems, and even cable for TV and internet.
If your dream is to buy a house, then you should do it. If you don’t really care much about buying one, then renting is also a great option. The only big benefit you’re missing out on by renting is being able to decide which changes should be made, and when.
Renting and owning mean different things to different people. Go with the option that works for you.