By Paul Owers | Sun Sentinel
Nearly a quarter of all single-family homes in South Florida were occupied by tenants or available for lease last year, according to a report that underscores the changing profile of renters.
In Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties, 22 percent of the 904,700 homes were used as rentals in 2015, according to U.S. Census data analyzed by real estate website Zillow.com. That's up from 19.5 percent in 2014, and it's the highest percentage since 2005, the first year the figures were calculated annually, Zillow said.
Traditionally, renters have been young, single professionals living in apartments, but more families are turning to single-family rentals because they've postponed homeownership or they can't afford to buy, housing analysts and counselors say.
"We deal with families every day," said Terri Murray, executive director of Neighborhood Renaissance, a nonprofit housing agency in West Palm Beach. "They're predominantly looking for homes with three or four bedrooms, because most apartments have one or two bedrooms."
Darren Hill, 32, a heavy equipment operator who rents a four-bedroom Hollywood home with his wife and four children, said he's trying to save enough money to buy his first home. However, rising prices are making that difficult, he said.
"Everybody doesn't have $10,000 to put down on a home," Hill said. "I like renting because you know the repairs are on someone else. But I don't hope to be renting for the rest of my life."
Aaron Terrazas, senior economist for Seattle-based Zillow, said single-family homes were converted to rentals by the thousands during the foreclosure crisis of 2006 through 2011.
Homes repossessed by lenders were later sold to investors, who renovated the properties and rented them, often to former owners caught up in the housing bust, he said. That helped boost home values and led to the real estate recovery.
Some former homeowners may be reluctant to jump back into the market, while others can't buy soon enough, Terrazas said.
"Perhaps they were scarred by the experience, but since they were homeowners in the past, many would like to buy again," he said.
However, high levels of debt and poor credit are getting in the way, said Kevin Maher, president of the nonprofit Palm Beach County Affordable Housing Collaborative. At the same time, home price increases continue to far outpace wage growth, preventing families from buying again, he said.
"It's gotten to the point where you can't buy anything of value on a moderate income," Maher said.
Homeowners typically have down payments, closing costs, maintenance fees and other obligations that renters don't face.
Rising rents in recent years, however, have made it difficult for renters to save enough money to buy, leaving them stuck in a cycle of unaffordable housing costs, analysts say.
Hill's landlord, Alexandria Greenstein, said she knew there was strong demand for single-family rentals, though she didn't expect the response to be as overwhelming as it was on the first day she made her Hollywood home available for lease.
"I had 16 different families come through, and there were even more people calling about it," Greenstein said. "I had 40 calls within the first two weeks."
Lex Levinrad, founder of the Boca Raton-based Distressed Real Estate Institute, said demand for single-family rentals likely will remain steady for the next few years.
He encourages members of his investment club to consider buying rental properties because they offer substantial tax benefits and steady returns. The typical three-bedroom rental in South Florida nets about 13 percent a year, Levinrad said.
"It makes a fantastic retirement plan," he said. "In South Florida, there are a lot of jobs and a lot of people moving here. All those people have to live somewhere."