Millennials are making the most of getting screwed over by the housing market

Millennials are making the most of getting screwed over by the housing market

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Young millennial woman holding a paint roller, seen from behind, in the process of painting over an upward trending line
Locked out of homeownership and fueled by social media, millennials are giving their rental homes a makeover.

Shortly after Brigette Muller started renting an apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, in 2021, she got fed up with her basic wooden kitchen countertops and decided to upgrade them to marble. It would be a small “practice round” renovation for her future home, she said. But one project led to another — painting walls, installing shelving, adding a kitchen backsplash — until she’d spent some $10,000 renovating her bathroom with new flooring and custom wall sconces. “I just want to have a space that I feel good in,” Muller told me.

The 36-year-old full-time content creator has spent more than $20,000 on these projects, roughly 10 times her security deposit. With carte blanche from her landlord to do what she wishes to the apartment, she has documented nearly every step of her decor journey for her 350,000 followers on TikTok.

Muller may be unique in her exacting commitment to an old-world boho-chic style, but she’s far from alone in renovating her rental. Across the country, millennials who are being forced to rent further into adulthood than previous generations are valuing present experiences over saving for a stable future that may never come — financial risks be damned. “I’m not getting my deposit back, and I’m totally OK with that,” the writer and actor Franchesca Ramsey joked in a TikTok showing her painting the walls of her Los Angeles rental with elaborate patterns and colors.

“Every single year that I dormed, I decorated it completely different,” said Marco Zamora, a 27-year-old creator who lives in Los Angeles and has built a following on social media by showing the custom archways and stained-glass window finishes he added to his rental. “Something that I always have felt is no matter how long you’re living in a space, it’s important to make it feel like a home,” he said.

That mindset reflects a hard reality: Homeownership rates for millennials, the oldest of whom are in their early 40s, surpassed 50% for the first time in 2022. A 2018 Urban Institute report found that only 37% of millennials had purchased a home by the ages of 25 to 34, whereas 45% of baby boomers had been able to purchase a home by those ages. In a 2022 survey by Apartment List, a quarter of millennials said they expected to rent forever. And housing experts say that when it comes to homeownership, millennials are the most screwed generation.

“Millennials have a much different mindset on life in general than the generation before us,” Muller told me. As they’re rethinking what’s worth their investment, many are prioritizing what’s right in front of them. “I am investing into my apartment,” Muller said. “I’m investing into my happiness.”

The avocado-toast generation has often been derided as too frivolous to save for practical purchases. But millennials’ housing misfortunes go beyond personal spending habits; they entered adulthood at a terrible time for the housing market.

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“There’s been a pretty dramatic shortfall in construction of new homes going back now like a decade,” said Jim Parrott, a nonresident fellow at the Urban Institute who owns Parrott Ryan Advisors. He said the pandemic only exacerbated the low supply of new homes, leading to increases in demand and prices. That lack of supply has especially affected Black Americans, who purchase homes at significantly lower rates than their white counterparts. “If you’re putting the bottom rung of homeownership further and further out of reach for renters, it disproportionately affects those groups relative to everybody else, because more of them are renters,” Parrott said.

If there’s a life I want to have, I’m going to make it possible in other ways.

The average interest rate on a 30-year mortgage is roughly 7%. But rather than lowering prices and demand, high interest rates have locked many homeowners into place, preventing entry-level homeowners from upgrading and making those units available to first-time buyers. “That’s what’s totally screwed over millennials as folks who in a normal era would be positioned to buy their first home,” Parrott said. “It’s pushing their timeline back because they’ve got to save even more money than they would have 20 years ago.”

That was how Caroline Winkler felt in 2020 when she and her boyfriend at the time considered buying a home in Cincinnati. “It became instantly so clear that that would be years away,” she said. The hopelessness of the market caused her to give up on her homeownership dream, but she became all the more determined to improve her situation. “If there’s a life I want to have, I’m going to make it possible in other ways,” she said.

Since relocating to a rental apartment in Washington, DC, in 2021 to be closer to her family, Winkler, now 32, has built a YouTube audience of half a million subscribers by posting content such as dating stories and renter-friendly home updates (one project involved installing peel-and-stick floor tiles and wallpaper in her bathroom). Creating YouTube videos allowed Winkler, an actor turned tech worker, to explore interior design as a creative outlet without having more-traditional certifications.

Her channel is one of many in the growing rental-reno space. Others include Alexandra Gater, a YouTuber in Toronto with over 700,000 subscribers who posts videos of home makeovers largely tailored to small rental apartments. Her team went so far as to build a wooden arch for a kitchen entryway in a rental. The DIY duo The Sorry Girls have amassed more than 2 million subscribers by posting often extreme renovations, like installing a custom Plexiglass room divider for a rental studio apartment. Hattie Kolp has made a career as a full-time content creator documenting her updates — such as adding crown molding — to her family’s rent-stabilized Upper West Side apartment.

The booming social-media appetite for rental-renovation content reflects not only the tastes of a generation raised on home-makeover TV shows but a growing demand for renovation guidance among renters who can’t afford a home — or professional renovation help.

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At the same time the housing market was soaring out of control during the pandemic, people were spending more time at home. With growing savings accounts and stimulus checks, people suddenly had the time, money, and energy to improve their living space. Home renovations exploded. Benjamin Fix, a longtime plumber, saw an opportunity among millennial renters. “Many of them rent in cities like New York or San Francisco or wherever. And they in fact have a pretty high disposable income,” Fix said. In 2022, he launched Sproos, which makes a colorful, easy-to-install showerhead, marketed to renters who were spending more time — and money — at home. The brand quickly found a market, getting picked up by Urban Outfitters and the trendy New York home-decor boutique Coming Soon within a year of launching.

In Denver, Rose Matthes and her now-wife identified a similar opportunity. They wanted to install bedroom lighting in their older rental home in the city’s Santa Fe arts district in 2020. Seeing few options outside labor-intensive electrical work or cheap tap lights, the two launched a Kickstarter in 2023 for Poplight, a chargeable wall sconce affixed with Command strips.

“I ran some test Facebook ads to see if I can get people to submit their email and join a waitlist for a product like this,” Matthes said. “And I built an email list of almost 10,000 people in two months.”

So many of us put money into our rentals because we are trying to make it feel like the warm, inviting space that we need in our life.

She and her wife rely heavily on social media for their home inspiration. “I start every home-improvement project by watching someone do that project on YouTube,” Matthes said. “I think a lot of our obsession on aesthetics is driven by social media, because I think you see people doing things that you didn’t know you could do for under a few hundred dollars.”

Winkler, the creator in Washington, DC, acknowledged that social media doesn’t always reflect reality. “The bathroom makeover that I did in my own apartment, I basically wouldn’t have done that makeover if I didn’t make a living off of sharing content,” she said. “There is something to the internet I think affecting the standard that people expect for themselves.”

Sometimes, that standard is positive. Zamora, the Los Angeles content creator, said that one of his followers messaged him, “You make me want to make my home feel like a home no matter how temporary.”

While River Nice, a financial planner in the Philadelphia area, emphasized that buying is a better long-term financial investment than renting for people who have the means, they said a stable living situation comes down to more than money. “I don’t want to fault anybody who is like, the only chance that they get to live in New York or San Francisco is to rent,” said Nice, who owns the financial-planning firm Be Intentional Financial. “Maybe they have better job opportunities, or maybe they have more safety for their identities in those locations.”

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Whether they’ve been locked out of the housing market or they live in an expensive city, buying a home is simply not in the cards for many people. And these long-term renters are trying to make the best of it.

“In an ideal world it would absolutely be the case that renters shouldn’t have to invest their own time and money into their space,” said Mercury Stardust, the author of “Safe and Sound: A Renter-Friendly Guide to Home Repair” who shares renter-friendly repair tips online as the Trans Handy Ma’am. “So many of us put money into our rentals because we are trying to make it feel like the warm, inviting space that we need in our life. I think that should be a universal truth rather than something that only homeowners — which is now a growing select few — can experience.”

Muller said she’s comfortable making changes to her home in part because she has a rent-stabilized unit, which under New York City law offers her more legal protections than market-rate apartments. She knows, for instance, that she won’t be kicked out because of a sudden increase in rent. Her rental-reno videos have also helped her build up a nest egg, and this year she started the journey of buying a home — albeit not in New York City, where prices remain out of her reach.

“What I hope is that I serve as an inspiration for people to take the plunge to make their home what they want it to be. And to do that unapologetically in whatever level works for them,” she told me. “I know that the level that I’m doing it at is wild, and I have all these other reasons to justify it.”

Spending money on a home without a clear return on investment is ultimately an individual calculation, Nice said. But millennials’ tendency to invest more in the now than in the future is part of a broader outlook.

“A lot of personal finance for our generation is a motivation game,” Nice said. “Like, ‘Yeah, this is awful, and I’ve got to find a reason that I want to keep getting up and doing it.'”

Emily Jensen is a New York-based writer and editor. She primarily covers fashion, beauty, and other cultural topics and has been published in the likes of GQ, The Wall Street Journal, and the Business of Fashion.

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