Will Klapka had two houses, in Essex and Rosedale, before deciding a few years ago that he was done with homeownership.
The 37-year-old is among those renting in the new Riverside Apartments, off of Route 7 in the Belcamp area. He had previously lived down the street in Arborview Apartments for three years.
Riverside Apartments is one in a handful of new, upscale rental complexes built in recent years around Harford County, and it's one of the reasons Harford County's rental market grew faster than any other in the Baltimore area during the past year, according to Washington, D.C.-based Delta Associates real estate research group.
Harford's rental units grew 8.7 percent over a 12-month period ending in June, versus a 3.5 percent increase in the rest of the metro area, Delta Associates' senior vice-president William Rich said.
More rental housing is coming to the local market, from projects like the 200-plus-unit complex on the Benson-area Mt. Soma property and the second phase of Riverside Apartments.
"The one reason I rent is, I don't have to mow the grass, I don't need a new washer, a new dryer. If the roof leaks, I don't have to fix it," Klapka said while walking his dog, Blue, on a recent weekend.
Klapka noted he had previously owned homes in the relatively cheaper parts of eastern Baltimore County, as well as in the nearby Arborview Apartments for three years.
"Even still, there it was too expensive, so to come out here, there's just not even a chance," he said about the possibility of owning a home in Harford.
Although his rent also is "overpriced," he said: "I am not married, I don't have kids. Why do I need a house?"
The 389-unit Enclave at Box Hill is also getting ready to lease apartments and townhouses off of Abingdon's Box Hill Corporate Center Drive. That project would not have factored into Delta's statistics yet. A 198-unit Evergreen Apartments project has been moving forward in Bel Air's busy Plumtree Road and Route 24 area, but actual construction has yet to begin.
Compared to the rest of the region, "it's a fairly limited apartment market in Harford County," Rich said, explaining the high growth rate in Harford rentals was in part because of the small total number of units that were available during the June 2014-15 period.
The county is the smallest of the markets tracked by Delta for new, upscale apartments, known as "Class A" rental properties, in the Baltimore area, he said.
The cost of renting in Harford shot up, meanwhile, rising by an average 6 percent each year for the past five years, Rich said. That is double the metro area's price increase of an annual 3.5 percent.
At an average rent of $1,322, or $1.31 per square foot, Harford's prices are catching up to the rest of the metro area, although they remain the lowest, Rich said. The average rent in the Baltimore area is $1,660.
'Dearth...for the need'
The Harford County Planning and Zoning Department notes there has been steady interest in rental construction, including 372 permits issued for apartments in 2015 so far, according to a chart furnished by comprehensive planner Daniel Rooney.
The county reported 238 permits issued for apartments or condos in 2011, 46 in 2012, 284 in 2013 and 280 in 2014.
Rich, of Delta Associates, said 341 rental units were delivered to the Harford market over the past 36 months, more than the 188 his company projected.
While many apartments are being built for the general or so-call upscale markets, a new complex aimed at lower to moderate income renters is Riverwoods, being built behind Walmart on Abingdon's Constant Friendship Boulevard. The Harford County Council last year agreed to let the developer of the 84-unit complex make payments in lieu of taxes via a PILOT agreement to keep rent costs down.
Flying further under the radar, however, are the many "single-family homes" that end up being rented out by their owners.
Such rentals are available throughout the county, from lower-income areas to more upscale developments like The Residences at Bulle Rock in Havre de Grace.
"There seems to be a dearth of rental properties for the need," Neal Mills, planning director for Havre de Grace, said after a recent city council meeting where he cited a Baltimore Metropolitan Council report showing multifamily developments grew from zero permits in the first quarter of 2014 to permits for 651 units in the first quarter of 2015.
He noted Havre de Grace officials saw a proposal recently for a 400-unit to 600-unit upscale apartment complex at Greenway Farm, but had not heard any more about it.
"The properties were tied up for a while in a legal dispute," Mills said, adding he did think such a project "would make sense for the city."
"I hope they are still interested in it," he said.
Mills also mentioned news articles showing U.S. homeownership has dropped to its lowest rate in 25 years. Residential rental vacancy rates, meanwhile, fell to 6.8 percent, the lowest in about 30 years, he said.
Mills said he agreed with the nationwide analysis that the rental market has not kept up with the need, "based on the developers that we have spoken with that are looking to build rental units."
"Obviously, they wouldn't be doing it if they didn't think there was a market for it," he said, offering his own analysis of "a multitude of factors, as a result of the housing market," for the rise in rental demand.
"The economy is still trying to recover" from the recession, he said. Also, "there seems to be a migration from the suburbs to the city," including more people who are delaying homeownership or more likely to move around, he said.
Craig Strobel, president of the Harford County Association of Realtors and head of EXIT Preferred Realty, said it became "economically feasible" for many investors to build rental housing.
"There is still high demand for Harford County rentals under $1,800 per month," Strobel said.
He added, however, that purchasing a three-bedroom home is still cheaper than Harford's "fair-market rental prices."
"That says you could buy something and pay less money than you could renting," he said.
The average monthly mortgage payment is about $1,200 to $1,400, although it will vary greatly based on the mortgage rate, Strobel said. The average cost of a home bought in Harford this year so far is $237,000, he reported.
Strobel said homeownership was mostly being tamped down by financial issues, with residents being unable to make a down payment.
"Sometimes they are renting a house cheaper temporarily," he said, explaining people have also seemed interested in investing in a variety of residential properties.
"Many investors are buying Harford County property, fixing them up slightly to sell or rent, because the Harford County return on investment can be good for the right property," he said. "Baltimore City was just named one of the best for buying residential rentals. We have many investors that are buying and renting."
"The bottom line is, the market for both homeowners and rentals are both healthy," Strobel said.
'A short-term solution'
Most renters interviewed did seem interested in eventually buying a home. Some had very concrete plans or were getting ready to move into their own house, and most saw renting as a short-term option.
Chris Swofford, 24, and his wife Jessica, 23, moved to Belcamp's Arborview at Riverside and Liriope apartments after Chris Swofford's military job brought him to Aberdeen Proving Ground.
They are natives of Oregon and went to school in Arizona.
"We have been here for two years, but we don't plan on making it to five years," Chris Swofford said, explaining they do not plan to stay in the area long-term.
They also, however, do not feel they can afford a house for now, despite the ongoing costs of renting. Arborview lists rents from $996 to $2,531 per month on its website.
"We don't really have a down payment," he said. "[Renting] makes sense as a short-term solution, but it's too expensive. Renting should be cheaper than a mortgage."
The main advantage of renting? "We don't have to worry about maintenance," he said.
Latrice Freeman, 27, moved to Riverside Apartments from the Abingdon area. She has been renting for about a year and ultimately hoped to buy a house but was not there yet.
"It's just less hassle," she said about renting. "If something breaks, I don't have to worry about fixing it."
Travis Chiles, 56, from Augusta, Ga., moved in April to the new Yards at Fieldside Village, still being built out next to Ripken Stadium. Aberdeen city officials had hoped the site would be a mixed-use development, but that plan fell through after the recession set in.
For monthly rents starting around $1,300, The Yards offers amenities like a billiards room, clubroom with TVs, a 24-hour gym with a yoga room and a car wash area.
Like the Swoffords, Chiles followed a job to Aberdeen Proving Ground. He said in July he was in the process of buying a house but wanted to check out the area first.
"As a short-term thing, it makes sense," Chiles said about renting. "I like this area here, so, long-term, I can stay here for a few years."
Terri and Richard Miller, originally from New Castle, Del., are having a house built in Aberdeen's Beech Creek neighborhood.
For now, they have been renting one of the new homes at Riverside Apartments, where they were walking their two dogs, Shorty and Shebe, Sunday afternoon.
"We only rented until we found a house we wanted to buy," Terri Miller said, while also saying the apartment complex does have great amenities, like a walking trail and private entrances.
"What I like the most is, [the units] came with a garage, and it's brand-spanking new," she said of the complex. Richard Miller agreed renting "has perks."
With a home, however, "you can write your real estate taxes off and you can do what you want. It just depends on your goal. Our ultimate goal is tax write-offs," Terri Miller said. "Renting is good for people who are just starting out."
She said the monthly payments were not necessarily lower than buying a home. Before coming to Belcamp, the couple rented for a few months in Towson, "and it wasn't for us."
Riverside Apartments offers "luxury apartments" at monthly costs ranging from $1,345 for a one-bedroom apartment to $1,930 for a townhouse, according to the complex's website.
"I feel the rent is just as expensive as a mortgage. It's $2,000 here," Terri Miller noted about her rent. "I think Maryland is expensive in general, whether you are renting or you are owning."