Renters currently head up more U.S. households than at any time since the 1960s, according to a recent Pew Research Center analysis.
Pew reports that although the total number of households in the U.S. grew by 7.6 million between 2006 and 2016, the number of owned households remained relatively flat during that time period—while the share of rented households increased from 31.2% in 2006 to 36.6% in 2016.
The obvious culprit behind this trend is the 2008 housing crisis, which “caused many consumers to either need to rent or reconsider the benefits of renting,” explains Teresa Scharn, assistant vice president, personal lines product development at Nationwide. “Renting allows greater mobility for those seeking new jobs and opportunities in other areas.”
Alan Dobbins, director at Conning Research, points out that prior to the housing crisis, a home appeared to be a great place to invest. But “people think that’s not such a truism anymore,” he says. “If you look at the growth in the housing stock before the housing crisis and after, you had pretty steady growth in homeowners up until that point. After that point, growth in homeowners was flat to negative, and growth in rentals was pretty impressive.”
Eric Narcisco, founder of Effective Coverage, a digital insurance firm focused on renters insurance, calls it macroeconomics at play. “Think about the difficulty of getting a mortgage since 2008, the experience of what that did to people mentally,” he points out. “After that, the stigma around renting kind of went away. You could say, ‘I rent because I don’t want to expose myself, I don’t want to pay the high taxes, I don’t want to deal with the mortgage or the 20% on an expensive home. It’s just not worth it to me.’”
It’s no surprise that renting is particularly appealing for millennials, many of whom came of age or graduated college in the years surrounding the crisis. “Generations are shaped by what they go through. The people who went through the Great Depression have a very different outlook and approach to saving than baby boomers, for example,” Dobbins explains.
And the contrast is even starker for the typical millennial, who would rather take an Uber than deal with the hassle and expense of purchasing a car. “You have a group of people whose approach to homeownership is shaped by the housing crisis,” Dobbins says. “There’s a good-sized segment out there that’s very comfortable in not owning things, and that younger group is becoming a bigger and bigger portion of the population over time.”
Even millennials who are interested in homeownership “often don’t yet have the means,” Scharn points out. Between urbanization, massive student loan debt and waiting to start a family, it makes sense that “millennials and other younger groups are waiting longer to make big life decisions.”
Nationwide observes an uptick in homeownership among millennials in the 30-35 age bracket—but as they creep in to the market, their parents are on their way out. “As the baby boomers age, many are finding they prefer to rent to avoid the costs and time of maintaining a home,” Scharn says.
Interestingly, Pew’s analysis reveals that between 2006 and 2016, renting increased among demographic groups which have historically been less likely to rent—including white people and middle-aged adults. “A lot of independent agents are insuring an older demographic, and those people are renters in some cases,” Narcisco says. “They were probably homeowners first, and now they’re renters and they’re still with the independent agent.”
That means even beyond the millennial cohort—which is now the largest generation in history, by the way—“there’s a great opportunity for the industry to engage renters on the reasons why they need insurance protection, and then begin to grow a relationship with them that can turn into a long-term, multiproduct relationship,” Scharn says. “The more products a customer has with an agent or company, the higher the retention. Taking the time to cross-sell renters for an existing auto customer is likely to improve retention and revenue within the agency.”
It’s simple: “Since you have more and more renters out there, that’s just more conversations for the agent to have,” Dobbins says.
“The biggest problem in the end is just the mindset around selling a renters insurance policy,” Narcisco adds. “Don’t let that mindset cloud your judgment. Focus instead on figuring out how to acquire a policyholder at a low cost. You can always sell that policyholder more, and a lot of independent agents are in this game for the long-haul, so focus on the long-term value of every customer. Maybe they’re small now, but soon they’ll have other insurance needs.”
Bonus: Because renters insurance is less prone to impact from catastrophic weather events, it can result in “more stable earnings for an agency during periods of high weather loss events that go towards their loss ratio performance bonuses,” Scharn points out.
Sure, it may not be the heftiest commission you’ve ever raked in. But that doesn’t mean going after a renters policy is a waste of time. “Why bother? Because you’re in the business of selling insurance,” Narcisco says. “If you don’t want to be in the business of selling insurance in the future, some of those customers will be my customers, and thank you.”
Jacquelyn Connelly is IA senior editor.