I Hate Suburbia, Therefore I Rent

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- I recently spent about $3,000 on an Apple ( AAPL) MacBook Pro with a Retina display. Several friends objected to the purchase, arguing that it's just a computer and you could spend a third of that -- or less -- and get something that does the same thing.

In theory, that's true. The $1,000 Sony ( SNE) Vaio computers I have been buying up until now did what I needed them to do. They computed. However, they were lacking, relative to the Apple experience. I live on my computer, so why not put factors like form, ease of use, amenities and style over function?

I bring the same attitude to the rent versus buy decision. (See part one of this series, Buy a House or Rent an Apartment? That Depends On..., where I discuss several other factors that influence the debate).

Along similar lines, I pay a premium to live where I do. I did it in San Francisco. I do it now in Santa Monica. I could get the same or better housing in terms of space and such if I opted to live elsewhere. But as with the Vaio-Macbook Pro comparison, that would erode the quality of my experience -- my quality of life.

I don't pay rent for shelter. Instead, I pay for the location and all that it provides.

If I buy a home it will be in my current neighborhood. Given the price of real estate here and the cost of entry into the buying process, that might take awhile, if it ever even comes. And if and when I buy a home, I won't be paying for shelter. I'll be paying for the location, but the property will be, in theory and hopefully in practice, a growth and income investment.

I would not be comfortable doing anything other than purchasing a two-to-three-unit income property -- one where I live in one unit and rent out the remaining dwellings. Without others offsetting or, in an absolutely ideal situation, covering my mortgage payment, I'm not sure I want to be a property owner.

It's an interesting pair of prongs. I'm 37, and there's no way I want to commit myself to a mortgage payment of several thousand dollars a month -- that I have to pay out of pocket -- for the next 30 years. At the same time, I want an income property because I don't want to pay a couple thousand in rent every month for the rest of my life either. Both scenarios make me anxious.

In a nutshell, I focus on two primary areas vis-a-vis the rent vs. buy dilemma. One, location trumps all, even if it means I cannot buy or must delay buying. And two, when I buy, it's all about growth and income, which, interestingly, is the same criteria I have for a majority of my stock selections.

An amazing number of my friends moved out of cities like San Francisco, partly for public school-related reasons, but, largely, to be able to buy a home. They buy it as shelter. They might buy it as an investment. But they buy it in an environment they absolutely do not prefer. It's an age-old phenomenon, leaving the city for the less expensive property of the suburbs.

I never understood the mindset: Giving up a lifestyle and atmosphere you love just so you can own a home. I would happily rent for the rest of my life to live in the type of environment and climate I prefer.

I cringe every time I watch House Hunters on HGTV and the couple settles for a less desirable neighborhood solely because they want to become or remain homeowners.

Over the weekend, a Bay Area couple chose a cookie-cutter property in sleepy Brisbane, a suburb near San Francisco, because they could not afford anything even halfway decent in the city. Generally speaking, I think people in that type of situation end up regretting their decision on some level.

When we discuss the buy-rent conundrum, we tend to boil it down to a debate over numbers and the supposed superiority of being an owner as opposed to a renter. While that apparent cornerstone of the runaway American dream took a hit after the housing crash and economic crisis of 2008, it's still part of our collective ethos. However, not everybody bought in to it pre-crash, and I reckon fewer will after the crash.

Quality of life and experience, it's one factor that does not come up enough, particularly among us slugs who cannot pay cash wherever and for whatever we choose. Too few people frame real estate as a growth and income investment.

If all parties involved -- bankers, real estate agents, buyers -- considered the decision to buy or rent more critically, we might not have fallen quite so haplessly into the aforementioned crisis.

At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned in this article.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.
Rocco Pendola is a private investor with nearly 20 years experience in various forms of media, ranging from radio to print. His work has appeared in academic journals as well as dozens of online and offline publications. He uses his broad experience to help inform his coverage of the stock market, primarily in the technology, Internet and new media spaces. He has taken a long-term approach to investing, focusing on dividend-paying stocks, since he opened his first account as a teenager. Pendola, 37, is based in Santa Monica, Calif., where he lives with his wife and child.