Where Are We Losing Income on Rent?

Rent is an unavoidable and sizeable cost for many people. I suspect that the county in which a person chooses to live would change their quality of life by affecting how much of their income goes to rent each month. In other words, living in counties with low rent would be better, all else equal.

Measuring the quality of life is difficult (How do you feel right now?). Instead, we will focus on how much money people have after paying rent. Rental costs are different across the country. One would expect to see a huge variety in the amounts that people get to keep as purchasing power depending on where they live.

Rent will only tell part of the story of your quality of life, but rent is significant because people need cash for necessities, as well as activities that make them happy. That is why we will focus on the median person in the United States, a group which does not have huge amounts of spare cash, but likewise is not in dire poverty. For this group, the amount of their budget that goes to rent has a substantial effect on how much they have to spend elsewhere.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development collects data on rental costs, and the Department of Agriculture captures data on median income. Below is a visualization of what the United States looks like at the county level, based on the percentage of income that the median person pays.

See a bigger version

The percentage of income that a person pays seems to increase when we live near major cities. You can see this up the California coast, and around Maryland. Interestingly, most of Maine has very high rent compared to how much people earn. I would have guessed that Maine would have low rents because none of the largest cities in the U.S. are in Maine, a factor that correlates with the most expensive rents in the nation.

Most people in the United States live in cities, not in rural areas, so we will look at the top 10 most populous counties. Most of this group holds very recognizable cities, which contribute the most to their population. Although cities are different by what kind of culture they have, knowing which places have a higher rent cost should be very important in the decision of whether or not to live there. It’s tough to experience Manhattan’s finest art gallery if you can’t afford the tickets.

See the same graph for top 20 most populous counties

We are looking at the difference for each county between the average rent that everyone would pay and what you would pay if you moved to any of these counties. That means that you would expect to pay almost exactly 20% of your income if you moved to Orange County and earned the median salary for that county, while you would expect to pay 11% more out of your budget if you moved to Kings County.

Interestingly, the graph is skewed towards expensive areas being much more expensive than cheap areas are cheap. Maricopa County, home of Phoenix, is 5% below average while Kings County, home of Brooklyn, is more than 10% above the mean. Given this, we should be very careful about moving to Kings County unless we have a lot of money. Additionally, more counties are cheaper than the mean than more expensive. We have many options about where to live where we will not lose too much of our income to rent. If we have the choice, we should find a place that we love from the cheaper places to live, knowing that we can get more spending power by making smart decisions.

The amount of rent you pay is only part of what you should consider when moving to a new place. Nonetheless, paying rent probably does not make you happy directly. Rent is more of a means of exchange to be near places and people that make you happy. This means that paying higher rent is only useful if you get a lot out of being in a certain place. For me, that means being near nature and close to hiking areas. I would pay money to not live in downtown San Francisco, even though the buildings are really impressive and the culture produces amazing shows. Hopefully, seeing this kind of information can help you make better decisions about where you want to live.

Disagree with me? Do you get happier and happier the more you pay in rent? Let me know!

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