‘I pay more in rent than I ever did on a mortgage’: renting in your 40s, 50s and 60s

Renting isn’t just for young people. Older renters in Bristol thrown ‘curveballs’ by life are being left financially insecure by the rental market.

Illustration: Sophia Checkley

In January, Oliver* will turn 40. In February, he will be evicted. “I worry about the eviction coming up,” he says. “There’s no guarantee to find a place to move into. I’m scared about having to rush into a place because I’m running out of time.”

While the typical image of a renter might be a young professional in their early 20s or 30s, continuing to rent later in life – and dealing with the instability and financial strain that comes with it – is becoming increasingly common. UK data from 2017, the latest to be released by the Office of National Statistics, shows almost one in three (28%) people aged 35 to 44 were living in private rentals. Ten years earlier it was just 13%.

Oliver has rented a room in a four-bedroom house in Redfield since March 2021. In August, the property was sold to new landlords, who told the tenants they intended to keep it rented out. But soon after they were served a section 21 ‘no fault’ eviction notice so the landlords could move in.

“It felt a little bit like we had been set up or betrayed,” Oliver tells the Cable. This is the first eviction he’s experienced, but he has moved several times in recent years and previously had to sofa-surf. “The main thing is the precariousness – just being unsure how long you can be in a place. It would be lovely to relax in the knowledge that you’re safe. You can come back here and it’s not going to be gone.” 

‘No process and no system’

A rental crisis for older people is looming. Current ‘generation rent’ – working adults who cannot afford to buy a home – won’t have property assets to rely on when they retire. In 2017, only 6% of private renters were aged 65 or over, but this is projected to double by 2046.

“Usually you’re renting because life has thrown you some curveballs,” says 56-year-old Alexandra, who moved from Cornwall to a rental property in Kingswood with her teenage son in May. She and her husband bought a house when they were in their 40s, having borrowed from their parents to afford it. Significant issues with the house came to light when they later tried to sell it, pushing them into negative equity. Alexandra’s husband died not long after. “It was the most hideous couple of years,” she says.

“Sometimes there’ll be age brackets I wouldn’t fit into but I’ll risk applying, out of desperation”

Oliver

Alexandra’s son has autism and is unable to access mainstream schooling. The facilities to support him weren’t available in Cornwall, and he was also being viciously bullied. With other family and a specialist clinic in Bristol, moving was their best choice.

Having organised care for her son and taken time off work, Alexandra would leave early in the morning for back-to-back house viewings during a period when lettings agents were getting 200 responses to a single advert. “Agents would call while I was driving to say the houses had been let, even though I had booked in the appointments. I was so cross. I sat in a car park and cried. I thought, ‘This is never going to work’.”

After six months of looking she was finally able to secure a property thanks to a sympathetic lettings agent, who told the landlord about Alexandra’s situation. “I could have climbed down the phone and kissed her,” Alexandra says. “It really felt like luck and the gods. But there’s no process and no system. It’s awful.”

Just about managing

Alexandra was only able to move to Bristol because her retired father agreed to financially support her for the first six months. “I could never have done this without him,” she says. “I got a job before I moved, but it’s only part-time. My job would cover my rent but there’s no money for living.” Her dad will keep helping them until Christmas, and in the new year Alexandra will look for more work. “When you’re in your 50s and your dad’s paying your rent, it doesn’t feel right.”

Alexandra says she pays “more in rent than we ever did in a mortgage” – which is true on average across England. Renters have significantly less money for vital outgoings including heating: latest figures show almost 20% of private renters in England aged over 60 were in fuel poverty, compared to 9% of social renters and 13% of homeowners. One in ten households in Bristol was in fuel poverty in 2020, and local charities say that figure significantly increased during the pandemic.

Spending so much on rent also means not being able to save for the future. Based on a pre-retirement salary of £27,000 per year, analysis by Royal London predicts that retired homeowners will need a pension pot of £260,000 to maintain their standard of living. Pensioners who rent privately will need almost twice as much – £445,000 – to meet the same living standards.

Oliver has begun looking for a new place ahead of his imminent eviction, balancing somewhere affordable against finding decent housemates. He certainly feels the financial squeeze of splitting the current £1700 rent between four each month. “I’d really like to [own] a house – largely because so much of my income goes into rent,” he says. “I potentially wouldn’t need to work as much and just would feel more comfortable.”

But he is struggling to find adverts that match him: a maximum age is often stipulated by landlords or groups of housemates. “That’s more common than not,” Oliver says. “Sometimes there’ll be age brackets I wouldn’t fit into but I’ll risk applying, out of desperation.”

Alexandra says the reality is that she will never again get a mortgage she can afford. “If it wasn’t for rent being extortionately more than a mortgage, I don’t think anyone would buy. I certainly wouldn’t. You never own the house: the bank does.”

She feels the broken rental market is indicative of other societal systems – healthcare and education too – that are desperately fraying in the UK. “At some point everything is going to give and it’ll be the likes of me that scraped and just about managed who will cop for it. There will be a lot more people who will fall into that bucket of despair.”

The Bristol Cable