Here’s How Much People Really Pay In Rent

published Nov 20, 2017
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(Image credit: Minette Hand)

Did you know that most studies of average rents pull their data from apartment listings? That can provide a pretty accurate snapshot of the prices a newcomer can expect to encounter on their apartment search—but it’s not always reflective of real-life rental situations.

Asking rents generally skew higher, since there are plenty of listings for brand-new luxury units, but you’re not likely to find a rent-controlled apartment or a word-of-mouth hand-me-down deal listed online. (Every renter knows one of the best ways to keep costs down is to just stay put and renew a reasonable lease.) And asking rents don’t really account for all the people living with roommates, either.

Thus, while the median asking rent for a two-bedroom apartment in New York City might be a headline-grabbing $3,200, individual New Yorkers actually pay a (slightly) more manageable $2,141 in rent on average.

(Image credit: David Dines)

That’s according to San Francisco-based lender Earnest, who analyzed self-reported income, rent, and other data provided on actual loan applications to see what people are really paying in rent each month. (They’ve parsed customer data to reveal other interesting tidbits in the past.) Compiled between 2014 and 2017, the data make for a somewhat lagging indicator, but a more realistic one than we typically see.

For example, San Francisco usually tops any list of astronomical rents, but the city does have its share of rent-controlled units and roommate-stuffed Victorians. So while a median-priced two-bedroom now rents for a staggering $4,500 in San Francisco, the average renter actually pays about half that, at $2,333 — pretty close to a roommate’s share of the same unit.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles renters paid the most in rent: an average of $2,600 a month. That’s a surprise, because the median asking rent for a one-bedroom LA apartment was just $2,100 in October. Earnest speculates that LA renters may be less likely to live with roommates or in a rent-controlled apartment.

San Jose, Calif. (No. 2 at $2,502) and San Diego (No. 5, $2,058) rounded out the top five most expensive cities. You can see why California led the country with the highest average rent of $1,901 statewide. Hawaii, New Jersey, Virginia, and Massachusetts complete the top five.

(Image credit: Jessica Isaac)

Los Angelenos also spent the highest portion of their gross income on rent, according to the study, at 23.9%. Renters in Virginia Beach, Va., San Diego, Colorado Springs, Colo., Portland, Ore., and Lincoln, Neb., all spent more than 20% of their gross (pre-tax) earnings on rent.

The cities with the lowest average rent were Toledo, Ohio ($550), Memphis, Tenn. ($728), Glendale, Ariz. ($751), Kansas City, Mo. ($885), and Lincoln, Neb. ($907).

The analysis also found an indirect correlation between higher education levels and higher rents. The biggest exception was Ph.D. holders, who are presumably too swamped with student loans to splurge on an expensive apartment.

We want to know: How much do actually pay in rent? How does that compare to the “average” rents you usually see reported for your city?