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Mark Kiesel and his wife, Amy, sold their Newport Beach, Calif., home in 2006, near the peak of the housing bubble. They put most of their possessions in storage and rented a 1,400-square-foot apartment that's still their home, five years later.

Kiesel is managing director at investment management company Pimco. His research for work helped him spot the coming crash, and his research today tells him there's no hurry to buy a home again. Besides, he's happy as a renter.

"I'm considering buying," he says, "but I'm pretty confident that I'll be waiting to buy until 2012, or it might be 2013."

Kiesel has plenty of company. While real-estate listings languish, the demand for rentals is growing. Nationally, rental occupancy is 93.1%, a rate last seen in 2007 (but below a peak of 96.6% in 2000).

Renting "has cachet. It's the new black," says Stan Humphries, the chief economist at Zillow. His company's research found that a quarter of Zillow users were open to buying or renting, leading the company to add rentals to its property and to unveil a feature that lets users estimate the rental value of a listing.

"There's a wall of capital moving into apartment development," says Jeff Meyers, a principal in Meyers LLC, which advises investors on the multifamily housing industry. "Put it this way: It's easier for an apartment builder to get a construction loan than it is for the average American to get a mortgage."

Plenty of reasons to rent

Is renting about to replace property ownership in the hearts and psyches of Americans? With the traumatic disruption in housing lately, it certainly feels as if something fundamental is changing.

Some economists believe an elite class of renters may be developing: high-earning workers who live in big coastal cities and switch jobs readily, Humphries says.

Powerful forces are contributing to the rise of renting:

  • Foreclosure refugees. "We're going to take 5 million to 6 million homeowners and turn them into renters because they're going to lose their house to the bank," predicts housing analyst John Burns, the CEO of John Burns Real Estate Consulting. Credit reporting company TransUnion surveyed 1,252 managers of large and small apartment complexes last month and found that nearly half had reported an increase in tenants moving from foreclosed properties.
  • New households. As soon as the economy started improving, people who'd been waiting out the recession by living with friends or family started to strike out in search of rental homes of their own.
  • Fear. Many renters have the finances to own a home, but, like Kiesel, they don't want to. They sleep better without their savings sunk in a deteriorating housing market. Or they're younger and childless and like the freedom of renting. Or they're empty nesters who've had enough of home-maintenance chores and expenses.
  • Tight credit. With home prices down about a third since 2006, lots of other renters would love to buy a home at current low prices, but they just can't. Even many with good credit. Newly chastened lenders are granting home loans to very few applicants.
  • Gen Y. The biggest factor in the rental boom may not be the housing crisis at all but rather the gigantic Millennial generation -- the cohort born in the 1980s and '90s. Now at average age 20, the Millennials, or Gen Y'ers, as they're also called, are a big reason for the rental demand.

Renting is huge elsewhere

In several countries -- Germany, France and the Netherlands are three -- many or even most people are lifelong renters.

In Germany, for instance, the family and neighborhood stability that's supposed to come from homeownership comes instead from laws protecting renters, says Dean Baker, a co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C.

Carefully written laws take landlords' rights into account as well, he adds.

But despite the current boom in rentals, few experts expect a sea change here. For one thing, it's impossible to discount how deeply the value of property ownership is embedded in American culture. A CBS News/New York Times poll taken in June indicated that 59% of those polled said owning a home is "a very important part of the American dream."