Here’s how to politely ask someone how much they pay in rent

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Asking a person about their salary, religion or politics is generally seen as taboo. Depending on how well you know them, questions about those personal details can seem forward, if not downright rude. 

Some people would add rent to the list.

Inquiring about a friend or colleague’s housing cost can feel invasive because it implies socioeconomic status, says Anita Allen, a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. Allen’s research includes the philosophy and ethics of privacy. 

“Asking someone how much they pay for housing is a proxy for asking them how wealthy they are,” she says. 

Asking someone how much they pay for housing is a proxy for asking them how wealthy they are.

Anita Allen

Professor, University of Pennsylvania

That’s why, Allen says, she would only ask if she “knew them very well.” 

However, there are certain bubbles in society and specific ages at which asking about housing cost or sharing about your own housing cost is the “appropriate or kind” thing to do, she says. 

‘We are having a housing crisis nationally’ 

A ‘For Rent’ sign is posted near a home on February 07, 2022 in Houston, Texas.

Brandon Bell | Getty Images

Allen, who lives in a suburb of Philadelphia, says that in her adult life, she has not been asked how much she pays for housing. 

She has been asked about her mortgage rate, which is “fairly common among people who own homes,” she says. 

The younger you are, though, the less taboo the conversation presents. 

“During college and university life, where people are struggling to afford an apartment, in that context, if you tell somebody how much you’re paying in rent it gives a baseline of what might be reasonable and acceptable for them,” she says. “This could be a way of helping your colleague not be taken advantage of.” 

Those in places like New York City, where rents just reached a record high, might also be more open about how much they are paying for housing. 

“It’s even expected that you do not keep [your rent] a secret if you were able to find an apartment in a building that is much more affordable than what is expected,” Allen says. “Then, talking about your rent is maybe something that has become culturally expected and is ethically kind.”

New York City is not the only place with soaring rent prices. Oxford, Mississippi experienced a 37% increase in rent from May 2022 to May 2023, according to data from financial technology company SmartAsset. Rents in Roseville, Michigan went up 23% during this time. 

The economy in which people are renting and buying today is different from years past, Allen says, and not in a great way. 

Rent of primary residence in September was up 7.4% year-over-year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statisitics’ consumer price index, and homeowner’s equivalent of rent of primary residence — the CPI’s proxy for mortgages — was up 7.1% in the same period.

In pure dollar terms, Rent.com estimates that median national rent in September was $370 higher than it was in September 2019.

“We are having a housing crisis nationally,” she says. “Since so many people are unhoused or having difficulty finding or affording housing, people younger and older might be asking questions because people need desperately to find a decent housing arrangement.” 

‘It’s an equity issue’

Talk about rent and housing can unearth some uncomfortable truths, says Don Heider, the executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. 

“We have a myth in American society which is that we are a classless society, that it’s a level playing field and that is completely untrue,” he says. “We try to avoid questions of class because we want to hold up that myth, but, of course, that is ridiculous.”  

Homeownership is thought of as a pathway to intergenerational wealth. Due to discriminatory lending and segregation, Black Americans own homes at significantly lower rates than white Americans, and their homes are worth less, according to a report by the National Association of Realtors. 

“From an ethics perspective, it’s an equity issue,” Heider says. 

Revealing you are, or aren’t, a homeowner can feel like an admission of privilege, or lack thereof. 

How to politely ask someone how much they pay in rent

If you’d like to know how much someone pays in rent or how much their house costs, there are ways to find out without asking them.

“If you know someone is living in a certain apartment complex, you don’t need to ask how much they are paying because that information might be available online,” she says. “You don’t have to ask how much a house costs because that’s a matter of public record,” she says. 

If you can’t find what you’re looking for online and would still like to know, it’s OK to ask, says Daniel Post Senning, an etiquette expert and co-author of “Emily Post’s Etiquette: The Centennial Edition.” But, there are a few things to consider first.

“In general, I think of conversations as having tiers,” he says. “There is safe, potentially controversial, then quite intimate, and you approach those areas differently.” 

I think of conversations as having tiers. There is safe, potentially controversial, then quite intimate, and you approach those areas differently.

Daniel Post Senning

Co-author, “Emily Post’s Etiquette: The Centennial Edition”

Rent or housing costs fall into tier two, potentially controversial. This doesn’t mean you can’t ask about it, he says, it just means people have lots of “strong opinions” on it. 

Before asking, think about how well you know this person. Have you both talked about other topics that are potentially controversial, such as politics or dating?

If you’ve broached this tier and think the other person won’t take offense to your asking about their rent, do so in a way which conveys that you’re not just trying to pry into their personal life. 

Senning suggests something like this: “I’m looking around right now [at housing options]. I feel like I’m swimming in deep water. Is how much you paid for your housing something you’re willing to talk about?”

You can also ask for a “range,” which might feel less forward.

Engaging them in a “thoughtful, polite way” and allowing them an “out,” Senning says, can make the question feel more respectful and less meddlesome. 

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