For a New Yorker, asking whether someone rents or owns is pretty standard conversational fare, at least whenever the topic turns to real estate. But apparently we're a little out of touch with the rest of the country.
"When I first moved to NYC, I used to be shocked at how directly strangers try to deduce each other's income," notes one apartment dweller on an UrbanBaby.com thread debating the propriety of the rent-or-own inquisition. "'What do you do? Do you rent or own? What building?' I guess I'm used to it now."
Another wonders: "Is it spite? is it competition? is it to figure out how much the other people make?"--raising the question of whether it's shameful to say that you rent. Yes, says one: "Renters tend to live hand to mouth...for MOST people, it's not a lifestyle choice. (Response: "Many, many people who are unbelievably wealthy rent apartments in this city. I think you are taking this all way too personally...they are just making small talk.")
Several commenters point out that technology has provided an alternative outlet for ownshership-status quests once you have an address in hand.
"I used to weddingchannel.com people," confesses one, explaining she used to look up ex-boyfriends and old friends to see who was getting married. A bit older and more real estate obsessed now, "I streeteasy.com them. Not proud, just what I do." (UrbanBaby.com)