Politicians and others argue homeownership is a good financial investment. But, if it isn’t really a good investment, what is homeownership in the United States all about?
Politicians and pundits across the spectrum regard homeownership both as the best investment a family can make and a measure of national prosperity. But a significant majority of Americans believe differently. According to a 2012 Pew survey, 86 percent of Americans now believe the key to a middle-class life is a “secure job,” almost double the share (45 percent) who say the same about owning their home. To compare, seven out of ten respondents to a Time/CNN/Yankelovich survey back in 1991 said that homeownership was essential to middle class membership, while just one-third said that a white-collar job was required. Since 2004, the overall rate of homeownership in the U.S. has declined from 69.2 percent to 65 percent…
Of course, I’m by no means advocating that we put an end to homeownership altogether and become a nation of renters. My hunch is a homeownership rate of between 50 and 60 percent is just about right; and that’s not too far from where the U.S. is now. But we can’t hide from the fact that excessive levels of homeownership — either among nations or metros — seem to be associated with lower levels of innovation, productivity and economic development.
I wholeheartedly concur with Columbia University economist Edmund Phelps (I quoted him in my book The Great Reset) when he says, “it used to be the business of America was business. Now the business of America is homeownership.” And, he adds, “America needs to get over its ‘house passion.'”
Americans like financial investments but they also like other aspects of homeownership. Here are a few other reasons:
1. Some have argued Americans like private spaces to the detriment of public spaces. Having a home that you control, and not just rent, is the epitome of this private space. Owning a home is viewed as related to independence and self-determination.
2. Americans like to consume and houses are another consumption object. When you own, you can put your own personal stamp on the property as well as shape the house into a reflection of yourself. (This is opposed to viewing homes primarily as dwelling places, not as individual expressions.)
3. Owning a home is historically linked to the American Dream. Being able to buy your own home demonstrates that you have made it. The American Dream may indeed change in the future but it takes time to overcome this decades-old inertia.
4. This may not come up much now but homeownership was viewed in the past as a bulwark against communism.
5. Building homes as well as buying and selling them is a big industry. There is a lot of money to be made – though homeowners themselves might not make much.
6. There are long-standing negative perceptions about renters including renters are often from less desirable segments of society and renters are less committed to a community because they are more transient and don’t have the same kind of investment in their property.
While the idea of investing in a home may soon fade, there are other influential reasons Americans choose to buy homes. Economics may be a powerful motivator but it isn’t the only one when it comes to homes.