Many (though declining numbers of) marriages end in separation today. Besides the emotional turmoil that the marital separation causes, this event has profound effects on the chances to remain in homeownership for both ex-partners. Generally, at least one, if not both partners, will leave the previously shared dwelling. As separation often involves a loss of financial resources, people may have a hard time re-entering homeownership. After falling out of love and separating, a fall down the housing ladder may follow, as we show in a study recently published in European Sociological Review.
How drastic this fall will be depends very much on the housing market environment (see Figures 1 and 2). In the past in Britain, easy access to housing finance and high supply facilitated (re-)entry into homeownership for ex-partners even under house price inflation in the 1990s and early 2000s. In tight housing markets ex-partners will face more difficulties, and once access to mortgages becomes restricted, as happened in Britain after the recent crash in the housing market, problems may arise. So in the past British ex-partners could return to homeownership at some point in their lives because access to mortgages was easy – and they needed to return because alternatives in the private and social rental sector were and are unattractive. This may no longer work in future. Ex-partners may increasingly face similar problems that new market entrants currently encounter, for which the term generation rent has already been coined.
To better understand what may happen to British ex-partners, we can consider the example of Germany. The German housing market is in many ways different from the British, not the least because private rental accommodation is an attractive alternative to homeownership. Access to mortgages is also more restricted than in Britain, even after the recent tightening of regulations in Britain. High down payments are the rule in Germany. In this market environment, homeownership is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many, while a considerable share of people will never enter homeownership. After separation, very few Germans will be able to return to homeownership (see Figure 2). Ex-partners will be less likely to be in homeownership through their lives post-separation. This scenario may foreshadow the British situation in the near future.
Being excluded from homeownership in the German context is not as consequential as it may turn out to be in Britain, however. First, more Germans will accept to rent after separation compared to the British, because attractive, and most of all, secure accommodation is available for – internationally seen – reasonable costs. Second, the German public pension system is relatively generous for those who continuously worked throughout their lives. To build up private wealth as a cushion for old age is not as necessary as in Britain. In Britain, where individuals are expected to privately invest in financial products and property to build an individual safety net – an idea called asset-based welfare – people that experience a separation may lose this safety net. This may result in stark disparities between the separated and those remaining married in old life.
The authors conclude that changes in family structures over the past few decades mean that housing policy primarily built around families and stable relationships just won’t work. In other words, we need more housing options for smaller, changing families and people who live alone.
I wonder if the same findings would hold in the United States. Perhaps it might be particularly problematic in higher-priced markets where buying homes and renting can be difficult even for stable, middle-class families.