Argument: homeownership is not worth risky financial situations

Megan McArdle argues that policies and leaders promoting homeownership for those with less resources are doing a disservice:

Because, I think, most of us still haven’t managed to shed the idea that buying a house is a good way to get some unearned bonus wealth. Too many people managed to do just that for too many years. We think of 2008 as an aberration, rather than reversion to the mean. And that’s a costly mental error.

The long, steep increase in American home prices from 1946 to 2008 was driven by a whole lot of trends that are hard to repeat: the invention of the 30-year, fixed-rate, self-amortizing mortgage, which allowed people to pay more for a house by lowering the monthly payments. The securitization revolution, which lowered mortgage risk by bundling the loans into large, diversified portfolios, thereby lowering rates. Rising inflation, which pushed up the price of houses. Falling inflation, which lowered interest rates and monthly payments still further and allowed people to pay even more for those houses. The credit-scoring revolution, which allowed banks to offer loans to more people, increasing demand for the existing housing stock. And in dense coastal areas, you also had the rise of NIMBY zoning laws, which made housing scarcer and therefore more expensive…

Which is not to say I am against buying homes. I am very much for buying a home — so much so that I went and bought one myself a few years ago. But buying a house is a good idea only if you meet the following conditions:

  1. You can afford a sizable down payment to cushion you from the effects of local economic downturns or you have a super-stable job, such as working for the government or your father-in-law, that makes you unlikely to ever miss any payments.
  2. You can afford the maintenance as well as the payments, insurance and property taxes.
  3. You have good disability and/or mortgage insurance to make sure that you do not miss any payments even if you break your back and can’t do your job anymore.
  4. You are pretty sure you do not want to leave your area or move to a larger, more expensive home anytime in the next five years.
  5. Your payment is a reasonable percentage of your take-home pay (I shoot for under 25 percent; anything over 35 percent is far too risky).
  6. You have a sizable emergency fund to deal with contingencies.
  7. You can afford other forms of savings, rather than counting on your house as a piggy bank for future needs. In general, if declining home prices would send you into a hysterical panic about your financial situation, you are buying too much house.

If you do not meet these conditions, then buying a house is gambling — not just on rising home prices, but also on the continued soundness of your roof, boiler and plumbing. If you wouldn’t borrow the money to go to Vegas, then don’t borrow it for a house, either.

It sounds like McArdle is concerned with two issues:

1. People have not learned the lesson of the housing crash: housing prices do not inevitably go up. They may go up – and generally have over time – but this is not a guarantee. If you don’t accept this premise, then you will treat real estate differently.

2. The general American desire for owning a home is not enough compared to economic realities. Americans generally like owning homes: they are part of the American Dream in symbolizing status, we assume homeowners are less transient and care more about their communities, and they allow for individual freedom. But, if people can’t properly afford them, McArdle says it is not worth stretching financial bounds to make it possible. Instead, we need sound principles like saving up your money over time to make a good down payment on a house.

Both are valid concerns. Generally, Americans like seeing homes as an investment as well as an essential part of a successful life. Telling them otherwise may not be popular for politicians…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s