Redfin – and America – selling an unattainable American Dream of homeownership?

The CEO of Redfin recounts how he has viewed who can and should be able to purchase homes:

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Rampant speculation and skyrocketing property values have left Kelman feeling almost nostalgic for those years leading up to 2008, which, in retrospect, were the last time the working poor could reasonably aspire to home ownership in America. “I used to read stories about strawberry pickers buying McMansions in central California, and everybody viewed that as just the absolute apex of insanity,” Kelman told me. “But reading Piketty five years later, is it so bad that the strawberry picker had a nice house?”

Conceding that the picker probably could not afford his McMansion, and that the loans that put him in it were untenable, Kelman nevertheless liked this gaudy permutation of the American Dream. More than that, he disliked the level of “elitist judgment” surrounding these types of homes, which he views as nothing more sinister than the market’s attempt to grapple with problems politicians are content to ignore. In Kelman’s view, the left is eager to help the poor rent homes but not own them, while the right tends to ignore their plight altogether. Meanwhile, rampant NIMBYism prevents the kind of building that might help bring home prices back down to earth.

It had put him in a mood to reflect somewhat darkly on the future of housing in America. “The original premise of my stint at Redfin was that we’re selling the American Dream and the idea that everyone can afford a house sooner or later if they work hard and play by the rules,” he said. “Recently, I’ve had this feeling that there are so many people who are never going to become Redfin customers — that maybe the product we’ve been selling just isn’t a middle-class product anymore but an affluent product.” In February, anticipating a future in which homeownership is out of reach for more and more people, Redfin spent $608 million to acquire RentPath and its portfolio of apartment-leasing sites.

The story as written suggests that Kelman originally subscribed to the idea that Americans who work hard and follow the rules would be able to purchase a home. This has been at least an implicit idea for decades, particularly in the postwar era. He did not like commentary that suggested some were less deserving to own homes or political positions that limited homeownership. But, after the housing bubble burst in the late 2000s, he realized homeownership was not available to all.

If this is correct, the Redfin pivot to apartment-leasing is an interesting choice. This could be a good business decision as rental housing is needed in many communities. At the same time, this does not necessarily line what up with what Kelman expressed. Apartments can provide housing but they do not provide the same kinds of opportunities as housing – such as building wealth – nor are apartment dwellers viewed the same way as homeowners. Americans continue to say that they would prefer to own a home.

Redfin and similar sites could play important roles in what homeownership looks like in the future. Exactly what influence they will have is less clear.

More young adults pooling resources to purchase homes

Limited in pursuing the American Dream of homeownership by college debt, economic conditions, and high housing prices? More young adults are buying homes with other people:

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For millennials, many of whom are getting married later in life, swimming in student-loan debt and facing soaring home prices, homeownership can feel more like a fantasy than an achievable goal. So, some first-time home buyers are taking a more creative route to make it happen—by pooling their finances with partners, friends or roommates.

Since 2014, when millennials became the largest share of home buyers in the U.S., the number of home and condo sales across the country by co-buyers has soared. The number of co-buyers with different last names increased by 771% between 2014 and 2021, according to data from real-estate analytics firm Attom Data Solution.

The pandemic added fuel to that trend, according to data from the National Association of Realtors. Among all age groups during the early pandemic months—April to June 2020—11% of buyers purchased as an unmarried couple and 3% as “other” (essentially, roommates). Those numbers were up from 9% and 2%, respectively, in the previous year.

This is an interesting situation: Americans continue to want to purchase homes. However, this is not within the reach of many unless they have ways to draw on additional resources.

I do wonder how this is connected to broader changes in households and the formation of families. How does this all work with more Americans living alone, changes in marriage rates, and extended emerging adulthood?

I have heard many warnings over the years about co-signing loans, even among family. Some of these arrangements could present complications in the long run:

Legal experts advise buyers to consult a real-estate attorney to help write a co-ownership agreement that covers every possible scenario, from job loss to marriage to personal fallouts. For example, who will hire the handyman if there is a plumbing issue? Who is in charge of collecting and making the mortgage payments? If one co-owner moves away, will the other co-owners have an option to buy them out or will there be a forced sale of the home?

While this is still a small minority of homeowners, it is worth paying attention to with high housing prices and economic anxiety.

In the past year, Americans moved to less expensive but bigger homes

A new report from Zillow shows what kinds of homes Americans chose in the last year:

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By and large, Americans chose bigger — and less expensive — homes, particularly if they moved across state lines. Zillow’s analysis looked at data from North American Van Lines, a trucking company based in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. This was “a notable reversal of trends from prior years,” Zillow economist Jeff Tucker said in the report.

The average home value in the ZIP codes that movers left was $419,344, versus $392,381 for the ZIP codes they relocated to. That represents a difference of roughly $27,000.

But a cheaper home doesn’t mean a smaller one. While the average size of the homes movers left behind was the largest since Zillow began tracking this data in 2016, the average size of the new homes people chose was even larger. The average difference in size, according to the analysis, was 33 square feet…

This is allowing Americans to get the most bang for their buck in the housing market, rather than needing to sacrifice affordability or space in the name of living closer to urban centers.

Is this a perfect distillation of the American Dream at this period of history? “The biggest house for the least amount of money.”

I wonder how this might affect broader patterns regarding the size of American homes. The size of new houses grew steadily from 1950 on but has leveled off in recent years. At the same time, I could imagine a scenario where small shifts as described above help keep inching up the size of American homes. Here is how this might work:

  • From the summary, it sounds like people moved, on average, to slightly bigger houses. Having 33 more square feet is not that much – imagine a 5.5 x 6 foot space (bathroom? mudroom? closet?) – but it is an increase.
  • There does seem to be some interest in not living in McMansions or extra-large houses (see a recent example). Some have suggested prior generations wanted crazy amounts of space while younger adults today want more reasonably sized homes.
  • So imagine the standard size of a “small house” keeps inching up – there are fewer starter homes so people go to bigger houses, new or old, to start – while there is less interest in homes 4,000 square feet and up (which relatively few Americans owned in the first place). In other words, the size of American homes move more because truly small homes are phased out and truly large homes fall more out of favor.

A purchased home does not need to be a McMansion to be a bigger home compared to past standards or even smaller units today.

The answer Canada may not want: lean in completely to American-style sprawl to get more housing

There is not enough developed land around Canadian cities for what Canadian buyers want:

The world’s second biggest country by landmass is effectively running out of space, and that has Canada on course for a reckoning. The dream of a detached home and a piece of land, which generations of Canadians have taken for granted, and which continues to entice new immigrants, may soon be out of reach in the places where people want to live. That could force an expansion of the idea of home to include condos and rentals, potentially transforming how the middle class does everything from raising families to saving for retirement…

In Canada, buying a home has long been seen as the surest path to middle class security. Canadians on average live in some of the biggest houses in the world, and post higher rates of homeownership than in the U.K., or France, or even the U.S. The pandemic has put an even bigger premium on backyards and extra space…

Still, developers don’t seem to be responding. Though construction started on a record number of new homes in Canada’s metro areas in March, the percentage that were single family-detached actually fell to 19% from 24% the previous year, according to government data. While this ratio improved in April, new home starts slowed that month overall…

It comes down to land. While Canada boasts a total area of about 10 million square kilometers (3.9 million square miles), roughly 40 times the area of the U.K., most Canadians are clustered in a handful of major cities not far from the U.S. border. That’s where the jobs are. And while the work-from-home era has expanded that radius for some, turning quiet farming communities and weekend-getaway spots into the hottest real estate markets in the country, the possibility of returning to the office even a few days a week has kept most workers from striking out too far afield.

The proposed solution in the article is more condos, apartments, and townhouses. These would have provide denser populations and expand the housing options. But, this is not what all Canadians want: like in the United States, the idea of a single-family home is both popular as an ideal and investment.

Here is a different answer from Canada’s southern neighbor: sprawl. More and more sprawl. The article says Canada is out of land; this is not quite true. Keep building suburban areas out from cities. Take advantage of the work from home days of COVID-19. Build on the interest of some Canadians to have their own home and land. Give in more to car culture. Go thirty, forty, fifty miles out like the biggest American cities. There will still be plenty of land in the middle of the country for farms and up north for open space.

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This may not be a welcomed answer. This all leads to more driving, more dependence on roads. It means less energy efficiency, perhaps particularly during cold winters. It might introduce the same problems that plague sprawling American metropolitan areas.

But, if Canadians do not adjust to living in smaller units in closer proximity, sprawl is one option. The emphasis on homeownership and vehicles is already there. It could be a different kind of sprawl, maybe denser than the American version or more community oriented. Perhaps some lessons could be learned from the mistakes made in the United States. At the least, it could relieve some housing pressure, provide jobs for builders and developers, and set up new subdivisions and future communities for decades to come.

Americans celebrate moving away from their small home town

An excerpt from a new book presents an American conundrum: many Americans like the idea of small towns yet celebrate moving away from them.

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I was humiliated, not just because I’d left school, but because I’d glaringly stumbled off the traditional path everyone I knew had taken: If you move away from home, you don’t move back. That’s not how young adults do it. We leave. We find our way.…

So there’s this push and pull, where fulfilling this Americanized ideal of being out on one’s own and forging one’s own life comes at the real cost of contributing to families and communities in tangible ways, Katsiaficas explained. “For so many young people that I’ve talked to, they’ve narrated that hyperindividualism as a real sense of loss,” she said. Rarely, if ever, had I heard that sense of loss, or even homesickness, described as anything other than something we’re supposed to grow out of…

Because moving is so ingrained in how we think about this time of life, even though not everyone can “achieve” that milestone, staying seems like it is rarely celebrated. With going-away parties to celebrate new adventures and graduation parties to mark the close of one chapter and the beginning of another, staying in one place can feel boring…

In our conversation, Warnick pointed out that there is a stigma in America against not only small towns, but staying in the same place at all. We tend to think of it as representing “the abandonment of our big dreams,” Warnick said, a feeling of escape that some young people feel acutely. I felt called out, and with good reason: I’d clung to the belief that life would really begin once I left wherever I was. It kept dreams I was too scared to say aloud at arm’s length; it allowed me to imagine, and reimagine, the “best life” I’d finally find with a new zip code, conveniently forgetting that my real life was happening wherever I happened to be. I could participate, or I could wait. And for years, I waited.

There is a lot to consider here: the particular stage of life in the discussion here (from roughly college to settling down as an adult), mobility, frontiers, cities versus other settings, and larger American narratives about success. A few quick thoughts in response:

  1. I wonder how much these narratives differ across places. Is this more prevalent in rural areas where the allure of trying the big city is strong or is it also present in big cities where young people want to experience other places, including other appealing big cities? This could help untangle whether this is more about small towns or a general theme that emerging adults need to strike out on their own somewhere else.
  2. This reminds of some marriage advice I once read that suggested newlyweds should move hundreds of miles away from both families to establish themselves as a couple before moving back near family. Does such a narrative go against most of human history?
  3. Could all of this help explain the enduring appeal of the suburbs? They are not quite small towns but they are not cities. Americans can feel better about returning to suburban municipalities and making a home there because it feels in between.
  4. This all seems to beg for a more robust theology of place in the United States.
  5. It would be interesting to know how social media and the Internet either help connect people to home towns from afar or present just a poor and ultimately unsatisfactory substitute.
  6. Plenty of Americans do stay in the community in which they grew up or stay nearby. What is different about their stories? What are the factors that help explain why some commit to staying and others leave?
  7. How do Americans process their experiences with and understandings of place? If the emphasis is largely on mobility or making do where you are, this might discourage positive memories or investing too much in a particular place.

How searching for houses online became sexy

With SNL poking fun at the ways people in their late 30s use Zillow to look at housing, what makes online home shopping such a current phenomena? I thought of the numerous factors that had to come together – here is an incomplete list:

SNL “Zillow”
  1. The rise of online real estate sites and apps. These have been around for years but between Zillow.com, Redfin.com. Realtor.com, Trulia.com, and more, potential sellers and buyers have a lot of easily accessible platforms. These options are now ubiquitous: people can search at any time from any location for any length of time. And now that some online listings have video tours and/or 3D models, viewers can get a good sense of what a property is like without ever getting near it.
  2. COVID-19 adds much to existing patterns. With some people interested in moving out of cities and health risks making it more difficult to see homes, online viewing may be the primary option.
  3. The SNL spoof targeted a particular age group – people in their late-30s – who might be in the middle of a housing dilemma. By this age, those interested in settling down somewhere may or may not have the resources (think school loans, unstable employment during COVID-19 and the last economic crisis in the late 2000s) to buy in the places they want. But, the browsing is free and all sorts of homes in all sorts of locations are available.
  4. The single-family home has always been an important part of the American Dream. Today, this is true and in new ways. The home is a respite away from COVID-19 and political polarization. It is an important investment as buying the right home is not just about enjoying day-to-day life; it should pay off in the future when the homeowner wants to sell and housing values have continued to rise.
  5. Americans also like to consume and compare their social status or possessions to others. With homes occupying such an important part of American mythology, these larger patterns carry over to these sectors. Browsing homes online allows for window shopping and comparisons on one of the most expensive investments. And homes are not just dwellings; they offer windows into lifestyles and neighborhoods.

Put all of these together and you get an SNL reflection on how home searching and purchasing happens today.

Homes as investments in continually increasing national median home values

The national median house value kept going up through November 2020:

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Despite a global pandemic and an economic downturn, U.S. home prices pushed new boundaries last year: The national median sale price for existing homes hit $310,800 in November, marking 105 straight months of year-over-year gains, according to data from the National Association of Realtors.

This could reinforce the now common viewpoint that homes are investments. Increasing median values for over eight suggests reinforces the idea that homes generally go up in value. Except for big economic crises – think the burst housing bubble of the late 2000s – houses accrue value over time. Even COVID-19 could not derail this.

This is often viewed as a good thing. Homeowners like that their homes are increasing in value because they can make more money when they sell. Communities take this as a marker of status. Realtors and others in the housing industry benefit. No one wants a drop in housing values across the board. (Of course, this is the median so the values can differ a lot by location.)

The commodification changes how owners, developers, and communities think about houses. They are not just the private spaces to escape the outside world – an established idea in the American Dream – but goods to profit from. An increasing value must be good and steps in other areas should be taken to protect home values.

This has numerous effects. It encourages Americans to invest resources in buying housing when that money could be put to use elsewhere. It contributes to single-use zoning where homes are protected from any other possible uses. It can exacerbate the inequality gap between those who can buy homes and those who cannot or between those with homes in places where the values keep going up versus those with homes in places with stagnant values.

Televised sporting events as vehicles for commercials

If people were looking for more reasons not to watch major sports – and there are plenty at the moment – then consider the commercialism involved in any televised sporting event. I quote from an article featured in an earlier post:

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The 11 minutes of action was famously calculated a few years ago by the Wall Street Journal. Its analysis found that an average NFL broadcast spent more time on replays (17 minutes) than live play. The plurality of time (75 minutes) was spent watching players, coaches, and referees essentially loiter on the field.

An average play in the NFL lasts just four seconds.

Of course, watching football on TV is hardly just about the game; there are plenty of advertisements to show people, too. The average NFL game includes 20 commercial breaks containing more than 100 ads. The Journal’s analysis found that commercials took up about an hour, or one-third, of the game.

The game itself could be interesting. I have watched numerous games that contained amazing sports moments and I am consistently surprised how often something new or rare happens.

But, even with those great moments, I always get a big dose of commercials. Break after break after break selling me products, brands, and an American way of life based on buying more and more.

Perhaps this is the true message of American sports: the observer, someone who probably was not able to play the sport in question at a high level, can live the good life through purchasing goods and experiences. Even while I am watching, I can purchase a lot through my phone or computer. And I can upgrade the sports watching experience with an even bigger television, more food and drinks, tailgate accessories, and ways to travel to the sporting sites.

And this may be the big message of American life in general. Community might be nice as might finding contentment with what you have. But, the guiding impulse that will help keep the economy humming and the consumer satisfied by novelty and acquisition is to just keep wanting and buying.

Live the American Dream in a $180k, 375 square foot tiny home

Tiny houses could provide needed cheap housing and upgraded models might also appeal to people. Here is an example of a higher-end model:

https://www.yahoo.com/news/180-000-tiny-home-outfitted-173504352.html

David Latimer of New Frontier Design is creating tiny homes that are more luxurious and more expensive than most you’d find on the market today. His most recent model, the Escher, starts at $180,000 and is designed to fit a family of six full time. Latimer calls this “the future family home.”…

The Escher is unlike most tiny homes, nearing $200,000 and including high-end features. But Latimer said that doesn’t make this model any less of a tiny house.

“Minimalism means different things for different people,” Latimer said. “The bottom line is that downsizing is a tremendous life adjustment and sacrifice for anybody. This tiny house is still a minimalistic lifestyle. It’s still a tiny home.”…

“I believe micro-housing is going to be a substantial part of the future of residential housing,” Latimer said. “Millenials and Gen Z are going to live this way. I would bet my life on this. Micro housing will allow people to live out the American dream.”

I am not surprised there is a perceived market for more expensive tiny houses. At a basic level, perhaps this is just selling the same products to different parts of the market: some people want to pay less for a tiny house, others will pay more. Indeed, from what I can gather about who moves into or at least talks publicly about moving into tiny houses, it looks like there are some educated people with some resources who want tiny houses with upgrades.

More broadly, I am not sure how a more expensive house fits into “the tiny house movement.” Downsizing and having a cheaper home are often connected to anti-consumerist motives and behavior. Some people make the choice to acquire a tiny house in order to move away from having too many items or fixating on a large home or being so financially committed. Does a luxury tiny house try to have it both ways?

If this kind of tiny house – small but still nearly $200,000 – is going to become part of the American Dream, the definition of the American Dream may need to change. For decades now, the American Dream involves owning a single-family home, probably in the suburbs. The Escher could indeed technically fulfill this – provide a single-family home in the suburbs – but it is very different in substance. If anything motivates people to make this the embodiment of the American Dream, it may be financial realities rather than aspirations for a simpler, downsized American Dream. In other words, expensive housing markets and debt may push people toward more luxurious tiny homes rather than a true desire to ditch the big showy house for a high-status small house.

Addressing the many less-than-3-mile trips in suburban settings

One of the authors of a new book on retrofitting suburbs highlights the number of short trips in suburban settings:

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Right now, 46 percent of trips from predominantly single-family-home suburban neighborhoods are three miles or less. Which would be perfectly fine for a bike ride, a scooter ride, or a walk in many of those trips, if there was adequate infrastructure to make that a safe choice. That would have enormous impact.

This is a problem that New Urbanist designs hope to solve by placing necessary goods and services within a fifteen minute walk from residences. This means that housing is within slightly less than a mile from important destinations.

Even at this shorter distance, how many Americans would rather drive? Factor in different circumstances – weather, the purpose of the trip (buying groceries?), who is involved in the walk (a solitary pedestrian versus a family with small kids), and the American preference for driving in the suburbs – and this may just seem to be too far.

Stretching the radius from just less than a mile to three miles then is a significant change. A bicycle or scooter would certainly help. Local mass transit would help. But, this would require a lot of infrastructure. Helping pedestrians feel safe instead of unwanted guests alongside busy roads. Safer options for bicyclists. Denser land use. Planning that helps strategically place needed services and buildings where non-drivers can access them. A commitment to a slower-paced life where getting somewhere is part of the fun rather than an impediment to consumption.

It is maybe that last piece that I think may be the hardest to address. Retrofitting will be attractive in some places due to particular needs and dissatisfaction with sprawl. Indeed, “surban” settings will help some suburbs stand out from others. But, if it only happens in pieces across suburbia, it will be hard to address the bigger question: do Americans object to having their lives are designed around cars? They may not be happy with it but this is different than explicitly making individual or collective choices to try a different way of life. As of now, the American Dream still typically involves cars and vehicles and it may take a long time before alternative modes of transportation are viewed as desirable.