When all the suburban homes are the same, how can residents set themselves apart?

Continuing to draw from a 1953 Harper’s study of six mass-produced suburbs, Harry Henderson discusses an interesting aspect of the cookie-cutter houses:

Henderson3.png

We are used to the idea that a home, like many other goods one owns, is a means by which people differentiate themselves from others. Your car reveals your personality (or your financial resources). Your clothes celebrate your individuality. Your favorite TV show provides deep insights into your psychology. Your McMansion impresses those driving by with its size. And so on. But, what if residents do not have the luxury of differentiating their exterior?

Henderson suggests they then move their differentiation into activities: what groups are you a part of, what are you contributing, who do you know. But, I think this misses two features about homes:

  1. Even if these homes were mass-produced, it wouldn’t take long before residents could alter their homes and yards. Indeed, Barbara Kelly in Expanding the American Dream details how residents of Levittown made changes to their homes. People add additions, make landscaping decisions, paint their exteriors, and more. If you look at the streets of these homes sixty years later, you can both pick out some of the common architectural features as well as see significant efforts to stand out.
  2. After the section cited above, Henderson then goes on to say that the residents then emphasize interior decorating. They may be cookie-cutter homes from the outside but could have very different feels. While this is not as visible to the neighborhood, it does present an opportunity to show family and friends your own unique self.

There are current parallels to the dilemma Henderson poses: residents of condos, townhomes, and apartments have similar issues as their exteriors share characteristics with others around them.

This is also a reminder of a tendency of modern humans to look for ways to secure a higher status for themselves. Even in a supposed middle-class society, Americans want to be seen as their own individual, even if their housing choices are constrained.

The direct and indirect social pressure to buy the bigger house

One money manager explains the difficulty he experienced in not buying the largest house his financial resources allowed:

Our home is unimpressive. I love it, don’t get me wrong. We are very, very comfortable. It is way more than enough space for our family of four. Right now we’re even doing a full remodel of the basement. But I know that compared to many of my peers, our house isn’t the massive, brick-laden, towering McMansion that says “we’ve arrived.” We bought our home days before I quit my last job and launched this firm. We paid $265,000 and financed almost all of it as I was hoarding cash for us to live on since we had zero income.

I’ve had one client visit our home after our youngest daughter was born and I remember distinctly a feeling of anxiety that our modest home wouldn’t measure up to expectations. What I felt bordered on shame. Would people think I was “successful” if they saw our home? Does it present a picture of someone who is responsible, intelligent and capable? Does it represent someone who should be entrusted with managing client assets that now exceed $150 million?

I’ve come to terms with it, but these ideas still creep into my head. I like that we live well within our means. It brings me immeasurable happiness, quite frankly. But there is a lingering social pressure. A fear of a stigma that occasionally whispers from some deep recess in my mind. In general I’m not a person who is given to care much what other people think about me. (Seriously, ask my wife about this one)…

If I can feel these pressures, I imagine they could be stronger for many others. A house is a man’s castle, after all. A giant, expensive, cumbersome representation of your value to society. What would you think if your successful doctor or lawyer or local business owner lived in an average middle-class house? Is s/he in financial trouble? Recently bankrupted? Paying off bad debts? How many Americans would think “Wow, good for them. They have figured out what makes them happy and are spending/saving money in that way.” Can’t say I think it would be many.

There seem to be two kinds of social pressures hinted at here:

  1. Direct pressure where someone says or does something in response to the house.
  2. Indirect pressure where there are standards to uphold, whether within a neighborhood, business sector (the financial one here), or society.

At least in this piece, the money manager only suggests indirect pressure. No one negatively commented about his house or the client who visited did not withdraw their business because the house wasn’t as impressive as it could be. Yet, this indirect pressure – the feeling that there is a standard to conform to and violating that standard has negative consequences – can be consequential.

So where exactly does this indirect pressure to buy a large house come from? There are probably many sources including: conversations we have with family, friends, and acquaintances about what is the “proper” home (as well as observations of the actions of those same people); media depictions of homes (from TV shows to HGTV to commercials to news stories); financial, real estate, and governmental institutions that depict and enable the purchase of large homes; and a society that prizes and promotes consumerism as a primary mechanism of the economy as well as a key marker of our status.

How difficult it is to resist this pressure may depend on the individual as well as their social position. Of course, making a decision to consume something other than the large house – say, a tiny house instead – may also just be another decision made in the interest of conformity and status seeking.