Owner wants his shopping mall to be a community space and have a giant monument to The Ten Commandments

Shopping malls are interesting spaces as they are devoted to consumption and yet often operate like public spaces (though they are not). One Texas mall owner has some interesting ideas for his renovated mall near Dallas:

Odessa businessman John Bushman wants to turn the mall into a community space where people can find some “peace and love” in the Ten Commandments, hear some local musicians perform live and take in a giant wave of a 30-foot-by-60-foot American flag outside.

All of Bushman’s other businesses — hotels in Texas, Colorado and New Mexico, other shopping centers and a Chickn4U restaurant in Odessa — display the Ten Commandments engraved on 800-lb stone tablets. In Dallas, he owns the MCM Elegante Hotel and Suites on W. Northwest Highway…

He wants Vista Ridge to be a “wholesome family place” and he said, this time of year that includes Santa who will arrive at the mall on Saturday with free family photos to the first 100 customers. The mall has new Christmas decorations…

Bushman agreed it’s unusual for a mall to display religious messages. But he thinks it will work in the big city as well as it does in West Texas.

Only in Texas? Only in America? Perhaps it is fitting to mix essential tenets of the Judeo-Christian tradition with America’s other great love: shopping.

More seriously though, shopping malls are going to extra efforts these days to bring in visitors and shoppers. This is one way to go: provide family-friendly entertainment and regularly host community groups and events. The second option is mentioned later in the article by a local detractor (who seems to think this strategy is not one befitting of a nicer suburban area): go for upscale stores and trendy restaurants to create a vibrant and glamorous scene.

If shoppers had the opportunity to go to a mall like this with giant Ten Commandments versus shopping elsewhere, how many will go out of their way (in practice and not just intentions) to go to the mall with the religious objects? How much will this boost sales?

Do “real-life millionaires” buy McMansions?

The spending habits of millionaires tends to be a popular topic but few people discuss exactly what kind of house they live in:

A millionaire is a person with a net worth of $1 million or more. Net worth is the value of everything a person owns, minus all debts…

Such an individual could have a negative net worth, yet they drive a Range Rover and live in a McMansion. Meanwhile, the millionaire next door lives in a three-bedroom house and drives a Hyundai…

Although it’s a common misconception that millionaires spend their money on luxury vacations, clothing, houses, and cars, what I’ve learned in growing my own net worth — and speaking with other millionaires — is that after a certain point, money stops mattering as much as it once did.

This seems to line up with the accepted wisdom that many American millionaires are relatively frugal and made their way to that wealth through saving and hard work.

But, if millionaires are not buying all those McMansions, who is? The flip argument expressed above that there are plenty of people living a millionaire lifestyle or above their means does not apply in all cases either.

Part of the trick here might be disconnecting income from wealth. Having $1 million plus in wealth does not necessarily mean you have the kind of assets to put down a sizable down payment or make sizable payments on a large house. (Think of the people who have paid off their mortgages and have a lot in retirement and savings accounts – this is not always easy to access.) Some people might be willing to buy homes based on whether they can afford the monthly payments – does it roughly fall within 30-35% of my monthly take-home pay – while others would be unwilling to splurge on a McMansion.

To be honest, I have not seen a convincing article or set of data regarding McMansion owners. I would guess a good number are in the top 20% of earners in the United States but probably a good portion are also living paycheck to paycheck.

More remodeling, less moving, and uncertainty

Another trend that is the result of the current housing market: fewer people are moving and more homeowners are remodeling what they already have.

Now, according to research, homeowners are eager to hold onto the ultra-low mortgage interest rates they were able to get after the crash, and they are leery about taking a chance on a move. Many also lack the financial wherewithal to upgrade to a larger, pricier home. They own houses that haven’t recovered enough of their value in the wake of the crash to generate the down payment needed to buy a new place.

The percentage of homeowners moving up to their next home is the lowest in 25 years, said Todd Tomalak, vice president of research for John Burns Real Estate Consulting. Instead of moving, people are deciding to make starter homes permanent and are expanding and repairing them for the long term, he said…

From 1987 to 2008, homebuyers stayed in their homes six years on average before selling, according to the National Association of Realtors. The number of years homeowners expected to stay in their homes started increasing during the housing plunge and has been at 15 years since 2010…

Last year, people spent about $320 billion on remodeling — a 5 percent increase over the previous year, Tomalak said. This year, they are expected to spend $350 billion — a 9 percent increase.

Interesting data yet there are some conflicting things going on here. This raises a few questions for me:

  1. If you aren’t moving soon, remodeling can make sense. At the same time, how does the remodeling square with homeowner’s interests in making money on their home? Many remodels do not recoup the money put into them – unless people are hoping that the tight market will keep housing values going up and up.
  2. Does the same animosity some have toward big box retailers like Walmart also carry over to Home Depot and similar stores? I know some things can vary tremendously from retailer to retailer – such as wages and benefits – but all big box stores have some similar effects including knocking out local businesses (who goes to the local hardware store for all their remodeling needs?) and contributing to an automobile culture with massive footprints on commercial stretches.
  3. On one hand, fewer people moving suggests the housing market is sluggish and this may not be good for the housing industry and the economy at large. On the other hand, people staying in the same house longer means they are more rooted in their communities (combats the critique of the soulless suburbs or the image of Americans just wanting to move up) and are avoiding senseless consumerism (just chewing up new house after new house). Is this an example where the consumer driven economy doesn’t really work in the long-run? (Or, maybe enough homeowners can be convinced that they need the newest item for their home – concrete countertops! wi-fi enabled refrigerators! – that the remodeling can pick up some of the slack.)

Pick the wrong suburb and you can try again

Keep trying and you might just find the suburb that suits you:

Switching suburbs after you’ve plunked down a hefty down payment and settled your children in school seems infinitely challenging, and indeed some recent transplants who have doubts about their new communities resign themselves to the idea that there is no such thing as a perfect suburb.

But for others, the gnawing sensation that something is not quite right pushes them to keep searching for another suburb, a better suburb, a place where they might actually feel at home. Maybe it’s the commute. Maybe the schools are too big or too small, or the town is too quiet or not quiet enough. Maybe what they thought was important — the big yard and the birds singing out the windows — was not so important after all….

Even if a possibility looks great on paper, one person’s idea of a great place to live can be another person’s nightmare. “The suburbs are not the same; the subtleties of their personalities are so different,” he said. “Just like someone living on the Upper East Side won’t fit into Williamsburg, someone who likes Maplewood may not fit into Short Hills. You can end up in a place that really doesn’t suit you.”

Moving to a new suburb may be the way to recapturing your identity, whether it’s somewhere where you can walk to dinner or a place with more like-minded people. But first, you should give serious thought to who lives in the town and what types of things go on there. Whom will you encounter when you walk your children to the park? Whom will you drink a beer with at the neighborhood block party? What do the mothers wear to drop-off, or will you see only nannies?

I get that the American suburbs are often about finding individual happiness. And buying a suburban home is a significant investment. The consumer is king. But, does this go too far? How many times can the average family move? Is there any concept of contributing to a suburban community rather than just finding people like you or that you enjoy?

One of the side effects of encouraging individuals to find the suburb that suits them is that it encourages further geographic sorting. Residential segregation is already a major issue in the United States and further moves for psychological or social fit likely allows those with more resources to pick their preferred setting.

 

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.

The most frequent homeowner regret about their home is not purchasing a bigger one

A good number of Americans regret features of the homes they purchase:

More than half of all buyers have regrets about their purchase of a home, Trulia reports, and the No. 1 mistake buyers feel like they made is choosing the wrong size. Forty-two percent of those polled by the real estate site say that they picked a place to live that was either too large (9 percent) or too small (33 percent).

Almost the exact same number of renters, 41 percent, “wish they had bought instead.”

Twenty-six percent of buyers also wish they had done either less or more remodeling.

What might explain these regrets?

Buying a house is often the biggest purchase a person will ever make, so it’s natural that many experience some buyer’s remorse…

Home size has been a common gripe over the years, especially as housing gets more expensive and people have to settle for smaller spaces, said David Weidner, managing editor for Trulia’s housing economics research team.

Or are Americans so embedded within consumerism that they are always wishing for more? At the same time, expressing regrets about a major purchase doesn’t necessarily mean that people would have done it differently. If I like my home but wish the yard had more space, am I dissatisfied with owning my home? Not necessarily.

It is too bad we don’t get more information about how much bigger homeowners wish their home would be. Perhaps the average homeowner just wants another room to two to handle all their stuff as opposed to all Americans wishing to live in giant McMansions.

 

Citing religious reasons to give up a McMansion for a doublewide mobile home

Even with the criticism of McMansions, I don’t think many would follow the path of this chaplain/columnist to downsize from a McMansion to a mobile home:

The first thing I grappled with was, “Are you living within your means?”

While it sounds like a question from your financial adviser, it really gets at the spiritual issue of greed. If greed prevents you from reducing your spending, you’ll have a problem, since retirement will often cut one’s income nearly in half…

We sold our suburban home and moved into a doublewide mobile home at half the cost of our old two-story McMansion.

As the months passed, the numbers proved workable. Any greedy impulses that remained began to subside. Honestly, it wasn’t that hard to do. We were ready. Our kids were out of the nest and finished with their schooling.

However, we couldn’t have addressed the first question if we had not answered the bigger spiritual question: How much is enough?

While there are plenty of proponents of downsizing, there are two ways that this path is unique:

  1. Downsizing to a mobile home. There are few housing options less liked than McMansions but this would qualify. People think of trailer parks and lower-class residents. They think of dirty homes and lower property values. Often, the discussions of downsizing involve moving to something tasteful and/or customized. The new home may be smaller – wasting less space than the McMansion – but it is not necessarily cheap nor sacrificing much in terms of location and neighbors. For another example, those portrayed on TV as interested in tiny houses are often middle class residents who want a lot of amenities and a calmer life but don’t really want the cheapest housing possible.
  2. The choice is guided by religious values with a wish to live simply in order to avoid greed. Rather than a secular impulse to consume less (for a variety of reasons including environmental concerns, saving money for other desires such as exciting experiences, and avoiding the appearance of conspicuous consumption), this McMansion move gets at an important religious question: how much is enough? I’ve seen very few religious approaches to McMansions. An unwritten stereotype of who owns these places probably puts a lot of southern conservative Protestants into McMansions. But, there are few American religious leaders telling people not to live in places like McMansions, even if they may generally caution people to live too lavishly. (Ironically, McMansions might seem like a good deal then to many religious people because you get a lot of square footage for your money.)

In sum, propose to McMansion critics that we should swap McMansions for doublewides for religious reasons and the idea may not be greeted favorably.