More upper middle class Americans are renting rather than owning

Homeownership is down in recent years in the United States (with a recent uptick) and this has affected even among relatively high-income earners:

Families such as the Bauerles who want to live in solid middle-class neighborhoods with good schools and reasonable commutes are increasingly renting single-family homes. Taking advantage of this trend, the private-equity firm Blackstone Group Inc., with other investors, launched a business that is now the nation’s largest renter of single-family houses.

The number of households that have inflation-adjusted annual incomes of $100,000 or greater but are renters nearly doubled from 2006 to 2016, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University.

Domonic Purviance, a senior financial specialist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, said people earning the median income can no longer afford the median-priced new home, costing $323,000 last year, and barely have the means to buy the median existing home, which now about $278,000.

The overall focus of the article in on the major sources of debt facing middle-class families today: housing, student loans, and cars. Out of this trio, the suggestion is that mortgage debt may come last out of these three. Many believe they need a college education (at least) for decent jobs and to maximize their earnings. A car loan is often a top priority as driving is necessary in many locations. Even if the majority of Americans desire to own a home, they can put that off until later.

Hence, renting is on the rise. This raises two big questions in my mind:

1. It could be interesting to see in the next few decades how upper middle class residents react to not having as easy access to homeownership. Will it turn them off to owning? Will they feel resentment and, if so, who do they think is to blame? Will this change spread to other groups since the upper middle class is one hat others would aspire to?

2. For the middle class and above, renting is often viewed negatively, particularly in wealthier communities. The perception is that renters are less invested in their community and property. If more people of means rent single-family homes instead of own them, could perceptions change?

Consequences of an auto loan bubble

With more financing options available for purchasing cars, American driving is up:

By increasing access to cars, lax financing standards also appear to be contributing to a national rise in driving, and with it, declining public transit ridership. In the latest edition of its biennial survey of who’s riding buses and trains in U.S. cities, Transit Center, a public transportation research and advocacy group out of New York, notes that the share of households without vehicles fell 30 percent between 2000 and 2015, with foreign-born residents, who are more likely to earn lower incomes and ride transit, posting even sharper declines.

In the survey, respondents who reported decreasing their bus and train use overwhelmingly replaced transit with private cars. And almost half of respondents who said they’d purchased a car over the past two years received a loan to finance it. Of those, 56 percent said that getting a loan “was easier than they had expected.”

Of course, improved car access among lower-income groups might look to be a positive trend on its face, since a personal vehicle can equate opportunity. So strong is the historic link between car ownership and household income that a trio of transportation equity scholars recently called for subsidizing access to wheels for poor Americans. But fewer rides made by public transportation and more by private automobile is a trend with consequences that transcend the U.S. economy: It feeds the planet’s existential problem of rising carbon emissions, especially since SUV and truck sales have become particularly popular during this auto-loan boom. “The rise in auto debt is evidence that we’re dependent on cars in an unsustainable way,” said Cross.

The new high-water line of defaulted auto loans also suggests that personal vehicles aren’t always golden tickets. Instead, for Americans living paycheck to paycheck, they’re a catch-22: If you don’t have the money and can’t buy a car, you’ll struggle to make ends meet. And if you don’t have the money, but still buy a car, you’re liable to fall even further behind. Vehicles may be the table stakes for playing in the U.S. economy, but in so many ways, it’s getting harder to win.

As noted by many, just as homeownership came within the reach of more people in the 2000s due to creative lending options and subprime options, the same is true of the auto industry. Does this mean that a burst bubble in car loans – due to many people being behind on their vehicle payments – would cause Americans to rethink driving and the reliance on personal vehicles?

I would guess no. At this point in American history, the country is too far in on its dependence on driving. It is not just about driving to work; driving offers opportunities to access cheaper housing, independence for drivers compared to utilizing mass transit which works on consistent schedules and requires being around other people, and a host of consumer and recreational opportunities primarily accessible through driving (think big box stores, shopping malls, fast food places, road trips, etc.). This list does not even account for the auto industry and the construction industry which have huge stakes in more driving.

At the same time, while Americans have resisted public housing, would they be more amenable toward government help in obtaining or paying for cars? Few communities or government agencies have provided cars or money towards cars but it may be necessary in a society heavily dependent on getting around via a car.

 

#1 payment priority for Americans: car loan

In a country dependent on and built around driving, perhaps the importance of making car payments is not a surprise:

“Your car loan is your number one priority in terms of payment, “said Michael Taiano, a senior director at Fitch Ratings. “If you don’t have a car, you can’t get back and forth to work in a lot of areas of the country. A car is usually a higher priority payment than a home mortgage or rent.”

People who are three months or more behind on their car payments often lose their vehicle, making it even more difficult to get to work, the doctor or other critical places…

After the financial crisis, there were a lot of restrictions placed on mortgages to make it harder to take out a home loan unless someone could clearly afford to make the monthly payments. But experts warn that there are far fewer restrictions on auto loans, meaning a consumer has to be more savvy about what they are doing when they take out a loan.

This article made me think a little: does this mean that cars come before homes in the United States? This would counter my own claim that suburbs are more about single-family homes then they are about cars – see my rough rankings of Why Americans Love About Suburbs.

Yet, the suburbs existed before cars. By the early 1900s, suburbs existed and utilized transportation technologies like railroads and streetcars. Mass suburbanization certainly occurred on a different scale with the availability of cars in the 1920s and then after World War II. But, the United States would have had some form of suburbs and their emphasis on single-family homes without cars even if that was on a smaller scale.

The whole relationships between cars and homes was cemented in the postwar era when increasing sprawl really did limit other transportation options for many people. And the shift of jobs to the suburbs made this problem even worse. Perhaps we could shift the what-if scenario to the future: could the suburbs go on without cars (hard to imagine) or cars on without suburbs (probably)?

Asking for advice: my parents keep renovating their McMansion, my sister and I have debts

Would those who spend money renovating their McMansions be better served by helping their adult children with that money? From the one seeking advice:

My parents (mom and stepdad) are in their 70s, retired, healthy, and doing well financially. They spend their money on traveling the globe and constantly remodeling their new Florida McMansion. That’s fine. They can spend their money on whatever makes them happy…

My sister had joint-replacement surgery and has high medical bills. I am going through a legal fight with a previous employer, am unemployed for the first time in my life (I’ve had a job since I was 14), and legal bills are eating my 401(k). Our parents know the details. We’re not asking for any help.

But I don’t want to get on the phone with my mom and have to hear all the issues of remodeling rooms that looked perfectly fine when I visited a year ago. Plus they don’t even ask how things are going with their children and grandchildren. It’s all talk about superficial things and how awesome they are doing.

Advice columnist responds:

But let’s back up for a second. You’ve presented this as a two-item menu: either endure your mom’s affluenza, or stop calling your parents.

There’s a middle choice, though: truth. “Mom, [sister] and I are buried in legal and medical bills. I can’t sympathize over expensive renovations.”

It does not sound as though the McMansion is the actual problem. Yes, the letter writer is upset because the mom both spends money on their McMansion (which, in the letter writer’s opinion, does not need more work) and then spends a lot of time talking about it. But, it seems as though the McMansion could be replaced by a number of objects or hobbies associated with people with resources. It could be golf, fixing up old cars, buying collectible items, playing bridge, or any number of things that, according to the letter-writer, keep the mom from paying sufficient attention to her kids.

At the same time, the McMansion is a potent symbol here. Since it is such a pejorative and loaded term, it leads readers toward a particular kind of person: one with poor taste in architecture, lots of money, and an interest in flaunting their status through their home. Additionally, who would prioritize their expensive home over the real needs of their children? These are not just parents who happen to live in a McMansion; these are unlikable McMansion owners.

Are McMansion owners on the whole more generous with their family? Do they have money to spare and give it away? Others have argued McMansions are bad for children; it is not clear from this letter whether the advice seeker grew up in this home. Could a whole generation of Americans reveal hurts produced by or in McMansions? Even with the attention they receive, widespread tales of childhood McMansion woes are unlikely given the actual number of McMansions in the United States.

Older Americans with growing amounts of mortgage debt

One impediment to retirement for many Americans will be what they owe on their home:

The proportion of homeowners over 55 with housing debt has climbed, the Boston College group recently reported. Dr. Sanzenbacher provided the numbers: 50 percent still had mortgages, home equity loans or lines of credit in 2013, compared with 38 percent in 1998.

An Urban Institute study published this month, based on data from the national Health and Retirement Study, found a similar pattern among homeowners over 65. The proportion with housing debt rose to 35 percent in 2012 from 23.9 percent in 1998.

Moreover, the median amount they owed nearly doubled, to $82,000 from $44,000…

Her work has shown that older people with mortgage debt tend to stay in the labor force longer, and to delay receiving Social Security benefits.

In other words, the consequences of the burst housing bubble are still working their way out. If older Americans owe more money on their homes, they are likely to work longer and stay in their homes longer, making it more difficult for younger Americans to move into the work force and purchase a starter home. And if both older and younger Americans are still struggling in the housing market, who is actually coming out ahead? The truly wealthy who aren’t as hampered by mortgages.

Indiana again takes aim at Illinois businesses

The Illinoyed campaign ended but Indiana has a new strategy to lure Illinois businesses. From the featured story on the A State That Works website:

The state of Illinois has been drowning in debt for years due to mismanagement, and their only solution is to keep raising taxes. Sound familiar? Illinois taxpayers have been picking up the tab for longer than anyone cares to remember, but it wasn’t always that way.

Ten years ago Indiana and Illinois had the same AA credit rating, but the unfunded pension debt crisis in Illinois has steadily deteriorated over the years, to the point that their current credit rating of A- is the worst in the nation.

Illinois is borrowing a staggering amount of money to pay for state services and they’re seen as a bad risk to keep making those payments, according to the rating agencies. In fact, the interest alone on Illinois’ unfunded liabilities is about $1.5 billion per year…

Indiana is deliberately making smart financial decisions and defining what a state can do to pass the savings of efficient government on to their taxpayers by eliminating debt, keeping taxes low and continually balancing their budget.  It’s a refreshing change from a state like Illinois that has taxpayers picking up the tab for a public debt-management crisis, and it’s what makes Indiana a state that works.

Such efforts have been going on for quite a while yet I haven’t seen evidence that shows a campaign like this works. I’ve long suspected this is more about scoring easy political points than anything else; “look at the good things happening in Indiana while Illinois languishes.” Yet, somehow the Chicago region with its 9+ million people hangs on and the city is continually ranked as one of the top 10 global cities in the world.

One side note: part of northwest Indiana is in the Chicago metropolitan region. According to this campaign, some might get the best of both worlds: the residents and businesses get the lower taxes, less political gridlock, and less debt yet get to take advantage of the jobs and other opportunities the Chicago area offers. In the long run, a significant decline in Illinois or Chicago’s fortunes probably would have some residual negative effects not just on northwest Indiana but also the entire state.

Comparing Greece’s debt problem with the McMansions of the 2007-2008 subprime crisis

One writer links the issues with McMansions in the last decade with the debt issue in Greece:

Sometimes the best way to summarize a complex situation is with an analogy. The Greek debt crisis, for example, is very much like the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007-08.

As you might recall, service workers earning $25,000 annually got $500,000 mortgages to buy McMansions in subprime’s go-go days. The applicant fudged a bit here and there on income and creditworthiness, and lenders reaping huge profits from originating and selling mortgages were delighted to ignore prudent underwriting standards and stamp “low-risk” on the mortgage because it was quickly sold to credulous investors…

The loan was fundamentally imprudent and risky because the borrower was not qualified for a loan of such magnitude. But since the risk was distributed to others, the banks ignored the 100% probability of eventual default and skimmed the profits upfront.

Greece was the subprime borrower, and its membership in the euro gave the banks permission to enter the credit rating of Germany on Greece’s loan application. Though anyone with the slightest knowledge of Greece’s economy knew it did not qualify for loans of such magnitude, lenders were happy to offer the loans at interest rates close to those of Greece’s northern neighbors, and then sell them as low-risk sovereign debt investments.

In effect, the banks were free-riding the magical-thinking belief that membership in the euro transformed risky borrowers into creditworthy borrowers.

Two quick thoughts:

1. Most analogies made about McMansions are not likely to reflect well on such homes. Here, McMansions are part of huge financial problems. Later in the piece we have more negative ideas about McMansions:

Meanwhile, the poorly constructed McMansion is falling apart…So the hapless subprime borrower with the crumbling McMansion and Greece both have the same choice: decades of zombie servitude to pay for the crumbling structure, or default and move on with their lives.

Not exactly attractive options. Yet, the assumption here is that all or most McMansions fall apart within ten years or so. Is this truly the case with McMansions – do they have more repair issues than other homes? Perhaps Consumer Reports could sort this out for us since they like collecting such data.

2. I don’t recall seeing strong evidence that the subprime crisis was primarily driven by people purchasing McMansions. Rather, mortgages were granted that were too risky. But, how many of these loans were actually made for McMansions as opposed to other kinds of housing? The whole housing market was doing crazy things, not just in the McMansion sector.