17% of millennial homebuyers regret the purchase (but perhaps 83% do not??)

A recent headline: “17% of young homebuyers regret their purchase, Zillow survey shows.” And two opening paragraphs:

Seventeen percent of millennial and Generation Z homebuyers from ages 18-34  regret purchasing a home instead of renting, according to a Zillow survey.

Speculating as to why, Josh Lehr, industry development at Zillow-owned Mortech, said getting the wrong mortgage may have driven that disappointment. For example, the Zillow survey showed 22% of young buyers had regrets about their type of mortgage and 27-30% said their rates and payments are too high.

The rest of the short article then goes on to talk about the difficulties millennials might face in going through the mortgage process. Indeed, it seems consumer generally dislike obtaining a mortgage.

But, the headline is an odd one. Why focus on the 17% that have some regret about their purchase? Is that number high or low compared to regret after other major purchases (such as taking on a car loan)?

If the number is accurate, why not discuss the 83% of millennials who did not regret their purchase? Are there different reasons for choosing which number to highlight (even when both numbers are true)?

And is the number what the headline makes it out to be? The paragraph cited above suggests the question from Zillow might be less about regret in purchasing a home versus regret about owning rather than renting. Then, perhaps this is less about the specific home or mortgage and more about having the flexibility of renting or other amenities renting provides.

In sum, this headline could be better. Interpreting the original Zillow data could be better. Just another reminder that statistics do not interpret themselves…

News story suggests 40% is “Almost Half”

A Bloomberg story looks at the rise in birth in the United States outside of marriage and has this headline:

Almost Half of U.S. Births Happen Outside Marriage, Signaling Cultural Shift

And then the story quickly gets to the data:

Forty percent of all births in the U.S. now occur outside of wedlock, up from 10 percent in 1970, according to an annual report released on Wednesday by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the largest international provider of sexual and reproductive health services. That number is even higher in the European Union.

Almost Half of U.S. Births Happen Outside Marriage, Signaling Cultural Shift

There is no doubt that this is significant trend over nearly 50 years. One expert sums this up toward the end of the story:

The traditional progression of Western life “has been reversed,” said John Santelli, a professor in population, family health and pediatrics at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. “Cohabiting partners are having children before getting married. That’s a long-term trend across developing nations.”

Yet, the headline oversells the change. A move from 10% of births to 40% of births is large. But, is 40% nearly 50%? When I hear almost half, I would expect a number between 45% and 49.99%. Claiming 40% is nearly half is going a little too far.

I think the reading public would better served by either using the 40% figure or saying “Two-Fifths.” Or, perhaps the headline might speak to the 30% jump in nearly 50 years.

In the grand scheme of things, this is a minor issue. The rest of the story does a nice job presenting the data and discussing what is behind the change. But, this is a headline dominated age – you have to catch those eyes scrolling quickly on their phones – and this headline goes a bit too far.

Would living in a McMansion make a rogue Botox injector even worse?

A New Jersey woman was asked to stop injecting people with Botox

The board received information that Koval “offered to engage in or engaged in” injecting people with Botox in her home. Koval admitted that she had administered Botox to individuals in New Jersey, according to the order dated April 3.

…and the article includes two pieces of information about her home. I’ll first cite the final paragraph of the story…

Property records show Koval and her husband paid nearly $2 million for their Franklin Lakes home in 2005.

…and here is the headline for the story:

Stop injecting people with Botox in your McMansion, state tells woman

I think most people would find it disturbing for someone to be performing medical procedures out of their home without a license. But, is the reader’s opinion of this woman even worse when her home is labeled a McMansion? It isn’t just an expensive suburban home – it is a McMansion, a term that is almost never used to refer to something good.

Perhaps this could lead to a new McMansion horror storyline

A better interpretation of crime statistics for Chicago suburbs

The Daily Herald looks at recent crime figures in Chicago area suburbs. How should we interpret such numbers?

Violent crimes increased last year in half of 80 suburbs, says a new report by the FBI we’ve been analyzing.

Property crimes increased in more than 40 percent of the suburbs.

The Uniform Crime Reporting Program’s 2015 report shows Rosemont had a 94 percent increase in violent crimes, from 18 in 2014 to 35 in 2015. Most are assaults, but the category also includes rape, homicide and robbery. The village had a 29 percent increase in property crimes, which include arson, burglary and vehicle theft.

Other more populous suburbs had larger numbers of violent crimes in 2015, including 650 in Aurora, 261 in Elgin and 128 in Naperville.

Violent crimes remained largely flat in Palatine, with 36; Des Plaines, with 50; and Arlington Heights, with 42; while some communities saw crimes decrease across the board. Buffalo Grove saw an 80 percent decrease in violent crimes, to 2, and an 18 percent decrease in property crimes, to 234, while Prospect Heights saw a 33 percent decrease in violent crimes, to 14, and a 29 percent decrease in property crimes, to 112.

What I would take away:

  1. Looking across communities, there was not much change as half of the suburbs did not experience a rise in violent crimes and property crimes increased in less than half of the suburbs.
  2. It is interesting to note larger jumps in crime in certain communities. However, these should be interpreted in light of #1 and it would be more helpful to look at crime rates in these larger suburbs rather than just relying on occurrences.
  3. The last paragraph notes some major changes in other suburbs. But, some of these suburbs are smaller and a large decrease (80% in Buffalo Groves means a drop from 10 to 2) or increase could be more a function of not many crimes overall rather than indicate a larger trend.
  4. There is little indication of crime figures or rates over time which would help put the 2015 figure in better perspective.

All together, the headline “40 suburbs see spike in violent crimes in 2015” is not the most accurate. It may catch the attention of readers but neither the headline or article sufficiently discuss the statistics.

Internet headlines and stories present a disconnected world; a pitch for sociology

Whether you read headlines on the Google News page or the Drudge Report or the front page of Yahoo, Internet headlines and stories tend to provide very small slices of reality. Want to see the actions of a happy cat? How about the strange actions from someone with mental illness? What one C-list celebrity did last night? The inane “gaffe” from the campaign trail earlier today? Put all of these headlines together, some serious and many not, and what do you get? It is difficult to get a broad, cohesive view of the world from Internet stories. They can provide more information than people in the past ever had and let us know how many different people around the world live. Even good stories on websites devoted to more in-depth news present numerous topics. Yet, because of their fleeting, diversionary, and never-ending nature, they don’t add up to much. As a reader, how am I to put all the pieces together?

It is debatable how much better other forms of media do in delivering broader context and the bigger picture. Media forms composed of images – TV, films – have moved toward incredibly quick editing so that scenes rarely last more than a few seconds. Written forms – newspapers, magazines – have a reputation for deeper storytelling. Yet, this all assumes that a good number of citizens take the time to read such materials and understand them.

Perhaps this is where we don’t just need media or digital literacy; we need ways to put all the information together and keep the big picture in mind. What is underlying all these stories? What are the patterns in society? Why do these stories get attention and others do not? Sociology can help: you need to know the broader context, the powerful institutions at work in society, how information is created and sold, and the large-scale social trends. One story of an amazing animal tells us nothing; having tens of thousands of such tales might. Reading multiple stories about the Panama Papers might be interesting but we need to know how this intersects with all sorts of social systems (such as governments and corporations) and processes (such as social class and globalization).

It is too easy to get caught up in the quick accumulation of news and information without stepping back and trying to comprehend it all. We are good now at dispensing information but having difficulty digesting. We need frameworks in which to put the new headlines and stories. We need time to consider how this new information might affect us. All of this takes time and effort on the part of individuals – perhaps it is just easier to let all the information wash over us. But, even if we must do this at times, having a sociological perspective that sees social structures and forces and asks for empirical evidence could help us all.

(Disclaimer: I occasionally think about how to pitch sociology to undergraduates and this is one such attempt.)

One wish: “Tiny House Trend Booming — McMansions Now Storage Units”

One Oregon newspaper asked readers to submit headlines they would like to see come true in 2016. One involved McMansions:

“Tiny House Trend Booming — McMansions Now Storage Units”

The headline tries to juxtapose two very different sized houses and two unique visions. The first suggests people need less space and such homes can be more sustainable. The second suggests outrageous consumerism and living beyond your means. Yet, this headline/far-fetched prediction may just hint at how these two trends are linked: what would Americans do with all their stuff if a large number wanted to move to tiny houses? Americans may have bigger houses than they need – whether measured by the people in each household (which is declining) or the amount of space and energy they should take up (this would really help lower energy use) – but they do like their stuff. Here is a quote from an HGTV participant:

We have a very American problem. We have too much stuff. And we’re going to do the very American solution. Instead of getting rid of some of our stuff, we’re going to just get a bigger house.

And Americans are already using seven square feet per person of storage space. Perhaps all of those McMansions could simply become storage facilities? Think how much that 20 foot tall great room or that oversized three car garage might hold. Imagine a future where Americans live in 400 square feet or less units most of the time but have a 3,000 square foot storage facility several miles away.

“We must kill the McMansion!”

Henry Grabar argues Americans should focus on getting rid of the embarrassing McMansion:

This surfeit of space is a potent symbol of the American way of life; it speaks to our priorities, our prosperity and our tendency to take more than we need. But the superlative size of our houses isn’t just a foam finger America can hold up to the world. It’s correlated with land use patterns and population density, which in turn determine the environmental impact and personal health of communities, and whether they can support a diverse range of businesses, facilities and transportation choices. It’s no coincidence that a modern American suburb like Weston, Florida, has just one-third the population density of Levittown…

But American homes dwarf those in nearly every other country on Earth. Our new houses are twice the size of those in Germany, and you could fit three new U.K. houses inside one of ours. (For what it’s worth, the houses in the U.K. are rather cramped.) Even in spacious Canada, our neighbors are building homes three-quarters the size of their U.S. equivalents. Only Australia, which has the lowest population density in the world after Mongolia and Namibia, can rival the U.S.A. for big houses.

As it turns out, though, the U.S. housing puzzle is more complex than many critics perceive. For the past few decades, single-family homes have dominated new construction. During most of the early-aughts housing boom, too, more than four of five new units were single-family homes. But that huge discrepancy has been vanquished by a surge in apartment construction. These days, the rate of new starts in multi-family buildings has been hovering, nationwide, near 40 percent — a level not seen in decades…

That raises a number of questions. Are these new residents trading the space of suburbia for the vibrancy of a city? Are they downsizing their living quarters to spend money on other things? Or can they simply not afford to rent a bigger apartment or purchase a house?

Provocative headlines involving McMansions are popular these days – “Kill the McMansions” is a pretty strong statement. Yet, the article doesn’t talk as much about the negative impacts of McMansions. The gist of the article goes more this direction: even as new American homes have grown larger in recent years, apartment construction is up, and it is unclear what direction housing will trend in the coming years. Answering this open question could go a long way in determining not just what the American landscape looks like in coming decades but, more importantly, what underlies American social life.