What I want to know: do TV shows push viewers to buy certain kinds of houses?

After publishing two papers in the last few years on TV depictions of suburbs and their houses (see here and here), it leaves me with one big question: do shows like these directly influence what homes people purchase?

Americans watch a lot of television – still an average of about four hours a day for adults – and they see a lot of dwellings. While there is a mix of housing units shown, scholars point out that television since the 1950s does place a lot of emphasis on single-family homes. This includes fictional shows set in single-family homes in the suburbs (think Bewitched or Desperate Housewives), rural areas (think Lassie), and cities (think Happy Days and King of Queens). More recently, viewers can see homes on HGTV and other networks that emphasize home life (plus the shows on other networks that specifically target homeowners, from This Old House to Trading Spaces). This makes some sense in a country that holds up owning a single-family home, particularly in the suburbs, as an ideal.

But, we know little how about all of this watching about homes translates into choosing homes. My study “From I Love Lucy to Desperate Housewives” did not find much evidence that more popular suburban television shows led to more people living in suburbs (or vice versa). Similarly, outside of some interest from Sopranos’ fans in having a home like Tony, there is little to no evidence that Americans flocked to imitate the home or neighborhood of the Sopranos. While the viewers of HGTV might be relatively wealthy, do they take what they see and directly purchase something like that?

It is relatively easy to make claims about how media products affect thoughts and behavior. However, it is harder to make direct, causal connections. I would guess advertisers around such shows hope such a connection is present. If we could examine this relationship between shows and homes more closely in research studies, it could help us better understand how Americans form, maintain, and change their approaches to homes and communities.

When the landlord for a single-family home is an institutional investor…

Alana Semuels explores what happens when you rent a house from an institutional investor:

I talked with tenants from 24 households who lived or still live in homes owned by single-family rental companies. I also reviewed 21 lawsuits against three such companies in Gwinnett County, a suburb of Atlanta devastated by the housing crash. The tenants claim that, far from bringing efficiency and ease to the rental market, their corporate landlords are focusing on short-term profits in order to please shareholders, at the expense of tenant happiness and even safety. Many of the families I spoke with feel stuck in homes they don’t own, while pleading with faraway companies to complete much-needed repairs—and wondering how they once again ended up on the losing end of a Wall Street real estate gamble…

As the industry started to grow, the major players all described their desire to standardize and improve the business of being a landlord. But even to the companies’ employees, the effort to become more efficient started to look more like craven attempts to squeeze tenants. “It shouldn’t be just about making money, but that’s what it turned into,” Shanell Hanson, who was a property administrator for Colony American Homes in an Atlanta suburb from 2014 to 2016, told me. Hanson said the company had six maintenance workers for 2,100 homes in the area she managed. Residents would frequently call with substantial problems: Sewage was overflowing, or the house was full of mold. But with such a small staff, Hanson could rarely deal with the problems quickly. And the law was on the corporations’ side: If tenants want to seek financial remedy for a landlord not keeping the property in adequate condition, under Georgia law, they have to take the landlord to court, a costly and lengthy process. “It’s almost impossible to do without an attorney,” Lindsey Siegel, an attorney at Atlanta Legal Aid who works on housing issues, told me…

Many other single-family landlord companies were cutting corners on maintenance and repairs. “As the corporation got bigger, it just got worse, in terms of what we had to work with and how we had to deal with problems,” a former Los Angeles leasing agent who worked for Waypoint between 2015 and 2017 told me. (She spoke on the condition of anonymity because she still works in real estate.) Regional teams received bonuses for keeping costs low, she said, which incentivized them to skimp on spending. Instead of responding to tenants personally, supervisors would send calls for maintenance to out-of-town call centers—which would in turn assign maintenance workers dozens of repairs in a day, not realizing that Los Angeles traffic could mean that relatively short distances could take hours to traverse…

Tenants also say that rather than taking advantage of economies of scale, the rental companies are taking advantage of their clients, pumping them for fines and fees at every turn. This impression is backed up by the financial reports of the companies themselves. American Homes 4 Rent increased the amount of money it collected from “tenant charge-backs” (essentially billing tenants for repairs after they move out) by more than 1000 percent between 2014 and 2018, according to company earnings reports, though it only grew the number of homes it owned by 70 percent over that period. In some states, Invitation Homes keeps the utilities in its name, and charges tenants a monthly $10.99 “utility service fee,” which is in addition to the cost of water, gas, and electricity. The company increased its “other property income”—the amount it collected from resident reimbursement for utilities, service charges, and other fees—by 114 percent between the first nine months of 2017 and the first nine months of 2018, despite only growing the number of homes it owned by 71 percent. On an earnings call in 2017, Invitation Homes’ then-CEO John Bartling said that “automated charges to residents” drove profits in the quarter, leading to a 22 percent increase in “other income.”

I wonder how much of these issues are due to overwhelming emphasis in the United States on homeownership rather than renting. Do large companies think they can do this to renters because the long-term goal is to sell the property for a large sum to a homeowner (or another investor)? Similarly, do renters put up with this for a longer period of time because they expect to leave the rental market? Or, perhaps in markets where renting is more common and more rental units are available, renters would leave these situations sooner and institutional investors would have to do more to keep renters?

I would also be interested in more information on the profitability of such companies. How lucrative is it to purchase thousands of homes? While Americans historically are opposed to government involvement in housing (unless it is subsidizing suburban single-family homes), stories like these seem like they could be used to justify more government intervention in regulating housing. But, what if regulations cut into profits? The housing industry is a large and profitable one.

Another angle to take here would be to examine how these institutional investors do or do not contribute to local communities. One justification of homeownership in the United States was that it gave owners a stake in their local community and government. Yet, much capital in the world today is global and real estate decisions made thousands of miles away could heavily influence smaller communities that look like – they are full of single-family homes – they are constructed to emphasize local control.

If “Ninety percent or so of renters still want to become homeowners,” what could this lead to?

Financial pressures might have pushed more Americans toward renting and lower rates of homeownership but that does not mean attitudes have shifted away from homeownership. From an overview of housing ten years after the burst housing bubble:

“There’s a remarkably high preference for homeownership that shows up in every survey of renters,” says Chris Herbert, managing director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. “Ninety percent or so of renters still want to become homeowners. Certainly, young people are moving into homeownership more slowly, but that’s because of a host of reasons such as marrying and having children later, a reduced ability to save since the recession and that it’s harder to get a loan. It’s not because of a fundamental change in attitude.”

Let’s assume this desire for owning a home continues for at least a few years – and this is a consistent desire across multiple decades already. What might this lead to? Two different paths:

  1. The economy improves to the point where those who want to buy a home are able to. This may be difficult to imagine given the availability of high-paying jobs plus the return of housing prices to 2000s levels. Yet, homeownership has been higher in the past and might be again in the future as this is what Americans want. Historically, the federal government has helped Americans reach this goal.
  2. A changing economy plus high housing prices mean relatively few of those who want to own a home will be able to. Younger adults become frustrated by their inability to purchase a home, particularly compared to previous generations. They take out that frustration in various ways, perhaps including higher levels of stress or taking it to the polls (though I argue it will be difficult to have a national conversation about housing and proposals to address housing are often unpopular).

The homeownership rate will be very interesting to watch in the next ten to twenty years. While Americans promoted homeownership for over a century now, there is no guarantee it has to continue into the future if conditions make it very difficult for average residents to buy a house.

Quick Review: No Place Like Home: Wealth, Community & the Politics of Homeownership

Even though I was inexplicably slow in reading sociologist Brian McCabe’s No Place Like Home: Wealth, Community & the Politics of Homeownership, I am glad I finally had the chance. My thoughts on the book:

  1. Few sociologists have explained the development and ongoing importance of homeownership in American life. McCabe does this well in a succinct book. The important topics are all covered – the development of the idea of homeownership, government polices promoting homeownership, the shift from homes as dwellings and anchors of communities to investments, possible changes to the future of homeownership – and a new argument is advanced. I could see handing this book to undergraduates and feeling good knowing that they will see good sociological work in an accessible book.
  2. The best contribution of this book, in my opinion, is the analysis of survey data regarding how homeowners and renters contribute to communities. Americans have argued for decades that homeownership leads to more civically involved citizens. McCabe shows this is not as clear-cut as often presented. The homeowners can even exercise their civic involvement in such ways that limit the participation of others (usually those with fewer resources). More civic involvement does not necessarily lead to the greater good.
  3. Another worthwhile idea in this book is the concept of tenure segregation. While residential segregation is well-studied by sociologists, the difference in locations between owners and renters merits further study. I suspect the differences between wealthier homeowners and less wealthy renters is stark but the interesting stuff may come between owners and renters with more comparable incomes or who are living in relatively integrated places. For example, I recently looked at a Zillow map of west Los Angeles and was intrigued by all of the units for rent for expensive prices. How different are neighborhoods with renters and owners at similar income levels compared to places where renters and owners are more different?
  4. The brevity of the book also comes at a cost. Other texts cover similar topics at much more depth but also require more time and patience. (The first book that came to mind involving homeownership and the development of the single-family home: John Archer’s Architecture and Suburbia). Also, the current cases used to illustrate the arguments of this book are brief. They may arise for a few paragraphs but have relatively little depth. (This blog has also featured the opposition to affordable housing in Winnetka.) Using more case studies, whether tracking a single case in more depth throughout the chapters or utilizing a metropolitan region where different communities illustrate various concepts in the book, would help flesh out how these issues work on the ground. Of course, such depth would require more research time and more pages.

On the whole, this sociology book is a concise and engaging introduction to the issues surrounding homeownership in the United States. As Americans think about the future of housing (even if it does not become a national political issue), this book offers much to ponder.

In 1980, 55% of 25-35-year-olds owned homes

This report about the struggle millennials face in purchasing homes include numbers about how many young adults owned homes in the past:

Last year 32.3 percent of young people were homeowners, a slight increase from 2016 when it was 32.2 percent.

That’s still well below the 45 percent in 2005 and the peak of 55 percent in 1980.

While the report goes on to offer reasons why millennials have a hard time purchasing homes (short answer provided: student loans), the trend downward from 1980 is notable.

Or, perhaps we should think about it another way: perhaps 1980 was more unusual. This followed several decades of post-World War II prosperity and was before housing values rose significantly in many places. There was plenty of inequality but homeownership was within the reach of just over half of people just starting adult lives. Will we ever reach those levels again?

American homeowners with $5.8 billion of tappable equity

A new statistic hints at the shift of homeownership from having a piece of private property to the home as an investment: Americans have nearly $6 billion in home equity.

Homeowners now have a collective $5.8 trillion in tappable equity, the highest volume ever recorded and 16 percent above the last home price peak in 2006. The average homeowner with a mortgage gained $14,700 in tappable equity over the past year and has $113,900 available to draw. This is the amount over and above 20 percent of the value of the average home…

More borrowers are doing cash-out refinances, even at a higher interest rate, because they are leery of the variable rates on HELOCs. But overall, just 1.17 percent of available equity was tapped in the first quarter of this year, the lowest amount in four years. Why? They may not know just how rich they are.

What good is an investment if the owner is not cashing in on it? Seriously though, suggesting that Americans are sitting on a pot of gold – their own homes – is an odd proposition. Should they all sell at once? Already, some have wondered what happens when large numbers of Baby Boomers want to be out of their homes. All get home equity lines or credit or cash out refinances? This could drum up more business for lenders but may not necessarily be good for the homeowners. Or, the as the article hints at, what if housing values drop after large numbers of people tap into their equity? We have seen what can happen there by looking back at the late 2000s with many foreclosures and underwater homes.

All together, all that equity may actually be fairly hard for everyone to benefit from.

A smaller housing bubble: prices up, easier credit but homeownership down, fewer involved

Discussion of a looming housing bubble hints at similar factors to the problems of the 2000s:

The number of FHA-insured borrowers who are behind on mortgage payments has jumped, Wade wrote in her testimony. The use of down payment assistance is up. The frequency of FHA borrowers who are spending more than 50 percent of their income on debt payments has increased, too. And the number of borrowers refinancing their homes to take cash out for other uses has swelled…

After years of tight credit in the aftermath of the Great Recession, both conventional mortgage lenders and the FHA have been easing credit standards — allowing for low down payments, for example, or higher levels of borrower debt — to lure first-time and low- to moderate-income buyers back to the housing market, industry observers say. By making it easier for these groups to obtain mortgages, the observers argue, it is only natural to see a modest uptick in missed payments — especially by FHA borrowers — after almost seven years of steadily dropping delinquency rates.

Not all market observers are convinced that these changes are OK. As federally sponsored mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, as well as the FHA, have introduced these easier credit requirements to promote more homeownership, some critics worry that the mortgage industry could be headed toward dangerous  territory if it continues to become easier to get a mortgage — especially amid what Edward Pinto, a fellow at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, currently calls the “Housing Boom 2.0.” By allowing borrowers to take on more debt or put less money down on a house in today’s super-charged real estate market, observers such as Pinto argue, lenders could be setting themselves up for higher rates of borrower default in the event of a recession — something that Pinto believes is not too far off…

To be sure, observers such as Nothaft add, the current easing of today’s requirements is nowhere near where it was a decade ago. Leading up to the recession, lenders were allowing borrowers to provide no documentation of their finances and granting loans with no money down.

Given the fallout and long recovery time after the burst housing bubble of the late 2000s, few policymakers or lenders would want a repeat. Yet, there are some significant differences in the housing market right now:

  1. Prices may be up and demand may be high but fewer people are participating in buying and selling homes.
  2. Home construction is not at the same level as it was through the 1990s and early 2000s.
  3. Lenders are not quite providing mortgages with the same terms they had in the 2000s (as noted above).
  4. Homeownership in the United States is at relatively low levels: 64.2% in the first quarter of 2018 after even lower figures in previous years.

All together, this suggests that the scale of a new housing bubble would be smaller than the last one. Perhaps significantly smaller. Fewer buyers, sellers, and lenders got caught up in the rising housing values (and low interest rates) of recent years.

This does not mean that there would not be pain if housing prices and lending collapsed a bit. But, the consequences would simply exacerbate some of the issues various interested parties have discussed:

  1. If prices decrease, even fewer people might be willing to sell their homes. This drives supply even lower.
  2. How much lower could interest rates really go? How much profit could lenders generate?
  3. This could decrease motivation for builders and developers, particularly at the lower ends of the market where there is already significant demand.

The conditions and consequences of a housing bubble today or the next year or two could be very different than the economic crisis we now think we have some handle on from the late 2000s.