Understanding homeownership in the United States through comparative data

Homeownership, like owning a car, is often viewed as a key feature of American life. Here is some comparative data on homeownership across countries:


Several thoughts:

  1. The United States is nowhere near the top of this list. It is #42.
  2. There are a number of less wealthy countries that have significant higher rates of homeownership than the United States.
  3. And this is even with a federal government that subsidizes homeownership and a strong cultural ideology (examples here and here) promoting homeownership in the United States.
  4. This is a reminder that fewer than two-thirds of Americans own their dwelling. Even if it may be a goal of many Americans, not everyone has the resources or opportunities to reach that goal. And the differences in access to homeownership across groups can be stark.
  5. Comparing rates of homeownership may not tell the whole story of what kinds of homes are owned or the size of these homes. Famously, the United States has the largest new homes in the world. So perhaps Americans do not just want to own a home; they want a certain kind of home – a sizable single-family home in the suburbs –  that meets their standards.

Patterns across the ten metro areas with the most big homes

While the article I discussed yesterday did not provide a helpful definition of a McMansion, it did provide five trends regarding which metropolitan areas had the largest homes:

Supersize trend No. 1: Outdoorsy types need plenty of space

Supersize trend No. 2: Seeking space in the suburbs

Supersize trend No. 3: Southern cities are churning out jobs and big homes

Supersize trend No. 4: Big homes are all that’s left in tight Midwestern markets

Supersize trend No. 5: Tech hubs + deep pocked buyers = more McMansions available

And, like the McMansion definition, another important caveat:

And if it wasn’t for the fact that we limited our ranking to one housing market per state, Colorado and Utah would’ve had all five top metros.

And a third caveat: this is based on only homes that are on the market.

Even with these significant limitations, I wonder if an analysis could reveal some underlying patterns behind these noteworthy metropolitan areas:

  1. They have a growing population and thus a growing stock of larger, new homes, particularly in suburbs.
  2. They have relatively low housing prices paired with enough higher income jobs. (Seattle and Portland are the ones that stick out here but perhaps this is relative: those same buyers could find higher prices in the Bay Area, LA, Vancouver, etc.)
  3. These places have looser zoning restrictions on the whole that allows for more and/or quick construction. (I imagine there is some variation in these top 10 places. Portland and Bridgeport, for example, likely have some tight restrictions compared to an Indianopolis or Provo.)

This could be worth pursuing though the data needs to provide a more complete picture of the housing stock.

“[T]he federal government has backed away from subsidizing homeownership as a pathway to the “American Dream.”

The recent changes to the American tax code signal a shift toward homeownership:

It may be a few years before experts can accurately assess how the new tax reform law will affect each city’s individual housing market, but one thing is clear: For the first time in a century, the federal government has backed away from subsidizing homeownership as a pathway to the “American Dream.”…

“It’s very hard to come up with how this is helpful to housing,” said Jonathan Miller, President and CEO of Miller Samuel Inc., a real estate appraisal and consulting firm “It’s either neutral or negative; there’s no positive, at least that we’re aware of at the moment. All this does is make everything more expensive, at least in high-cost housing markets.”

As a result of the bill, Moody’s Analytics estimates that housing prices will drop about 4 percent nationwide relative to projections in which the law doesn’t exist, and those drops are more pronounced in high-cost housing markets.

A lower sale price is good news, though, right? Not necessarily. Average home prices will drop because of the lowered cap on the MID (from $1 million to $750,000), and a new cap on SALT deductions. These two tax deductions were baked into the price of homes-for-sale, so without them, prices will seem lower. But homeowners and buyers could end up with less mortgage interest to deduct, and a potentially astronomical property tax bill. Previously, there was no cap at all on property tax deductions.

Several things to keep in mind:

  1. The context – the specific address of the residence – matters a lot for this bill. And, local communities and states can respond uniquely to how the changes affect local homeowners.
  2. A lot of urbanists have criticized the subsidies from the federal government for single-family homes and suburbanization. Might these tax code changes help encourage more density in certain locales (and these high-price/high-tax locations are also ones where affordable housing is sorely needed)? Of course, since context matters here, some of those who prefer more sprawl could move to cheaper states where the disappearing SALT deductions matter less. But, isn’t this good for limiting Americans deducting mortgage interest?
  3. Could this help some communities move away from such reliance on property taxes? As one example, some have argued for decades that school funding needs to be more equitable and this is directly tied to property values and taxes: wealthier communities can draw in more tax revenue. (I would argue this is a red herring to as there are bigger issues at work.) Could these federal tax changes encourage more revenue sharing within counties, regions, and states?

Perhaps the best thing to keep in mind is the first sentence of the article quoted above: it could take years to see how this all plays out.

Suburban family downsizes to 1,000 square feet…and then upsizes 412 days later

Downsizing and tiny houses are supposedly all the rage but they may actually be difficult to pull off as one suburban family attests:

I’d like to say that we had thought about what it would be like to live a tiny life before we downsized from our 4,000-square-foot home, but we fell in love with our little cottage in McKinney, Texas, and had grown tired of living large. Somewhere between the quest for more living space, we lost ourselves in exchange for higher utility bills and weekends spent dusting…

By the standards of tiny living — formally anything under 500 square feet — our move was not a tiny one. But when you consider that we are a family of five (plus a dog), you can see why we called our life “tiny.”…

Every day we learned more about each other and grew less tethered by the norms of privacy. But still, we all secretly longed for a sliver of it, for a private moment where tears could run without an audience, for the chance of living an embarrassing moment on your own, and for conversations that are secret, almost hidden, from the buzz of daily life. It was the togetherness that championed our tiny life, but it was the lack of privacy that also had us questioning it….

All of this joy for 400 extra square feet plus the 12 it takes to house the vacuum. Everyone has a room, everyone has personal space, and no one has to look at the vacuum unless they are using it. We could have added more space, but we purposely kept it small to maintain the togetherness of tiny living and the added bonus of smaller utility bills.

The overriding thought in the decision to add a bit more square footage seems to be privacy: 1,000 square feet was simply not enough. That comes out to about 200 square feet per person but the family desired more. It would be interesting to compare this figure – certainly far below what many Americans have in their dwellings – to global figures as well as to how Americans define and prize privacy. The American Dream with its single-family home is in significant part about having space away from others.

Two other factors in this particular story also strike me as unique. First, the family lives in a warmer climate where being outside is easier. If residents need a little more space, especially kids, going outside is an option. (Granted, being outside in Texas summer may not be pleasant but it is certainly preferable to freezing cold.) Second, the family lives in a suburb that regularly is ranked among the best places to live in the United States. The family does not say much about this in the article but the amenities of such a suburb could ameliorate having a smaller house.

Don’t forget that American residents can collectively help decide what houses mean for Americans

Kate Wagner of McMansion Hell ends a commentary piece several months ago by arguing Americans need to redefine the meaning of the home:

We need a cultural re-examination of what a home should do for us. Are we building our homes to cater to the communal needs of a family or to accommodate items or signifiers that will impress others? Will a home inspire its inhabitants to spend time with one another or isolate themselves in myriad rooms? Are we building a home to live in, or are we preoccupied with the idea of selling it even before the first brick is laid? Do we want to remodel or redecorate, or do we feel we have to because we’re constantly flooded with content that makes us feel inadequate if we don’t?

It’s time we as space-inhabiters break this unsustainable, unnecessary, and wasteful cultural cycle of consumption and reclaim our homes as our proverbial rocks, the spaces that make us feel safe and content. Who gave industry-funded media like HGTV or Houzz the right to dictate the proper and best ways to inhabit our spaces, to ridicule or diagnose as wrong those of us who lack the desire or the means to constantly consume in precisely way they want us to? A home isn’t an investment vehicle where cash goes in and more cash comes out, or the “After” segment of a television show. A home is, above all, an intimate, personal place; a haven where our intricate lives as human beings unfold. Grey paint be damned.

This names several actors who are defining what Americans want in homes. This includes:

-Media like HGTV.

-The housing industry.

Both certainly have power and influence. The housing industry through the National Association of Home Builders has a powerful lobbying presence. Just see their actions in the latest debates over the mortgage interest deduction. For decades, various media outlets have pushed the image of single-family homes filled with consumer goods; they needs advertisers after all. HGTV has a limited audience but their viewers may be the same upper-middle class Americans that feel like they are not doing well and are very vocal about this.

But these are not the only actors influencing what Americans think of homes. This list should also include:

-The government.

-American residents.

Histories of how the American suburbs developed in addition to overviews of federal housing policy (see this recent example) suggest that federal government in the last century or so is set up to help people obtain homes in the suburbs.

Often missing in these analyses is the role of American residents themselves. What kinds of homes do they truly want? More Marxist analyses suggest Americans have been duped or led into wanting large homes in a capitalist system. Thus, we should help Americans find homes that truly fit their needs rather than mindlessly giving in to what the housing industry and government want them to have. (Wagner’s paragraphs above sound very similar to Sarah Susanka arguments in The Not-So-Big House.) “Re-claim our homes” could involve fighting back against the capitalist system that insists our homes are true markers of who we are (and distracts us from the real issues at hand). In contrast, historian Jon Teaford suggests these sorts of homes are what Americans do truly want because they highly value freedom and individualism. Others like Joel Kotkin have made similar arguments: Americans keep moving to the suburbs because they like them, not because they are forced into them or are not smart enough to fight the system.

Regardless of where these ideas about homes came from (and it includes a mix of institutions as well as ideologies), American residents still have the ability to reject the typical narratives about single-family homes. They do often have options available to them. What kind of home they chose is a very consequential decision. And, perhaps even better, this does not have to be an individual effort or solely about personal empowerment: Americans could collectively vote for candidates and parties that would have a different image of housing. But, oddly enough, housing rarely comes up in national politics and local politics seems full of zoning and housing disputes but few large-scale efforts to provide alternatives. If Americans want housing options to change, they do not have to just turn off HGTV; at both the federal and local level, they should vote accordingly and/or insist that political candidates talk about these issues.

Ideologies and behaviors regarding housing do not just happen: they develop over time and involve a multitude of actors. To have a new vision of housing in America will likely take decades of sustained effort within multiple structures and institutions. These are not new issues; those opposed to McMansions today are related to those opposed to the mass suburbs of the 1950s and to the social reformers of the early decades of the 1900s who promoted public housing. The efforts can be top-down – changes need to be made at the highest levels – but could be more effective if they start at the bottom – with average voters – who demand change of businesses and governments.

Comparing the suburbs in S1Ep02 of “Father Knows Best” and the Pilot of “Desperate Housewives”

I recently showed two episodes of suburban TV in a class involving the study of the American suburbs. I asked students to look at five dimensions of the two episodes in question – “Lesson in Citizenship” of Father Knows Best and the pilot of Desperate Housewives – and I’ll add some comments below:

Where do most scenes take place? How do we know this is the suburbs?

The majority of scenes in both shows take place in and around single-family homes. Outside of a few short scenes, everything in Father Knows Best takes place inside the Anderson home. Desperate Housewives is a little more varied, particularly with neighbors going back and forth between homes on one short block, but the action is still centered in single-family homes.

How important is family life to the plot?

Very important to both though the family form is quite different. Father Knows Best shows up in the research literature as a prototypical 1950s suburban show with a nuclear family, a father who works outside the home, a mother who stays at home, and kids of various ages. Desperate Housewives features a variety of families though the women still hope to have some semblance of happy family life.

What are common activities for the characters?

Characters are rarely working or going to school – primary activities for adults and children, respectively – and seem to have plenty of time to interact with each other and in local organizations as well as tackle issues that arise in the home.

How do the characters resolve conflicts?

There is a big difference here: the problems presented on Father Knows Best wrap up nicely with the characters coming together again. In contrast, the conflict in Desperate Housewives is endless and the resolutions rarely bring characters together and run the gamut from arguments to violence to inner seething. From the beginning of the pilot, the show establishes that the four main housewives are desperate and their actions suggest as much.

Are these depictions of the suburbs realistic?

These two shows perhaps represent opposite poles of suburban depictions and each have a grain of truth to them. Father Knows Best maintains the happy facade where families rarely encounter truly difficult issues. At the same time, the emphasis on pleasant family life seems attractive to many who move to the suburbs. Desperate Housewives suggests the suburbs are not a perfect place – and plenty of American suburbanites encounter major difficulties, including women who receive little attention in the early suburban shows – yet likely goes too far with the levels of action and harm the residents of Wisteria Lane inflict on each other. Real suburban life is likely somewhere in the middle and is likely not as exciting enough to be a regular television show.


These two shows are good representatives of two eras of suburban television: the 1950s suburban sitcom and the 2000s shows that challenged suburban ideals and promoted complicated heroes. Both shows are built around similar themes of family life and single-family homes. Yet, their aims are very different: Father Knows Best is viewed as reinforcing a particular image of suburbia while Desperate Housewives challenges common narratives (and really extends a lot of suburban critiques present since the era of Father Knows Best). Thus, the two shows may not be that different than they appear and both were popular in their own day.

Rethinking the largest American crop: the lawn

With droughts, shrinking water supplies, and changes to housing, here is one effort to question the traditional American lawn:

After all, your front lawn is not an inevitability. It’s a work of art — an antiquated design aesthetic, a handed-down invention, one we stopped noticing ages ago yet remain coerced by property codes to maintain. There was a time when the front lawn was tied largely to contentment, to everyday middle-class life: Anyone who grew up in a suburb has a mental slide show of images — bikes cast to the side, lazy games of catch, parents admiring their green thumb, trick-or-treaters, snowmen and nervous dates idling in curbside cars — linked inextricably with front lawns. In earlier eras, these were reflected through sitcoms, light family comedies, late-century Updike novels. When we had free-range children, a kid’s weekend would begin a lot like that image of John Wayne in “The Searchers,” hovering at the front door, an expanse of land before them. Then, at least since the 1970s — John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” say — our image of American front lawns became less benign….

Your front lawn, in a sense, became a malignancy, a vacant space within a vacant place, soulless and mowed to a sterile sheen — cultural shorthand for the dullness covering a cancer. Think of all the front lawns in the new movie adaptation of “It” — long and wide and distracting from the threat gestating beneath the town’s idyllic streets, covered up by village elders. Ng’s “Little Fires Everywhere,” in which people allow bad feelings to simmer for way too long, begins with a house fire, its main characters standing on the front lawn: “Lexie watched the smoke billow from her bedroom window, the front one that looked over the lawn, and thought of everything inside that was gone.”…

“By the 1950s, it’s firmly rooted that a front lawn is a painting, a non-productive space,” said Elaine Lewinnek, a professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton, and author of 2014’s “Working Man’s Reward: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl.” “The front lawn is designed to be useless, to simply increase property values. It’s also intended to separate neighborhoods that have lawns from cities — you see rules against drying laundry in front yards, for instance, because suburbanites are different than ‘those people‘ drying clothes in public (in the city). ‘Sophisticated suburbanites use machines.’ Still, you need a great lawn to fit in. William Levitt (who created the seminal planned community of Levittown, N.Y.) said if you own a lawn you couldn’t be a communist — you had too much to do.”

A small anti-lawn movement began in the 1960s, sprung partly from this pressure to maintain appearances. Lorrie Otto, a housewife just north of Milwaukee, created a stir when she let her front yard revert to prairie. She found her lawn wasteful, boring — and many agreed, starting “Wild Ones” groups that, to this day, advocate for naturalistic landscaping. “This argument against lawns, it gains its steam in tandem with the ’60s environmental movement,” said Terry Ryan, a landscape architect with Jacobs/Ryan Associates, whose work includes Chicago Riverwalk. “People start to realize lawns take water and chemicals to maintain — sometimes herbicides and insecticides — and though grass is green and cooler than pavement, it starts to seem like a poor use of resources.”

This is a decent quick history of the lawn and the meanings attached to it. Yet, there are few alternatives suggested here. In times of severe drought, such as recently experienced in California, residents are innovative: paint the lawn, change the lawn out for drought-resistant plants or stones, use greywater for watering, or water the lawn anyway despite public mockery or fines. But, if Americans are truly serious about doing away with the traditional lawn, the answer lies with new ways of designing housing and spaces. Doing away with the grass lawn does not necessarily mean the loss of a private yard but they often go together. Imagine more single-family homes with much smaller lots or more row homes or, going further, more condos and apartments built up rather than sideways. If the lawn is a waste of resources and land, a sign of oppressive middle-class conformity, and not worth the time it requires, some major changes would be needed to shift away from it.