Home ownership has enjoyed a well-deserved reputation as a crucial component of the so-called "American Dream." But for many people, home ownership is now perceived more as a nightmare than an essential element of the (admittedly somewhat mythical) "good life" that could be attained in the United States. Whether that negative perception is based on valid fears or little more than irrational overreactions to today’s market correction, it’s nonetheless a paradigm shift that should be of concern to anyone whose livelihood depends on real estate.
The perception of home ownership as a nightmare is easily understood given these realities:
- A tsunami of foreclosures has forced large numbers of people out of homes they couldn’t afford.
- Many homeowners now owe more than their home is worth or more than they can afford to repay. Whatever equity they had has evaporated or been misspent.
- Despite foreclosures and fallen prices, housing is still relatively unaffordable. And now that gasoline costs upwards of $4.50 a gallon, more affordable neighborhoods too often mean long, expensive commutes to the nearest job centers.
- Ever-rising property taxes have triggered a new wave of "tax revolts" across the country.
- Homeowners face significantly higher costs for utilities, insurance and home improvements, repairs and maintenance due to natural disasters, inflation and global materials markets.
- Wall Street analysts have spewed out piles of statistics to convince the public that a home is a worse investment than stocks or mutual funds.
- Short time horizons, short attention spans and smaller households have created a class of renters-by-choice who could own a home but choose not to commit themselves to home ownership.
- Fluid labor markets, a mobile workforce and high real estate transaction costs have made short-term home ownership a questionable financial proposition.
- The prospect of diminished home values or minimal appreciation has scared off many people who otherwise might have been good candidates for home ownership.
Yet homeownership still offers the same benefits and advantages it always has. These include:
- The opportunity to build equity and create wealth over time.
- Protection from rent increases or eviction at the whim of a landlord.
- The pleasures of a relatively larger home, suitable for a family, and with a backyard, garage or other auxiliary space.
- The freedom — design review boards notwithstanding — to improve, remodel or redecorate to suit one’s own style and budget.
- A variety of lucrative income-tax breaks.
- Pride of ownership and a greater sense of security and stability.
Housing’s nightmare has been intense and its aftereffects will not be easy to cure, yet there is still hope for U.S. housing markets and the many businesses that depend on them. Real estate, as an industry, needs to explain those benefits of home ownership to a new generation of understandably skittish potential homeowners, bring back the sexiness of home ownership and recreate the American Dream in a way that’s meaningful today.
Home builders, mortgage brokers and Realtors intuitively understand this argument. But that understanding must be translated into action if home ownership is to regain its footing and brighten its faded glory. Here are some suggestions:
- Build smaller homes and discourage mansionization to make home ownership more affordable for more people, not just at the time of sale, but until long after the mortgage has been paid in full. Super big houses may have been mildly irresponsible in the good ol’ days, but today they’re inexcusable.
- Support sustainable housing that incorporates green living and proximity to public transportation.
- Introduce basic home loans that are easy to understand and free of hidden "gotchas."
- Reduce the cost and complexity of buying and selling a home and make the process friendlier, easier and more efficient.
- Encourage home buyers to spend only as much as they can truly afford to buy a home.
- Support home buyer education and counseling programs that create lifelong homeowners, not just renters-with-mortgages.
- Think long term. Encourage home buyers and homeowners to adopt financial plans and set aside savings for expensive home repairs.
- Adopt ethical standards and practices that rise above the competitive fray and instill confidence in home buyers and sellers.
- Reinvigorate community involvement. Step up. Volunteer. Take part. Be seen. Set an example. Make a difference. Social networking may be an effective way to generate new business, but it’s no substitute for showing up in person and helping out.
And lastly, if you work in real estate, but don’t already own your own home, maybe it’s time for you to go ahead and buy one.
Marcie Geffner is a freelance real estate reporter and former managing editor of Inman News.
Copyright 2008 Marcie Geffner. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author.
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