In my world, the biggest news story of 2009 had zero to do with Michael Jackson, Jon and/or Kate, or even the literally and figuratively overexposed Tiger Woods.
Instead, the biggest story of the year — maybe even the decade — in my real-estate-fixated consciousness was The Big Rethink: Americans’ wholesale reconsideration of whether homeownership still belongs in "The American Dream."
You see, in my business I rethink, therefore I am. My company, my Web site, this column, my book series, my "brand" — all are called REThink Real Estate. Since 2006, I have literally traveled coast to coast and back again (and again) hollering "REThink real estate!" from the rooftops and satellite media tours.
This, all because I became convinced through personal experience that real estate presented the purest opportunities ever to consciously design and upgrade our lifestyles.
What I didn’t fully appreciate at the beginning of the decade was that if real estate decisions were made unconsciously, there were lifestyle consequences in store that were just as extreme — in the opposite direction. But I learned this, both through personal experience and through those of my clients and readers.
By the end of 2009, we had all become painfully aware of the collective disaster that the unconscious, unsustainable and unwise real estate and mortgage decisions of even a relatively small chunk of the population could wreak on the entire nation — actually, on the entire globe.
And it was this revelation, this apocalypse (in the sense intended by the original Greek definition: "lifting of the veil") that might have sparked The Big Rethink. It led many Americans to question whether owning a home was even a good thing to do anymore.
I heard stirrings of this, to me, earth-shattering concept that it might be OK, or even desirable, to rent in perpetuity among the same old disgruntled contrarians (sorry, guys — my perception only) who were cranky ("you’d have to be nuts to pay ‘X’ for a house!"), committed renters for years.
But the vast majority of people who opt in to my life experience, both personally and professionally, are and have always been confirmed homeowners and real estate investors.
As such, I first realized that the national tide of opinion on homeownership was choppy in a non-isolated way while reading an article in the New York Times in August, entitled "A Reluctance to Spend Might be This Recession’s Legacy." I was expecting the article to chronicle the slowdown in consumer spending, rediscovery of simple pleasures and increase in the savings rate — which it did.
What I wasn’t expecting was a quote from a laid-off patent attorney in her early 30s to the effect that she would be happy as a clam if she never owned a home. That, to me, was a real estate rethink of epic proportions.
Maybe it was simply that the swell of The Big Rethink coincided with my reading of that article. Or perhaps such a bold statement from a member of my real-estate-fixated peer group (young, female, professional, attorney, etc.) was my own personal lifting of the veil. But around the end of the summer, the stirrings of homeownership being reconsidered deeply penetrated my consciousness, and I tweeted: "Homeownership needs to step its game up."
Owning a home had lost the lure of fast appreciation, though it continues to hold its less-sexy wealth-building characteristics (tax advantages and slow-and-steady value increase). And, on top of that, ownership had become newly associated with the traumas of adjustable-rate mortgages, upside-down indebtedness, foreclosure and even eviction.
I wondered — in the aftermath of this crisis, would homeownership be retrained out of the American palate? You know, like when you go on a whole foods eating plan. No matter how much you loved Doritos, Kit Kats and root beer when you started, after your palate has been retrained to Jack LaLanne’s "if man made it, don’t eat it" standard, the thrill of your former faves is gone.
Would homeownership forever after seem like a trans-fat-laden, illusory thrill that, in fact, threatened the wellness of personal economies of all but the wealthiest Americans? …CONTINUED
For some homebuyers, the affordability spawned by the deep decline in value was motivation enough, but that would only be temporary. So, what would motivate Americans to want to own homes once they weren’t dirt cheap to buy?
The answer recently came to me: desire. It’s the wish to own the place you live in and, thereby, gain that much more control over the design of your life.
The National Association of Realtors’ recently released 2009 Profile of Buyers and Sellers revealed that overall, homebuyers cited the desire to own their home as the most common, primary reason for buying.
When it came to first-time homebuyers, the number was even more staggering, giving an indication of how non-homeowners are coming out on The Big Rethink: 62 percent of first-timers said that their primary reason for buying was that they plain old wanted to own the place where they live.
But, after The Big Rethink, the desire to own is no longer that voracious-for-square-feet, grasping, by-any-means-necessary, sign-no-matter-what-the-mortgage-papers-say desperation to own before prices go any higher that motivated buyers during the subprime era. The people who go through The Big Rethink and decide to own are motivated by a holistic desire to be the masters (and mistresses) of their own domain.
An article I read at year’s end chronicled the post-layoff lifestyle of creative executive Catherine Goerz, who is now currently, to quote the title, living "happily on 75 percent less" than what she made before she was downsized. Goerz has intentionally eschewed full-time employment to focus on her newly discovered calling as a documentary producer.
Her new 10-minute short, "RE:Invention" tells the tales of several people who were forced by the recession to do their own big rethink, and did so creatively and to life-transforming effect.
As content as she is with her current trajectory, working temp jobs while aiming to parlay the full-length version of "RE:Invention" into a film industry position, according to the article, Goerz’ financial plans have one primary aim: she "craves her own place."
" ‘I have this niggling fear that I’m screwed,’ she says. ‘Will I ever be able to buy a home or a car? That’s my biggest motivation to succeed financially: to get my own place.’ "
If 2009 was the year of The Big Rethink, homeownership has been vindicated, at least in the hearts and minds of those who simply desire it. But when "frugalistas" like Goerz finally do buy, they’ll do as 47 percent of buyers this year did, according to the NAR Profile: make sacrifices. Homeownership might still be in style, but overextending oneself to take part is decidedly passé.
Tara-Nicholle Nelson is author of "The Savvy Woman’s Homebuying Handbook" and "Trillion Dollar Women: Use Your Power to Make Buying and Remodeling Decisions." Ask her a real estate question online or visit her Web site, www.rethinkrealestate.com.
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