A couple of weeks ago, in his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, CEO Warren Buffett expressed his belief that "homeownership makes sense for most Americans, particularly at today’s lower prices and bargain interest rates." Keyword: makes sense. These days, sensible seems to be what the post-recessionary American housing consumer is shooting for (though sometimes even the best of us miss our mark).
Sensibility is a near synonym for responsibility, one of the key pieces to the puzzle of "What Investors Really Want," as explored in the recent book by behavioral finance sage Meir Statman.
But Statman makes a strong case that investors also want "high status and respect."
In the context of real estate, status-seeking and responsibility have not coexisted in recent memory, until recently, and were in active conflict during the subprime era. (Exhibit A: the foreclosure travails of the McMansion-flaunting "Real Housewives of Atlanta." And Orange County. Ooh — and New Jersey.) As far as I could see, when it came to status and social responsibility in real estate at the top of the market, I expected that not only would the twain never meet, but that they wouldn’t even be friends of friends on Facebook.
The human craving to acquire status via purchases and investments is the burning desire to making the Joneses want to keep up with you. This is the stuff that creates demand for Hummers, and for $5,000 logo bags with decades-long wait lists. Statman points to niche, high-risk investments that signal the ability to survive a big loss, the ability to withstand long-term illiquidity or access to exclusive options as "status" investments — things like investing in movies, hedge funds, wine and art.
Seems to me that the recession has caused a divergence in how we seek to signal status around our investments and our homes. There are those for whom buying is a signal of recession-resistant wealth. But there are others — many others — who are now using their conservative real estate decision-making to signal their responsibility and values, gain the respect of their peers. People choosing to rent homes for strategic reasons, or buy smaller homes than they could afford, or buying fixer foreclosures when they could afford something nicer — these people are the Prius drivers of real estate.
After the Berkshire Hathaway letter came out, I wrote a couple of pieces around the "Interwebs," touching on Buffett’s real estate advice in more detail. I was intrigued to see how many people seemed to be emboldened by Buffett’s proclamation of the value of homeownership to register their own belief in the wisdom of property ownership. My surprise was not because of any doubt that Americans actually believe in homeownership; in fact, the data suggest as many as 72 percent of Americans believe owning a home is part of their personal life vision.
I was surprised because we now live in this climate of uber-conspicuous frugality. And because of the Internet vociferousness of two key frugality exhibitionists in the real estate space: the renter-by-choice (i.e., someone who can afford to own, chooses not to, is proud of it and actually disparages as silly suckers those who do own homes) and the gun-shy, wannabe homebuyer who has been waiting to buy since about the third quarter of 2007 — sitting on pins and needles for the last 40 months or so, craning their necks in the effort to detect the precise bottom of the housing market.
Reading through the comments of the newly vocal folks who co-signed Buffett’s being bullish on buying, though, I realized that they were also signaling something. Many commenters devoted nearly as many characters aligning themselves with the sage decision-making and financial track record of Buffett as they did expressing their own personal real estate opinions. It was as though they were using Buffett’s opinion as a status-boosting endorsement of their own. "See, Warren says buying is smart; I’ve been saying buying is smart — I’m just like Warren!"
Status and high respect. What every investor, real estate consumer and human being really wants. Flashing what you own to get status and respect is old hat. In fact, now, owning a big fancy house is just as likely to create suspicions about your true financial standing and speculation about how far from foreclosure you might be as it is to incite envy, in many circles. But flashing your responsibility and smart decision-making (as evidenced by Buffett’s endorsement, or otherwise) to get status and respect? Très 2011.