American Dreams: Then And Now
2:54 pm
Mon June 4, 2012

After The Housing Bust, Revisiting Homeownership

Originally published on Mon June 4, 2012 6:44 pm

For generations, owning a home has been a key part of the lifestyle most Americans aspire to. But when the mortgage crisis exploded in 2007, it brought down the U.S. housing market — and the entire economy along with it.

The ensuing recession was an assault on the American dream of homeownership itself. The tidal wave of foreclosures, the crash in home prices and tighter lending standards have left some Americans unable or simply too nervous to buy a house.

In the wake of the housing crisis, a flurry of media coverage has trumpeted how Americans are rethinking homeownership. Pundits asked, "Is renting the new owning?" and a September 2010 Time magazine cover proclaimed, "Why owning a home may no longer make economic sense."

But has renting become "the future of home-dwelling" in America, as one cable news reporter posited?

In a word: no.

Five years after the market crash of 2007, the desire to own a home is actually very much alive and well. In a recent poll of likely voters by the Woodrow Wilson Center, 84 percent of respondents said homeownership today is just as important as or more important than it was five years ago. Ninety percent still think homeownership is part of the American dream.

'Living The Dream'

At a kitchen table in the Boston suburb of Sharon, Mass., 11-month-old Lilah Medeiros is eating mashed potatoes and making elephant sounds. Her parents, Jared and Emily Medeiros, are in their mid-30s. Both work in a museum, and both are first-time homebuyers.

"We got a nice front yard, backyard, side yard — two side yards," Jared laughs about the family's new digs.

Emily loves the family's new space. "[Jared] does some woodwork stuff. He can do his projects on the weekends, and I can do some gardening," she says.

"I do feel like we are living the dream. We've said it a couple times since we bought the place," she adds. "This is what you always picture — having the space to do this stuff — and now we do."

Around the country, young families like the Medeiroses are buying homes or condos in the city as well as the suburbs.

That desire to own a home, and one's own piece of land, has deep roots in the American psyche.

A Dream With Deep Roots

The term "American dream" became popular in the 1930s, says Bob Shiller, a housing economist at Yale. "But I associate it with the suburban movement that developed after World War II," he says.

"To me, homeownership at that time represented kind of a community spirit. We have neighbors, we like our neighbors, we're active in the community," Shiller says.

The American tradition of actively encouraging home- or farm ownership dates back even further, he says.

"That was the real American dream — [owning] your own farm. So we had the Homestead Act in the 1860s that made it possible for anyone with modest means to buy a farm," he says.

Still earlier, the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville noted the importance of homeownership in his book Democracy in America, published in the 1830s and based on his travels around the country.

"He noticed the independent streak of Americans and their desire to own their own farm and their own home," Shiller says. "He thought that that represented a kind of anti-feudal feeling — that each person in this country is an independent agent. There is no landlord or lord with his thumb on you."

That American dream arguably became pretty warped during the housing bubble. Buying a house meant making big money fast. There was a frantic rush to buy as prices rose, and McMansions sprang up as people used the equity in their homes to move into bigger houses than they needed.

"It was a different spirit," Shiller says of the boom times. "It was not the same American dream."

Buying More Attractive Than Renting

Today, some might argue that people like Jared and Emily Medeiros are returning to something healthier. The homes on their street in Sharon are well-kept but modest. Many are ranch houses, spread out with nice, big backyards. There are no new McMansions in this neighborhood.

"Most of these ranches were all built in the '50s, so it's ... like a turnover right now," Jared says. "Either the people are moving to Florida or dying or selling their house. And a lot of couples our age with kids, first-time homebuyers, are buying up all the houses around here. You can totally see it. Just lots and lots of families."

The couple says they didn't buy expecting to get rich from rising home values. They simply did the math and decided that, by owning, they could get a lot for their money right now.

The couple paid around $250,000 for their home — less than they would have paid a few years ago for a nice house not in need of major repairs.

Home prices are down about 30 percent on average nationally. Interest rates are super low, while rents are rising.

"We're almost at a historic opportunity, in terms of the cost of owning relative to renting," says William Wheaton, an economist at MIT. "It's hard to think of a time in the last ... two or three decades when it's been as good to buy as right now."

Public Policy A Key Factor

Still, Wheaton says, many of the financial benefits of owning a house are a result of government policy. The government has a hand in making mortgages available and affordable, in part through the mortgage interest deduction for homeowners. Those kinds of incentives are a big reason that 65 percent of Americans own their homes.

The opposite is true in countries with different policies. Switzerland, for example, has the lowest homeownership rate in the developed world, Wheaton says.

That's not because the Swiss particularly love renting, he says. It's just that the economic incentives in that country push them toward it. The tax structure there favors renting: It's easy to get long-term rental leases, and loans are harder to get.

As a result, "only 35 percent of the population of Switzerland owns their home," Wheaton says. "And Switzerland is a very affluent little enclave."

The relationship between policies and behavior should be of interest to American policymakers. Over the next few years, Congress will be restructuring the government's role in the housing market. Those changes could have a significant impact on that key element of the American dream: owning one's home.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

When the mortgage crisis exploded here in the U.S., it brought down the housing market and the rest of the economy with it. The recession that followed cut to the core of the American dream. For generations, owning a home has been essential to the kind of life most Americans aspire to. But the crash in home prices, millions of foreclosures and tighter lending standards have left many Americans unable or too nervous to buy a house.

Here's NPR's Chris Arnold with the latest in our series American Dreams.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Since the housing crash, there have been all kinds of headlines about how Americans are rethinking homeownership. There was Time magazine's cover, quote, "Why owning a home may no longer make economic sense." Pundits claim that renting would be the new owning, that a major shift was afoot. This was on CNN.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I prefer to rent. I like the flexibility that comes along with renting.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The face of a new generation of renters, and perhaps the future of home dwelling in general.

ARNOLD: So, is renting becoming the future of home-dwelling in general? In a word, no. Five years after the crash, the desire to own a home is actually very much alive and well.

JARED MEDEIROS: There you go.

EMILY MEDEIROS: There you go, Lilah.

ARNOLD: At the kitchen table in the house her parents just bought, 11-month-old Lilah Medeiros is eating mashed up vegetables and making elephant sounds.

MEDEIROS: E is for elephant.

MEDEIROS: E is for elephant. There you go.

ARNOLD: OK. They're not exactly like real elephant sounds, but they're very impressive.

MEDEIROS: Good job, Lilah.

MEDEIROS: You ready for another bite?

MEDEIROS: Oh, no.

ARNOLD: Lilah's parents are Jared and Emily Medeiros. They're in their mid-30s. They both work at a museum, and they just bought their first house. It's here in Sharon, Massachusetts, and it's a suburb outside of Boston. And it turns out that this is something that most Americans still want to do. A poll of likely voters out last week from the non-partisan Woodrow Wilson Center found that 84 percent of people said that homeownership is just as or more important than it was five years ago.

MEDEIROS: We got a nice front yard, backyard, side yard, two side yards.

MEDEIROS: It's big. You know, like, he does some, like, woodwork stuff. He can, like, do his projects on the weekends, and I can do some gardening and...

ARNOLD: That Wilson Center poll also found that 90 percent of people still think that homeownership is a part of the American dream.

MEDEIROS: I do feel like we kind of are living the dream. We've said it a couple times since we bought the place, really worth it with the dream. We kind of are. Like, this is what you always picture is, like, having the space to do this stuff. And now we do.

ARNOLD: It's not just the suburbs. Other young families are buying homes or condos in neighborhoods in the city. And the desire to own a home, and own your own piece of land, has deep roots in the American psyche. Bob Shiller is a housing economist at Yale.

BOB SHILLER: Well, you know, the American dream, that is a term that became popular in the 1930s. But I kind of associate it with the suburban movement that developed after World War II. And to me, homeownership at that time represented a kind of a community spirit. You know, we have neighbors, we like our neighbors. We're active in the community.

ARNOLD: And Shiller says it's been an American tradition to encourage homeownership, or farm ownership before that, for a very long time.

SHILLER: That was the real American dream, your own farm. So, we had the Homestead Act in the 1860s that made it possible for anyone with modest means to buy a farm.

ARNOLD: And before that...

SHILLER: It was something that was noted by Alexis de Tocqueville who wrote a book on democracy in America in the 1830s. He was French, but he was touring America. He noticed the independent streak of Americans and their desire to own their own farm and their own home. And he thought that that represented kind of an anti-feudal feeling that with each person in this country is an independent agent. There is no landlord or lord with his thumb on you.

ARNOLD: Now, during the housing bubble, the American dream arguably got pretty warped. Buying a house suddenly meant making a lot of money really fast. There was a frantic rush to buy houses as prices went up and up and up. McMansions sprang up as people used the equity in their homes to move into bigger houses than they really needed. Robert Shiller.

SHILLER: It was a different spirit. It was not the same American dream.

ARNOLD: So now, after the crash, perhaps we're returning to something that's a little bit healthier. You can get a sense of that back with Jared and Emily Medeiros, the couple that just bought a house outside Boston. The homes here on their street are well-kept, but pretty modest. Many are ranch houses, they're spread out with nice, big backyards. There's definitely no new McMansions here.

MEDEIROS: Most of these ranches were all built in the '50s, so it's at a time, like a turnover right now. Either the people are moving to Florida or dying or selling their house. And a lot of couples our age with kids, first-time homebuyers, are buying up all the houses around here. And you can totally see it, just lots and lots of families.

ARNOLD: Meanwhile, Jared has just bought his first power lawnmower. It's a nice red one, and he's trying to figure out how all of the levers work.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAWN MOWER)

MEDEIROS: Oh, wow. I just realized something. Whoa. It drives itself. This one drives itself. I didn't do that at all last time. You pull this one, it takes off on you. That's pretty cool.

ARNOLD: The Medeiroses say they don't expect massive riches from this house as it rises in value. They just did the math and decided that, by owning, they could get a lot for their money right now. The couple paid around $250,000. William Wheaton is an economist at MIT. He says that home prices now are down about 30 percent nationally. He says interest rates are, of course, super low, meanwhile rents are rising.

WILLIAM WHEATON: We're almost at a historic, you know, opportunity, in terms of the cost of owning relative to renting.

ARNOLD: Really?

WHEATON: Yes. It's hard to think of a time in the last at least two or three decades when it's been as good to buy as right now.

ARNOLD: Still, Wheaton says that many of the financial benefits to owning a house are a result of government policy. The government here in the U.S. has a hand in making mortgages available and affordable. There is the mortgage interest tax deduction for homeowners. All that is a big reason that 65 percent of Americans do own their homes. The opposite is true, though, when you look at a place like Switzerland.

The tax structure there favors renting. Loans are harder to get. It's easy to get long-term rental leases. So, as a result...

WHEATON: The lowest homeownership rate in the developed world is Switzerland and only 35 percent of the population of Switzerland owns their home. And Switzerland is a very affluent little enclave. And it's not that the Swiss somehow love renting.

ARNOLD: Wheaton says it's just that the economic incentives in that country push people towards renting. And that's worth American policymakers taking note of. Over the next few years, Congress will be restructuring the government's role in the housing market. And those changes could have a real impact on what for so long has been considered a key part of the American dream, owning your own house.

Chris Arnold, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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