New Concepts in Home Ownership
It’s an interesting time in our house these days. About 6 months ago, my wife and I decided to put our home up for sale. We then spent several months completing all those lagging projects we had never seemed to find time for. The high-trafficked areas got fresh coats of paint, the carpet got professionally cleaned, and I began an unpleasant ritual of cutting the grass twice per week so it would help our ‘curb appeal’. I also started taking daily trips down memory lane as I recalled the room where I learned to install baseboard, or the first light fixture I ever replaced, or the day I successfully installed my first faucet. I thought of the four Thanksgiving dinners we have hosted and was more than a little sad to patch over the holes in the mantel where I put the nails for our Christmas stockings every year. I began to think of our house as not just a collection of walls but as a home.
That realization may strike some readers as a bit of a no-duh moment, but it was one that had escaped me thus far. From the day we moved in 4 years ago, I had always known this would not be our permanent residence. It was what we could afford at the time. It was an upgrade from our condo and gave us much-needed space for our daughters. It was also a place where we could landscape and have a dog and I could tinker in the garage. But it was never a home because it wasn’t a place to stay…it was an investment.
Writing for Front Porch Republic, James Mathew Wilson used a Wall Street Journal article by Thomas J. Sugrue as a springboard to discuss the way Americans view home ownership, as contrasted with other countries. Wilson makes a number of good points throughout the piece and, in typical Front Porch style, offers a fair number of suggestions involving changes in our behavior patterns to create a sense of ‘place’ in where we live.
The point that struck me the most, though, was the notion of not seeing a home as a one-generation investment to be cashed out upon retirement or upon our deaths by the executors of our estates. Wilson talks about the way homes transcend generations in other countries:
Some countries—such as Spain and Italy—have higher rates of home ownership than the U.S., but there, homes are often purchased with the support of extended families and are places to settle for the long term, not to flip to eager buyers or trade up for a McMansion. In France, Germany, and Switzerland, renting is more common than purchasing. There, most people invest their earnings in the stock market or squirrel it away in savings accounts. In those countries, whether you are a renter or an owner, houses have use value, not exchange value.
This is probably a novel concept for most Americans: use value instead of exchange value. To get to this point, though, Americans would need to radically shift away from what we have been told by the financial gurus and politicians of our country: that ‘homes are the best investment we can make’. Check that, they SHOULD be great investments but not in the way these experts would have us believe. Instead, what if they were great investments because they became true homes and we began to think of them as important landmarks to our family. What if instead of dreaming about how much our kids would get for our houses after we kick the bucket, we dreamed about the day when they could move in and become masters of the family home?
I read an article awhile back that has unfortunately escaped my archives, so my apologies to the author. In this article the writer discussed new ideas for home ownership and the way we take care of our aging families. The author advanced the idea of parents using some of their retirement savings to help their children purchase homes on a large lot. On the other end of the lot a small guest house could be built for the parents with enough room and independence for them to enjoy their Golden Years and yet a proximity that would allow their children to be more involved in their care and to do those daily chores like changing light bulbs and keeping the sidewalk shoveled in the winter.
This idea struck me as particularly profound since my mother is aging and suffering from a degenerative disease that will make it harder and harder for her to take care of a home by herself. Currently my siblings and I stop by regularly to check on her and do quick tasks for her, but I would love it if I could just walk over after work for a few minutes to lend a hand. Not to mention how thrilled my mother would be to have her grandkids a stone’s throw away and how much I would enjoy having her over for a meal with us a few times per week.
The notion that Americans view their residences as investments and not generation-spanning homes is not a new one, as Wilson points out in his piece:
This is not a new distinction, but it certainly is a vital one. Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America that the American restlessness, the constant pursuit of money because of the insecurity and evanescence of family fortunes in an intensely liquid capitalist, industrial society, saturated Americans’ practices of farming and property ownership. To a lesser extent — rather than a greater — than older and more traditional societies, Americans cherished the stability, autarky, and intergenerational continuity of property ownership. In an age when most agriculture was still subsistence agriculture, Tocqueville saw that Americans had managed to huckster farming into a short-term investment scheme; the American farmer might buy a patch of land, cultivate it for a few years, and, once the rocks had all been removed from the fields and the land turned to good account for a few seasons, that farmer was likely to sell it off and move away.
I must admit that this trend is one that never made a lot of sense to me. I always dreamed of hitting the lottery and creating a Kennedy-style compound in my beloved Louisville where my extended family could put down deep roots and future generations could also call home. But I fell into the same trap as most Americans, which is that I bought a home I had no intention of keeping. This makes you immediately start to pine for the next home because maybe that one will be ‘The One’. That attitude is what drove much of the housing meltdown in this country.
The belief that housing was a financial investment, rather than an investment in a family’s long term stability and rootedness, led to a conception of property as measurable in terms of wealth. But homes cannot be measured in terms of wealth primarily because, first, they cannot consistently and perpetually accrue in monetary value and, second, they are by peculiarly illiquid assets — which suggests they should not be thought of as assets in any case.
Obviously there is a lot of room for debate on the housing meltdown, but most folks can agree that it was ultimately about thinking of homes as money-makers or as status symbols rather than meeting a specific need of shelter. Moving away from this conceptualization and towards a vision of home ownership as place would no doubt lead to some positive changes. Wilson outlines several, but I will end this post by touching on a couple:
In itself, viewing home ownership thus would transform the entire structure of our society, because it would reduce the conception of economy as the vast network of capital-mediated exchange, and restore the concept of economy as the care of the oikia (a classical conception Mark Shiffman and Patrick Deneen have elaborated). It would recognize that life in this world is fragile and finite, but that, because of our intellects and souls, it is naturally oriented toward the immortality of historical memory and the eternity of God. The home gains rather than loses importance when we remember we have souls.
I think this is sort of what Americans try to capture with their fondness for the family farm. We recognize on some level that a cross-generational connection with the land should be admired, probably because it is so rare in our country. I remember being profoundly struck when we visited the Biltmore Mansion last year and I learned on the tour that it remained a residence for only one generation. Even a house that grand soon became viewed as a source of income rather than a home for the Vanderbilt family. Most other great homes and countless lesser residences have taken the same path in our nation’s history.
Architecture and the domestic geography would be the most obvious signifiers of this reconception. What kinds of homes would be built if owners, architects, and lenders alike presumed the purpose of home ownership was to provide, well, a house owned by its occupants and owned for a lifetime or more? Something they would not “trade up,” but which they could sustain and retain, reversing thereby the three-centuries-long trend toward the expropriation of most human beings?
The home I am selling right now is comfortable and well-built for it’s value. It has served us well in our time there. But it won’t be there in 100 years. It’s not made that well. It’s not meant to last. It’s less-than-permanent in a variety of ways. How nice it would be if we began to build all homes in this country to last. And how nice it would be if we wanted to stay in them while they did. But how do we change that?
My own personal optimism about life in general sometimes falters when I think about the long march of American history and how culturally ingrained certain attitudes have become. The transient nature of home ownership and our population itself is extremely hard to overcome. Afterall, we celebrate the migration patterns that settled America’s frontier and brought hard-working immigrant populations to America’s great cities. We also celebrate the entrepreneurial spirit which takes families from place to place as they search for the career that will finally fulfill their dreams.
How often though do we celebrate staying in one place?
Unfortunately, I don’t have all the answers. I think better architecture is a good start. I also think that larger lots with room to expand a family home and create something permanent is another good idea. But it still comes back to cultural attitudes and that is a very hard nut to crack.
The process of getting our home ready for sale, starting to visit other homes on the market and ultimately trying to picture our new home has left me with a lot of thoughts as to what I want this next home to be. I think the most obvious conclusion is that I want it to be permanent. I want this to be the home my grandkids visit. I want this to be the home where I pursue an active retirement and where, God-willing, I will take my last breaths.
Beyond that it would be wonderful if the home meant enough to my children and their children that someone would want to remain there after my wife and I are gone. So when our home sells, we will look for a home we can grow old in, even if that means a longer search and maybe a bit more debt. But the roots of not just geography but of shelter are important and it’s about time we start planting them.