Wikinvest Wire

Downsizing the dream

Sunday, August 16, 2009

We towed a camper behind our station wagon and there just boys, no girls or dogs, but the picture below from this story about the history of home ownership in the U.S. in the Wall Street Journal weekend edition looks a lot like our family about 40 years ago.
IMAGEIt really is a cultural phenomenon, our love affair with owning a home we can call our own, though recent additions to the ranks of homeowners would surely disagree with this characterization (the "love affair" part, not the "cultural phenomenon").

Anyway, it's a great weekend read...

For most Americans, until the recent past, home ownership was a dream and the pile of rent receipts was the reality. From 1900, when the census first started gathering data on home ownership, through 1940, fewer than half of all Americans owned their own homes. Home ownership rates actually fell in three of the first four decades of the 20th century. But from that point on forward (with the exception of the 1980s, when interest rates were staggeringly high), the percentage of Americans living in owner-occupied homes marched steadily upward. Today more than two-thirds of Americans own their own homes. Among whites, more than 75% are homeowners today.

Yet the story of how the dream became a reality is not one of independence, self-sufficiency, and entrepreneurial pluck. It's not the story of the inexorable march of the free market. It's a different kind of American story, of government, financial regulation, and taxation.

We are a nation of homeowners and home-speculators because of Uncle Sam.

It wasn't until government stepped into the housing market, during that extraordinary moment of the Great Depression, that tenancy began its long downward spiral. Before the Crash, government played a minuscule role in housing Americans, other than building barracks and constructing temporary housing during wartime and, in a little noticed provision in the 1913 federal tax code, allowing for the deduction of home mortgage interest payments.

Until the early 20th century, holding a mortgage came with a stigma. You were a debtor, and chronic indebtedness was a problem to be avoided like too much drinking or gambling. The four words "keep out of debt" or "pay as you go" appeared in countless advice books. As the YMCA told its young charges, "If you can't pay, don't buy. Go without. Keep on going without." Because of that, many middle-class Americans—even those with a taste for single-family houses—rented. Home Sweet Home didn't lose its sweetness because someone else held the title.

In any case, mortgages were hard to come by. Lenders typically required 50% or more of the purchase price as a down payment. Interest rates were high and terms were short, usually just three to five years. In 1920, John Taylor Boyd Jr., an expert on real-estate finance, lamented that "increasing numbers of our people are finding home ownership too burdensome to attempt." As a result, there were two kinds of homeowners in the United States: working-class folks who built their own houses because they couldn't afford mortgages and the wealthy, who usually paid for their places outright.
It really has been a dramatic transformation in less than a hundred years and it's not like the concept of "being in debt" has changed during that time.

And like many other aspects of our financial world, the most profound changes have come in just the last couple decades, all of this somehow being passed off as progress and financial market "innovation".

Fast forward to this new era...
During the wild late 1990s and the first years of the new century, the dream of home ownership turned hallucinogenic. The home financing industry—at the impetus of the Clinton and Bush administrations—engaged in the biggest promotion of home ownership in decades. Both pushed for public-private partnerships, with HUD and the government-supported financiers like Fannie Mae serving as the mostly silent partners in a rapidly metastasizing mortgage market. New tools, including the securitization of mortgages and subprime lending, made it possible for more Americans than ever to live the dream or to gamble that someone else would pay them more to make their own dream come true. Anyone could be an investor, anyone could get rich. The notion of home-as-haven, already weak, grew even more and more removed from the notion of home-as-jackpot.
Yes, and it all ends badly.

It's still hard for me to understand why, as the housing bubble was reaching its maximum state of inflation, so few people saw this as one giant catastrophe waiting to happen.

In 2005, most politicians and economists were fretting over the "affordability crisis" rather than wondering if we were headed into the next Great Depression.


This week's cartoon from The Economist:
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Anonymous said...

I have a friend I met at church who is a self-made man, 80 years old, who told me that back in the 1950's (when he bought his one and only home) you had to meet the "25-25 rule" to get a mortgage from any bank. The "25-25 rule", as he explained it, is that you had to be able to make a 25% down payment on the full purchase price of the home and the total monthly cost of the home (mortgage, property tax, insurance) could not exceed 25% of your monthly income. According to him, all banks followed this simple rule and you couldn't get a mortgage if you couldn't meet its conditions.

I'm all for home ownership, but in a responsible way. Just imagine where our economy might be now, if banks still followed the "25-25 rule"

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