Home Ownership and the American Dream

I know a lot of people who own their own houses. Or, their parents own houses, which means that they will inherit a house at some point. And I know a few people who are starting to wind their way down the path of home ownership; looking at houses, putting in offers, exploring things. And it’s made me think a lot about the way in which home ownership is framed in the United States, and why it is that I am among those people who passionately want to own a house.

I have some reasonably solid arguments for wanting to own a home. The first is that it would be really nice to own a home free and clear because it would cut down dramatically on expenses. Assuming I got a 30 year fixed mortgage, I would theoretically own my home in full by the time I retired, which would free me up, a lot. And if I bought at the right price, I could save significantly on rent in the long term. Assuming I bought in cash outright, that would free me up right now, which would be pretty awesome. Not that this is going to happen.

I also like the idea of freedom. Freedom to rip out disgusting carpets. Freedom to paint a wall in the kitchen red, if I want to. To plant whatever I want in a garden without judgment or criticism. To move things, to change things, to make a house my own instead of just a space I occupy.

But there are some pretty serious disadvantages to home ownership; the high cost of maintenance, for example. Right now, if my water heater breaks, I call the landlord, and it gets replaced. I never even see the bill. I don’t even know how much a water heater costs. If my roof blows off, sure, it’s inconvenient, but it’s not my problem, expense wise. If I fall through the bathroom floor, it might be comic and unsettling, but it’s not me that would have to pay to replace the joists.

I also don’t have to pay property taxes or property insurance right now. My cost of living in terms of my house is actually pretty fixed; rent, stable utilities bills. That’s it. I know that there aren’t going to be any sudden surprises, costwise, because the costs of maintenance and repair are not my responsibility. (Unless I’m going about breaking things.)

And, of course, home ownership is really only recommended for people who plan on staying where they are for at least five years, but I plan to do that. I’m here. I’m pretty sure I’m here for life. I’m comfortable with that. I would be comfortable with committing to that by buying a house. If I could afford one, of course, and that’s the problem right now; I may have grown up here, I may be intending to spend my life here, but I have been neatly priced out of the real estate market because I happen to live somewhere with real estate which is regarded as “luxury” and bought up by rich people from the City who come up two weekends a year and leave their properties vacant the rest of the time. People I know up here who own property, for the most part, own property because they bought in the 1960s and 1970s.

As a single person, I also endure some subtle stigma from people who wonder what a single person would want with a home. It’s not like I have a future to invest in, I’m not buying a house to “build a family” in, so surely I should just rent, right? I resent that, obviously. I think that single people can buy houses if they want to, that building a single life is nothing you should be shamed for. Yeah, I shouldn’t buy some colossus of a house, but I wouldn’t do that anyway, because I like small houses. And, you know, I may not have blood relatives that I would will a house to, but that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t have plans for what should happen to my house after I’m dead.

Home ownership is pushed as a huge part of the American dream, and it’s something which seems alien to some of my friends overseas. They ask, practically, why I wouldn’t just want to rent for life, let someone else deal with the inconveniences of property management, let someone else be responsible for maintenance and repairs and taxes and insurance and all the sundry problems which go along with property. And I can’t quite articulate why I find the idea of renting for life so repellent, because, in a lot of ways, it makes sense. The cost of renting is often cheaper than the cost of ownership, unless you’re willing to leave the area.

But renting feels impermanent to me. Temporary. Not fixed. I like things to be fixed.

To some extent, I have bought into this piece of the American dream. It’s not conscious, and in fact I spend a lot of time actively refuting and rejecting the American dream, so I can’t help but find it a little bit funny that I have been so neatly trapped into it. I’ve internalized the value of home ownership, the idea that once I own a home I will have “made it,” so thoroughly that I don’t even realize what has happened. I feel shame that I don’t own my home, and I can’t say why.

It’s an interesting example of how thoroughly we can be sucked into cultural values, even when we spend a lot of our lives exploring and dissecting those values, talking about their origins (banks pushing home ownership on Americans after the Second World War), and actively working against the normalization of cultural values which can be harmful. I’m not sure that valuing home ownership is necessarily harmful, but it can be problematic; let’s talk about the fact, for example, that people of colour were prevented from achieving this part of the American dream historically, both de jure and de facto, and still are, in some areas. Let’s talk about the fact that several recent eminent domain cases have illustrated that our own government does not respect home ownership as a value. Let’s talk about the fact that the real estate market and the financial markets connected with it are a huge part of why this capitalist system of ours is failing.

Let’s talk about the pervasiveness of this American dream message, and how harmful it can be, the fact that this internalized value is used, in a lot of ways, to maintain class barriers. If you’re poor, it’s because you didn’t apply yourself, try hard enough, and pull yourself up by your bootstraps. It’s not because you’re being kept poor by structural inequality. If you’re rich, you’re rich because you earned it. If you work hard enough, you can succeed. If you want it badly enough, you can be anything. The colour of your skin, your origins, your creed, the class you were born into, those aren’t barriers to advancement. Oh, no.

4 Replies to “Home Ownership and the American Dream”

  1. I’d really love to own my own home too, for some of the same reasons as you. Not to live the American Dream (I’m British!) but because in my rented house, any decoration I do (stripping/painting, recarpeting, etc) would feel like I was just increasing the value of a house that’s not mine.

    There’s a similar status on homeowning here in the UK as it sounds like there is in the USA. I think it stems back to the time when people were being encouraged to do things like buy their council houses. Now there’s not a lot of council housing left over and lots of people have houses that aren’t worth very much!

  2. I have thought a lot about these things too. I have lot of friends whose parents have paid for their down payments, which causes me all sorts of envy because that won’t happen to me. It seems like it brings so much freedom to own your home – and stability that I won’t have in my later years (or now).

  3. We came at it from the opposite angle, wanting to continue renting in perpetuity. We enjoyed the freedom and the extra cash (mortgage + HOA dues > rent, plus not feeling the need to renovate or buy extra furniture, etc.), but mostly we just wanted to thumb our noses at the American Dream. We resented all the people telling us we were “throwing our money away” by renting, when, um, no, we were exchanging it for a place to live — you exchange money for groceries that you’re just going to eat, but no one says that’s throwing money away. Our parents were big house-buying pushers, even though Sam’s parents’ house has decreased in value over the past 19 years (!), thanks to this crappy economy.

    But, because of this economy, we ended up being able to afford to buy a little condo in our favorite neighborhood. We wouldn’t have even been looking, but our evil landlady once again struck and made us feel insecure as renters, so we attended a class on financial aid for first-time homebuyers, and…here we are. In our own place. And now I can see the benefits of that much vaunted security. So I feel a little like a hypocrite. But a happy one, you know?

  4. I don’t think it’s necessarily hypocritical. Depending on where you live, the rent/own financials vary a lot. If it’s more financially sensible to buy due to shifts in the economy, I’d call it “adaptable” rather than “hypocritical” to decide to own instead of renting. (I mean, why pay off someone’s overvalued mortgage when you could be paying off your own, smaller mortgage?!)

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