Catherine Rampell: Americans think owning a home is better for them than it is

Catherine Rampell
Opinion writer April 21

Some people never learn: Polls show that Americans still view their homes as the best and safest place to invest their hard-earned cash.

Gallup asked Americans this month to choose the best “long-term investment.” Real estate was the most common pick, ahead of mutual funds, bonds and other options. Similarly, Fannie Mae’s National Housing Survey asked Americans to assess whether various kinds of assets amounted to a “safe investment with a lot of potential.” As has been the case since before the financial crisis, “buying a home” beat out all the alternatives.

Catherine Rampell is an opinion columnist at The Washington Post. View Archive

The fact that Americans still financially fetishize homeownership baffles me. Never mind that so many people lost their shirts (among other possessions) in the recent housing bust. Over an even longer horizon, owning a home has not proved to be a terribly lucrative investment either. Don’t take my word for it; ask Robert Shiller, winner of the 2013Nobel Prize in economics who previously became a household name for identifying the housing bubble.

“People forget that housing deteriorates over time. It goes out of style. There are new innovations that people want, different layouts of rooms,” he told me. “And technological progress keeps bringing the cost of construction down.” Meaning your worn, old-fashioned home is competing with new, relatively inexpensive ones.

Over the past century, housing prices have grown at a compound annual rate of just 0.3 percent once one adjusts for inflation, according to my calculations using Shiller’s historical housing data. Over the same period, the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index has had comparable annual returns of about 6.5 percent.

Yet Americans still think it’s financially savvy to dump all their savings into a single, large, highly illiquid asset.

Perhaps Americans just want to invest in something tangible. Real estate is, after all, real: bricks, mortar, wood, tile. Other kinds of assets seem more abstract, almost imaginary, by comparison. You just have to trust your financial adviser, bank or never-ending, entire-rainforest-killing Vanguard mailings that your other investments actually exist.

Shiller suspects that selective memory may also play a role.

“People remember home prices from long ago better than they remember other prices,” he says. “Ask anybody, ‘What did you pay for your home?,’ and they’ll remember even if it was 50 years ago. It will be some ridiculous number like $30,000. They then compare it to today’s prices, and it makes a big impression, and they forget there has been so much inflation since then.”

The tax code, alongside other public policy, forcefully nudges Americans toward investing in housing, too. The biggest bogeyman is the home-mortgage interest deduction. But the government effectively subsidizes home-buying in other ways, including through the Federal Housing Administration, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the fact that we don’t tax imputed rents — the estimated amount homeowners would have to spend to rent an identical property.

There are also large psychic benefits to owning a house, which Americans might conflate with financial ones.

Survey after survey finds that the vast majority of Americans see homeownership as a preferred lifestyle choice, a crucial part of obtaining the “American Dream” and a requirement for membership in the middle class. Many families view homeownership as the best way to get their children into the right schools or most stable neighborhoods. Our national cultural reverence for homeownership is decades, if not centuries, old; as Pa Bailey declared in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” there is “a fundamental urge,” something “deep in the race for a man to want his own roof, walls and fireplace.”

At least here in the United States, where only a minority of Americans prefers having a landlord and superintendent legally obligated to maintain their buildings and bear the risk if, say, Hurricane Sandy floods the basement. Americans romanticize the idea of owning their own roof, walls and fireplace, and they think they’ll make money off ’em, too.

The problem is that, perhaps because of tax incentives and ignorance about the financial returns from real estate investments, Americans are buying more house than they need or, in some cases, derive pleasure from. That incurs maintenance costs for the homeowner, not to mention other kinds of negative externalities for the rest of society (sprawl, traffic and greater carbon emissions) that likely outweigh the individual “psychic benefits” of buying oversize houses. If nothing else, the recent financial crisis should have taught us that it’s not in the country’s best interest to enable every aspiring homeowner to buy.

As senators mark up legislation next week that would wind down Fannie and Freddie, expect great hue and cry about whether an overhaul of the mortgage system would make homeownership less affordable. But given the many other subsidies that exist, and Americans’ persistent misperceptions about the financial benefits of buying a house, maybe we can afford to make homeownership slightly less affordable.

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