Where to begin with the above Super Bowl ad from Quicken Loans? In it, the lender touts a new "rocket mortgage" — a mortgage so easy to obtain it'll feel like you're ordering a Beyoncé single on iTunes! Just push a button, get a giant loan. The app promises a massive, complex financial transaction and life decision "shrunk to fit the hands of a child."
Consider the possibilities! "What if we did for buying mortgages," the voiceover asks over guitar riffs, "what the Internet did for buying music and plane tickets and shoes?"
There are so, so many problems with this concept, the first of which is that lack of an app isn't what's keeping 36 percent of American households from owning a home. The bigger obstacles tend to be thorny things like poor credit, the high cost of housing, steep down payments, lender discrimination, multi-generational inequality.
Or, now that we're really thinking about it, student loans that suck up income, bad jobs that don't pay much, big lawns that Baby Boomers are sick of mowing, that recession that stalled adulthood for Millennials, long-term demographic change that has altered the pool of potential buyers, or shifts in the nature of work that make it riskier to tie ourselves down to property.
The homeownership rate has been trending down — and will keep doing so — for a lot of seismic reasons that an app can't change:
And, to my knowledge, no one has ever said, "I've spent all my adulthood building up the credit and down payment to buy the right house I just spent months searching for — but now I'm giving up because paperwork!"
Buying a home isn't like hailing a car, where the difference between a 3-minute transaction and a 20-minute one actually alters your chances of taking a trip. There's friction in the process — forms to fill out, phone calls to make, pay stubs to scan — but that friction isn't what stands between us and ubiquitous homeownership, or even the level of homeownership we had in America before the housing bust. Quicken Loans doesn't even seem to consider the possibility that there are also people out there who don't want to own a home at all.
Now all of that is just the first problem. The second: Buying a home isn't something you're supposed to be able to do in 10 minutes. It's a big deal. It has lifelong financial implications. It's not for everybody. As the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau put it on Twitter — apparently responding to the ad — getting a mortgage is the kind of thing where you should take your time.
Much of Twitter already pointed out during the Super Bowl that the very idea of easy access to mortgages is what fueled the housing bubble and recession in the first place. Quicken Loans isn't offering subprime loans here, a distinction the company realized it had to make after the ad's backlash. But the sentiment behind the app — homes! homes for everyone! — feels uncomfortably similar to that era's exuberance.
Which brings us to the third problem. The ad is built on two related premises: That a lot more of us should own homes, and that if we did, that "tidal wave of homeownership" could heal what's ailing the economy. People would need to buy household goods to put in those homes, which would employ the workers who make those goods, who would then make the money to buy their own homes! (Never mind that renters also need blenders and sectional couches.)
The housing bubble — and the state of Florida — taught us that an economy based on housing is a precarious thing. And although it's hard to say what the right, "healthy" homeownership rate is, it is most likely not 64 percent (the rate today) plus everyone who currently buys shoes and music on the Internet.
Last point: It is particularly weird that this commercial opens on fawning views of suburbia to make the case for mass homeownership. That scene feels out of the 1950s (with 1990s McMansions). We've also learned a lot over the last decade about the sustainability — both environmental and financial — of a model where everyone owns a single-family home in the suburbs a tank of gas away from work. Today, these kinds of homes are actually one of the weaker financial bets you can make in the housing market.
That opening scene alone suggests that Quicken doesn't get that our national relationship to homeownership has begun to shift since the bubble.