Economic, political pressures alter dream of homeownership

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HomeownersDespite all that has crashed down in recent years, Americans still want to be owners, not renters.

Opinion polls make that clear. And homeowners with equity do tend to lead happier lives, much evidence shows.

But economic, political and cultural trends are challenging the conventional wisdom, embraced for decades, of homeownership being the American Dream for all. Its benefits to the nation are no longer a no-brainer.

This ownership ethos ? and government policies that have encouraged Americans to take on the debt ? helped inflate the housing bubble that burst and resulted in the steepest economic dive in eight decades. The impulse to keep a house, some experts argue, may even contribute to high unemployment, as job-seekers who might find work in a distant place lack the mobility, or desire, to relocate.

Policymakers on the left and right now ask if it?s fiscally wise for the country to let you write off your mortgage interest as a tax deduction.

?Fifteen years ago, nobody was talking about eliminating the mortgage deduction,? said Douglas Robinson of NeighborWorks America, created by Congress in 1978 to help people find affordable homes and build strong communities. ?But the collapse of the housing market turned the discussion around ? to the point where homeownership is somehow a bad thing, according to some corners.?

But there are still powerful reasons to own a home, plenty of people say.

For one Lee?s Summit, Mo., couple, the question became: How much home?

Barry and Linda Dunkin believe they took the smart route. They crunched some numbers and concluded their ?dream house,? built eight years ago, could bring on a budget nightmare in their retirement years.

They adored that house on 11 wooded acres. But Barry?s business ? selling equipment to auto dealerships ? took a hit when 15 of his dealership accounts closed. The Dunkins? mortgage payments and upkeep on their stone-and-stucco spread seemed menacing in the new economic normal, where ?there?s really no such thing as security,? as Barry, 58, put it.

?We?re downsizing,? he said last week.

He stood amid stacks of lumber that will serve as the joists and studs of their new home in a tile-roofed, middle-income subdivision. Houses there are slowly sprouting, and Barry Dunkin is back to feeling good: ?We feel this place really is right for us.?

Yes, they sold their dream home ? in just 10 days ? after pricing it at 20 percent below its appraised value from a few years back. But the long-term savings are huge; their new mortgage is half the old one and should be paid off when the empty-nesting Dunkins retire.

The thought of renting never entered their plans. Owning may no longer equate with savings, Linda Dunkin allowed, but ?we?ve always owned ? and we like being part of a neighborhood where people are committed to staying.?

Nationwide, new-home construction and existing-home sales have been waiting for a strong rebound since 2008, while building permits for rental units are up. The average age of first-time homebuyers is now 34 ? up from 26 in the 1950s.

And in recent years, higher numbers of Americans, especially young adults and boomers nearing retirement, have turned to renting rather than owning.

Do those trends reflect a happy choice or a financial necessity?

According to a 2011 poll by the Pew Research Center, most of us ? by far ? would rather own, even as our homes values on average sink to levels reaching back almost a decade.

More than nine out of 10 Americans said that owning their own place was important in their long-term financial goals. That response topped, by a few percentage points, ?being able to pay for your children?s college education? and having an inheritance left for them after death.

Eighty-one percent of current renters said they wanted to buy a house at some point, Pew?s survey found.

Still, naysayers to the gold standard of homeownership are growing.

Owner-occupied residency has declined the past five years from a record high of almost 70 percent to 66 percent of housing units, an unprecedented drop mostly tied to foreclosures.

?The idea that you could take for granted your home would go up in value, that?s crazy,? said liberal economist Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Research Policy, a Washington think tank. ?People today are more mobile. They?re probably not going to be employed by the same company, at the same place, for 30 or 40 years. A house can tie them down.?

?Especially if you buy and need to sell after a few years, it?s very likely you?re going to lose money? because of fix-ups, mortgage interest, closing costs and commissions, he said.

The spike in single-family home values between 1996 and 2006 ? from a U.S. average of about $110,000 to almost $200,000 ? was an epic anomaly.

Calculations of economist Joseph Gyourko of the University of Pennsylvania found that the norm going back 35 years was for a home investment to appreciate by just 1 percent annually, much less than what you?d profit in that span from investing in stocks, bonds or futures markets.

A larger and more recent debate is over how homeownership helps America.

A wide field of study supports the idea that those who own their homes are more apt than renters to vote, join local organizations, support school bonds. They improve their properties, mingle with their neighbors and, more often than renters, they send their children to college.
Homeowners live longer than renters. They report higher quality-of-life satisfaction.

But Mark Calabria, an economist with the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, asks the chicken-or-egg question:

?Does homeownership really make people more socially responsible, or do the more responsible people tend to become homeowners??

Why are the economies of Greece and Spain ? boasting homeownership rates higher than America?s ? reeling from debt crises and high unemployment, while Germany and Switzerland thrive, despite much smaller percentages of their citizens owning homes?

And why, if ownership is so superior to renting, should the U.S. government cut breaks to those who buy over those who rent?

?What government incentives wind up doing is running up house prices, which is great for the Realtors and the builders,? said Calabria, a critic of federal enticements, which he said helped create the bubble.

U.S. Rep. Barney Frank ? the Massachusetts Democrat who championed easier paths to homeownership in the 1990s ? conceded to The Atlantic magazine that the own-your-dwelling component of our American Dream was oversold: ?We put people into homes who couldn?t afford it.?