American Dream, downsized: Homeownership not a given

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 5, 2011 

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When Lina and Jimi Gibson moved into their 850-square-foot apartment in 2009, they figured they'd stay two years while they planned their wedding and saved for a house. Now, with the economy in another tailspin, they're on the fence.

The couple can walk to restaurants and movies from their building in southwest Charlotte. They have a gym and a pool, and they don't have to mow the lawn or repair the roof. Mostly, they don't have to worry — like so many of their friends — that the housing market's slide isn't over.

"I don't want to have a house that's going to be worth nothing or a neighborhood that's going to lose everything," said Lina Gibson, 27, a bank teller. "We just want to start off strong, with no debt. We're just being very careful."

For decades, Americans have aspired to own homes, and everyone from bankers to government officials has worked to make the dream accessible. But around the country, particularly in places hit hardest by the real estate bust, that's changing.

Legions of homeowners remain underwater on their mortgages or unable to move because they can't sell their house. Plenty who want homes can't buy them because credit remains tight.

Look deeper, though, and the trends suggest a larger shift in how people feel about homeownership:

_ Droves of potential buyers, particularly young adults, are renting longer even when they can afford to buy, stockpiling their savings or seeking investments they see as safer, real estate brokers and economists say.

_ People who do buy are increasingly opting for more modest houses. Recent data show new homes are smaller — and sport fewer pricey extras, such as fireplaces and patios — than in years past.

_ Homeowners are staying in their houses longer. Just 11 percent of sellers surveyed by the National Association of Realtors last year had owned their home for three years or less, down from 30 percent in 2006.

Increasingly, consumers seem to be viewing their houses simply as places to live, instead of lucrative investments.

It remains to be seen whether the shift is permanent. Memories of past recessions can fade quickly, economists say, and government policies encouraging home buying aren't likely to disappear, because the housing market remains a critical part of the U.S. economy.

What's more, many say the reasons to buy, from the appeal of a long-term investment to the simple desire to own property, might outweigh even consumers' worst fears.

For now, though, some experts say the American Dream has taken a back seat to economic realities.

"We've gone through 50 years of homeownership being the American Dream, and in those 50 years, homes didn't do anything but appreciate," said Bill Miley of real estate research firm Metrostudy. "The American Dream today is job security and being able to afford gasoline to get to work. It's certainly not buying a home."

Homeownership is a long-held dream for many Americans, but a century ago, it wasn't accessible for most. Often, the only way to buy was to pay cash or take out a pricey loan with a large down payment.

Government policy helped change that. From the beginning of the federal income tax, people have been allowed to deduct their mortgage interest. In 1938, the government established the Federal National Mortgage Association, known as Fannie Mae, to provide local banks with federal money to finance home mortgages, creating the 30-year mortgage with fixed interest and leading to more housing loans.

After World War II, the G.I. Bill helped veterans secure low down-payment loans with low interest rates. Suburbs sprang up, and the U.S. homeownership rate climbed above 60 percent from 45 percent in the first half of the century.

The U.S. had become a nation of homeowners.

Meanwhile, the government continued to encourage home buying through tax breaks and programs that push homeownership for low-income earners.

Then came the real estate boom. Credit was cheap and easy to obtain, risky products such as adjustable-rate mortgages crowded the market, and by the mid-2000s, homeownership rates had spiked to nearly 70 percent.

"If you had a pulse," Miley said, "you could get a loan."

Consumers kept buying, landing bigger mortgages and borrowing against their homes for other purchases: second homes, boats, college tuition. Investors bought and sold homes quickly, reaping huge profits.

We know what happened next: The financial world nearly collapsed. The nation plunged into its worst recession in decades. People lost their jobs, then their homes. Even homeowners who weren't underwater began to question their investments.

Today the nation's homeownership rate has dropped back below 66 percent. And the housing market is still struggling, despite record-low interest rates and attractive prices.

Prices have fallen more than they did during the Great Depression, research firm Capital Economics reported recently.

Part of the reason the market remains weak is that some people who want to buy can't get loans. The National Association of Realtors, for one, is calling on banks to bring back "common-sense standards" in lending, loosening what the association considers to be too-strict requirements, spokesman Water Molony said.

That would boost sales 15 to 20 percent, he said. He said a homeownership rate of around two-thirds of U.S. households is more realistic than the boom-years peak, saying some people simply shouldn't be homeowners. But Molony said there's a pent-up demand among other potential buyers that could help bolster the anemic economic recovery.

"Housing got a black eye," he said. "But it doesn't really take away the American Dream. People still aspire to it."

Kitt Halterman, a Kansas City, Mo., Realtor who specializes in condo sales, said people there still feel good about investing in a house. But she said the market there has had to pay the price for other areas caught up in the housing bubble, which has made lending tighter and required homebuyers to come up with more money to buy.

"That's the thing that's slowed the market," she said. "Once (consumers) think things are settled, I don't think it will change the idea of the American Dream being buying your home."

Yet consumers and real estate experts say attitudes about owning real estate are changing. A recent report from Morgan Stanley, for instance, found that the U.S. homeownership rate has fallen below 60 percent when delinquent borrowers are excluded, a sign of the country's move toward a "rentership society."

John Bradford of Park Avenue Properties, a Cornelius, N.C., real estate and property management firm, said he's seeing more consumers hold off on buying homes while they wait for a recovery.

"Some renters are thinking, why would I buy when I can rent and invest my money in other things?" he said.

Charlotte Realtor Matthew Tringali began to see greater demand for rentals in 2008. Since then, managing rental properties for homeowners who can't sell has become one of the biggest parts of his job.

"People are naturally afraid that home prices are still falling," he said.

It's unclear whether the trend of putting off homeownership is permanent. A recent Wells Fargo & Co. survey found consumers still view buying a house as a foundation of the American Dream.

The study, conducted by The Futures Co., found 36 percent of "millenials" — the largest potential first-time homebuyer group — reported owning a home. Two-thirds of millenials, who are 18 to 30, believe they will be homeowners within the next five years.

Jon Wilkinson, 25, planned to buy a home this spring, after his wife, Linda, finishes school at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. Given the low interest rates and prices, though — their mortgage wouldn't be much more than their current monthly rent — they decided to buy earlier.

"We've always rented, but we always thought we would buy a house one day," said Wilkinson, an accountant. "That's the No. 1 reason."

In some markets, buying has become as cheap as renting, sealing the deal for some buyers. Home prices in Sacramento, Calif., have fallen by half since 2007, spurring a sales bump at the low end of the market, according to market research firm DataQuick.

"Everyone wants to own right now," said John Arvanitis of Sunrise Vista Mortgage Co. in nearby Citrus Heights. "There's plenty of people out there right now chomping at the bit to become homeowners."

Other reports suggest that while long-term prospects for homeownership aren't weakening, what consumers look for in a home is changing.

A November 2010 survey from the National Association of Realtors found buyers are increasingly taking a long-term view of their investment. The survey found that typical sellers had been in their home eight years, up from seven years in 2009 — and that first-time buyers plan to stay in their new house for 10 years. Repeat buyers, meanwhile, plan to hold their property 15 years.

Personal-finance guru Suze Orman endorses the strategy in her new book, "The Money Class," reminding readers that a home is not a stock — and that buying with the intent to flip for a profit or to fund other goals through home-equity loans was never wise.

"The deflated home values have put an end to the prospect of home as retirement fund or college fund and raised the question of whether homeownership in fact even makes sense anymore," she wrote. "I am shocked by the number of people I talk to who ... regret the day they thought a home purchase was a great idea."

Buyers are drifting toward different kinds of homes, too, particularly smaller, more affordable properties closer to their jobs, data from the National Association of Home Builders show. A study last year by the group found the median size of new single-family homes has dropped to 2,100 square feet, for instance, from a peak of 2,268 square feet in 2006.

"It's going to be a long, long time before we start seeing custom builders building very expensive homes," said Miley of Metrostudy, the real estate research firm. "It is not an investment. It is a shelter. It is a place to raise a family. It's a back yard."

It's not yet clear what the future holds for homeownership. Most economists and industry experts expect the market to rebound, though they acknowledge recovery could be a long road.

Some say that once credit standards loosen and the economy improves, consumers will turn more readily to homeownership — and that eventually, young adults who chose to rent for convenience and security will want to buy a house and settle down.

Experts suspect the government will always encourage ownership through the mortgage interest deduction, too.

"When they talk about tax reform, that's always on the table, as it should be, in my mind," said John McIlwain, a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit research organization based in Washington. "But it's one thing to mention the possibility, and it's another thing to move forward. People say, 'Are you going to vote against home ownership?' It's like being against apple pie, motherhood, etc."

But whether potential homebuyers opt to buy in coming years or continue to hold off depends on the housing market's strength, some say.

The Gibsons, who rent in southwest Charlotte, still think they'll probably buy a home someday. They got married last year and hope to start a family in the next few years, and they've already been pre-approved for a home loan.

Still, they worry: One friend, unable to sell her townhome when she had to move, was forced to let it fall into foreclosure. Another owes more on his home than it's worth. The couple are looking at homes, but they wonder if many are still priced too high.

In the meantime, Lina Gibson and her husband, who works for Carolinas HealthCare System, are contributing more to their retirement accounts and padding their savings. They clip coupons and shop at consignment stores, a dramatic shift from a few years ago.

They don't have any debt and they like the freedom that brings.

"We both have an American Dream that we focus on every day," said Lina Gibson, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Colombia. "We want to work hard and then actually live the dream later."

(Pittman reports for the Charlotte Observer. Kevin Collison of the Kansas City Star and Dale Kasler of the Sacramento Bee contributed to this story.)

SHIFTING ATTITUDES

Consumers are waiting longer to buy homes, and they're opting for smaller, more affordable properties when they do buy, data show — suggesting a shift in attitudes about the American Dream.

New-home sales hit 870,000 in July 2007, before the recession began. The median sales price was $239,500.

In July, new-home sales fell to an annual rate of 298,000, the lowest level in five months, according to the latest data from the Census Bureau. The median sales price, $222,000, was also down from the previous month, though it climbed from the year before.

In addition, a study last year by the National Association of Home Builders found the median size of new single-family homes is declining.

Today's downsizing trend is likely to last, association economists said, fueled by factors such as tight credit, less interest in buying homes as an investment and the desire to keep energy costs down.

The group's research found a steady decline in the number of homes started since 2005 with three-car garages, fireplaces and patios. And the share of for-sale homes priced above $300,000 was less than 25 percent in 2009, down from 35 percent in 2006 and 2007, the association found.

"Builders are responding to a new mindset among home buyers," NAHB chairman Bob Jones, a Michigan builder, said in the report. "And it is transforming the product they deliver."

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