Homeownership is complicated in 2019

“So, you’re getting married! Congratulations! Where are you guys thinking about buying a house?!”

My fiancée and I were watching “Jeopardy!” one night when that text message rolled into my smartphone. It was an old friend, and we hadn’t talked in nearly three years.

“I’ll take ‘Things that will never happen’ for $800, Alex,” I replied in my mind.

I didn’t say that, though, and instead offered, “To be decided.”

Later that week we saw each other at a work event and spent about an hour catching up. He recently had gone through the process of purchasing a home with his wife. They married the year before, and the moment they became engaged, he said friends, family, and co-workers began hitting them up with that same question: So, when are you guys going to buy a house?

It propelled an entire debate between the two of them.

“Man, I’m not sure what we got ourselves into,” he said. “The bank approved us, and on paper everything was supposed to work out, but everything is so close.”

He proceeded to vent about everything from taxes and household expenses to maintenance costs that weren’t even part of the math when they closed.

That old friend also said buying a house “was never part of the equation,” at least not until the people around them started asking, and in some cases, pushing for them to make the jump.

As the conversation continued, it became clear that his concern was not about fundamental affordability but rather the “bill of goods” floated with the concept of home ownership. They bought a home that would accommodate them in five years, when presumably, children would be part of the equation.

“I mean, the plan is to have kids. But, I don’t know if we’ll both have the same jobs in five years, much less be living in this house,” he continued.

His thought process started to sound pretty familiar, and at that point, I came clean to his two earlier inquiries about my fiancée and my plan.

“I’m not sure when, or if it will happen. We’re in a great spot now, and are really happy with how things are going. We at least won’t think about it until long after the wedding,” I insisted.

“Yeah, I wish we stuck to that plan, too,” he responded.

The conversation didn’t go much further, and we moved onto happier topics. It got me thinking about the numbers, the logic that led me to a place where home ownership was a “maybe” rather than a certainty, and what would have to change in the industry in order for it to be considered “seriously.”

Last March, Fast Company reported this fascinating trend, which gets to approximately half the issue: “At the core of the American housing system of today is the fundamental belief that housing should be a vehicle for private wealth creation.” The story notes that privately owned housing on the market makes up more than 96 percent of the housing stock in the U.S., but that home ownership has declined by as much as 63 percent in some places. “Big banks and mortgage companies attach stringent criteria and high interest rates to loans that often lock lower-income people out of buying a home,” the Fast Company story continues.

You know who else walks away from the prospect of home ownership when that game is blatantly being played by lenders?

Middle-income folks who don’t want to fall into something that looks or feels like a trap.

There is a calculation taking place, and it’s pretty simple: What will the return on investment be if I/we purchase a home?

Career, job location, income, health, and family are a few factors that can drive choice of housing but that also can drive individuals out of certain housing situations. If your job changes, you need to move, and can’t sell your house, home ownership becomes a set of shackles — not a crowned accomplishment to be treasured in the social view of life.

There is an endless list of situations that can play out, which make home ownership less appealing. What’s worse is that many of those situations — like sudden joblessness or significant shift in income due to a layoff or medical emergency — are more likely to happen today than they were 40 years ago.

What’s the answer, then? Build stability. Whatever that means to the individual. Whether it’s related to career, personal finance, family, or community. Start there, and then think about the things in your life — like a place to live — that will help you move forward in that endeavor.

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