Lifting the veil on homeownership

REThink Real Estate

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 7, 2010

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REThink Real Estate

Tara-Nicholle Nelson
Inman News

In my world, the biggest news story of 2009 had zero to do with Michael Jackson, Jon and/or Kate, or even the literally and figuratively overexposed Tiger Woods.

Instead, the biggest story of the year -- maybe even the decade -- in my real-estate-fixated consciousness was The Big Rethink: Americans' wholesale reconsideration of whether homeownership still belongs in "The American Dream."

You see, in my business I rethink, therefore I am. My company, my Web site, this column, my book series, my "brand" -- all are called REThink Real Estate. Since 2006, I have literally traveled coast to coast and back again (and again) hollering "REThink real estate!" from the rooftops and satellite media tours.

This, all because I became convinced through personal experience that real estate presented the purest opportunities ever to consciously design and upgrade our lifestyles.

What I didn't fully appreciate at the beginning of the decade was that if real estate decisions were made unconsciously, there were lifestyle consequences in store that were just as extreme -- in the opposite direction. But I learned this, both through personal experience and through those of my clients and readers.

By the end of 2009, we had all become painfully aware of the collective disaster that the unconscious, unsustainable and unwise real estate and mortgage decisions of even a relatively small chunk of the population could wreak on the entire nation -- actually, on the entire globe.

And it was this revelation, this apocalypse (in the sense intended by the original Greek definition: "lifting of the veil") that might have sparked The Big Rethink. It led many Americans to question whether owning a home was even a good thing to do anymore.

I heard stirrings of this, to me, earth-shattering concept that it might be OK, or even desirable, to rent in perpetuity among the same old disgruntled contrarians (sorry, guys -- my perception only) who were cranky ("you'd have to be nuts to pay 'X' for a house!"), committed renters for years.

But the vast majority of people who opt in to my life experience, both personally and professionally, are and have always been confirmed homeowners and real estate investors.

As such, I first realized that the national tide of opinion on homeownership was choppy in a non-isolated way while reading an article in the New York Times in August, entitled "A Reluctance to Spend Might be This Recession's Legacy." I was expecting the article to chronicle the slowdown in consumer spending, rediscovery of simple pleasures and increase in the savings rate -- which it did.

What I wasn't expecting was a quote from a laid-off patent attorney in her early 30s to the effect that she would be happy as a clam if she never owned a home. That, to me, was a real estate rethink of epic proportions.

Maybe it was simply that the swell of The Big Rethink coincided with my reading of that article. Or perhaps such a bold statement from a member of my real-estate-fixated peer group (young, female, professional, attorney, etc.) was my own personal lifting of the veil. But around the end of the summer, the stirrings of homeownership being reconsidered deeply penetrated my consciousness, and I tweeted: "Homeownership needs to step its game up."

Owning a home had lost the lure of fast appreciation, though it continues to hold its less-sexy wealth-building characteristics (tax advantages and slow-and-steady value increase). And, on top of that, ownership had become newly associated with the traumas of adjustable-rate mortgages, upside-down indebtedness, foreclosure and even eviction.

I wondered -- in the aftermath of this crisis, would homeownership be retrained out of the American palate? You know, like when you go on a whole foods eating plan. No matter how much you loved Doritos, Kit Kats and root beer when you started, after your palate has been retrained to Jack LaLanne's "if man made it, don't eat it" standard, the thrill of your former faves is gone.

Would homeownership forever after seem like a trans-fat-laden, illusory thrill that, in fact, threatened the wellness of personal economies of all but the wealthiest Americans?

For some homebuyers, the affordability spawned by the deep decline in value was motivation enough, but that would only be temporary. So, what would motivate Americans to want to own homes once they weren't dirt cheap to buy?

The answer recently came to me: desire. It's the wish to own the place you live in and, thereby, gain that much more control over the design of your life.

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