Item for Sale: one (1) house. But it is not just a house, of course. Tied up in the physical structure is a complex tangle of myths, aspirations, and obligations. Among the obligations, though certainly not alone in that category, is the thirty-year mortgage that you recently “qualified for.” We will come back to that later. The myths and aspirations attached to the house are oh so preciously American. “Owning” (again, we will return to this) your own home carries with it the promise of independence, and after all, isn’t independence what generations of American men and women have worked, fought, died, and hoped for? Though most realtors or homebuilders are too polite or discreet to mention such a relationship, this “independence” ought to have its own line item on the good faith estimate attached to the contract. “No more landlords for us,” it might say– this structure is ours to do with as we please. The house, or in more evocative Western parlance, the homestead, is supposed to say something about us as a family, both to others, but perhaps more importantly to ourselves. It says that we are our own masters, that we have toiled on this earth to carve out a little piece of soil, wood, and stone that we can call our own, that we have claimed a piece of our by-golly God-given heritage. It also signals that we are “adults,” that we have successfully navigated that most crucial of transitions from children living with their parents, to a twenty-something living alone or with friends in more transient quarters, to a full-fledged and fully-actualized grown-up.
If you were or are fortunate enough to be born into what remains of a middle class in this country, at times it seems that you were handed a certificate shortly after birth which promised you: 1) a college education, 2) fulfilling work, and 3) a house for you, a beautiful or handsome spouse, and your two-point-whatever accomplished and way-above-average children. But the cake is a lie.
As I said before, if you are like nearly everybody out there buying a home and not close to retirement, there will be a significant amount of debt related to the purchase of the home, which will necessitate a mortgage. And while you are signing this contract that promised you the independence of owning your own home (its in those disclosures somewhere), what it resembles more closely is an agreement for a fixed term of servitude. This house will hang around your neck for at least thirty years like, well, a house. While you may tell yourself that you are cleverly storing up value in your home equity, if you are one of the lucky many to have bought a home in the last five years, you are almost certainly allocating about 80-90% of your monthly mortgage payment to interest and escrow. And chances are that any equity you might have already earned has been obliterated in the recent sharp decline in nationwide home values. Thus, should you choose to sell this house, you will not see a dime of this “value,” because what you have been paying is basically…….rent. But don’t get angry at the banks, or the mortgage brokers, or the realtors. The legally mandated disclosures were all there– the property taxes, the interest, the insurance, etc. Of course, they never disclosed the repair costs, the higher utility bills, nor the value of your precious time (precious because it is so rare, since an absurd portion of your waking hours are spent toiling at your “fulfilling work” to earn enough to pay that mortgage) spent maintaining and beautifying the home, because that is all part of the dream of the independent American home owner. Thus we trade what likely adds up to decades of our lives, in addition to hundreds of thousands of dollars above the “value” of the house, and all the forfeited happiness from toil at jobs that we hate and our failure to take time for ourselves to grow and prosper in a non-material sense, in a desperate attempt to hold onto something that will only be “ours” in anything more than the most paltry, technical sense after more than a third of our statistical longevity has passed us by.
So if you already own a home, I am so, so sorry. We bought into the myth– the one that says that all right-thinking adults have to own a house, and that all other options are necessarily dishonorable and irresponsible.
If you do not own a home, but are thinking about it, run while you still can. Save yourselves.