Friday, March 23, 2007


Your Dream House May Be Interfering With Your Livelihood

An English economist has demonstrated a positive correlation between home ownership and high levels of unemployment both in Europe and the United States. Several phenomena explain this trend. Individuals who have put down roots in an area will build strong social networks that will induce them to stay - and not just for sentimental reasons. A strong social network can help unemployed individuals find work, although perhaps not the the jobs they want and maybe not even at a convenient location. Then there is the logistical difficulty of parting with your present home and moving to another place to find another. If you own a house in an economically depressed area, the buyers' market may be small and your house may not sell for a good price. Also, if you need to move to any area which is booming in order to find a new job, you will have to pay more to buy the equivalent of your old house because the demand for houses there is higher. You can stay put in your present house, and weather the slings and arrows of unemployment, a reduced salary and/or a bad commute. Or you can uproot yourself from the community you've lived in for years, and lose money settling among strangers somewhere else in the hope of earning the money back later on. In a sense, you are damned if you do, and damned if you don't.

Here are some of my own thoughts. The recent boom in house prices, plus the current collapse of those prices, have affected this dynamic in different and probably very negative ways. Home owners have spend vast sums to buy houses with the expectation that the value of those houses will increase still further, providing them with their primary retirement investment. Paradoxically, the more your house is worth when you become unemployed, the less willing you will be to part with it, and the more likely you will draw on its value by taking out additional mortgages, thereby sinking yourself further into debt and diminishing your house's retirement value. When the price of your house plummets, you will still be reluctant to sell it because its decreasing value is no longer enough to offset the debt you've already accumulated. Instead, you will stay put, hoping against all odds that its price will rise yet again, beyond what it was even at its peak in the past - as that will be the only way you'll be able to recoup on your losses and pay back your debts. The growing insecurity of corporate employment and flat wages will dissuade you from what may once have been the most sensible solution - simply selling your house, and moving to a place where you can find a better job.

Why on earth should we be as afflicted by the same self-defeating immobility as the Europeans anyway? Americans in the past were an extremely mobile people, always willing to move to better their circumstances. Somehow this pioneer spirit has collided with another of our national myths - that of the Norman-Rockwellian "home sweet home" with the white picket fence - and the two myths are bringing each other down.

"The Renter's Manifesto: Why home ownership causes unemployment" from Slate

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