Rent vs. Own: Why Did I Write This Book?

Funny you asked. I didn’t initially want to write this real estate book (more on that in a minute). But eventually, I realized that this was the book that wanted to get written—the idea that was bubbling below the surface of my idea and a publisher’s response to it, below the surface of the housing market itself: When, if ever, does it make sense to own a home?

As a journalist and as a reader, the stories I most enjoy pit expectations and assumptions about a reality or institution against the less-appealing truth of the thing. I don’t get to write these stories very often, but when I do I relish them. Maybe it’s because I was a comparative literature major back in the day and see a clash of dueling narratives in these tales, or maybe it’s because I’m a glum Capricorn, but when I get the opportunity to write about people’s disillusionment I enjoy it. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like to wallow in others’ pain. Rather, I’m interested in where and how people develop their expectations, and what happens when those expectations don’t pan out. Usually, it’s partly the individual’s fault for over-optimism—but sometimes it’s also someone or something else’s fault for stirring that optimism into a tall, frothy whip. (Exhibit A: Dot-com boom. Exhibit B: Real estate.) An effort to figure out how we make ourselves miserable, and how we can avoid repeating it, are what I try to offer as armchair public service.

Like I said, I didn’t set out to work on the Great Rethink of Homeownership. Initially, I wanted to write about single women home buyers, which was kind of a thing in the 1990s and 2000s. Single ladies were moving more aggressively than their male counterparts into home buying. I was interested in this not so much because I was amazed that women were buying homes (my analysis: duh, why not?), but because I was amazed people were so amazed women were buying  Not surprisingly, my interest in women’s home buying was also a case of personal-is-political: I was fascinated with the vehement negative reaction I got from men (my father, a then-boyfriend) and women (but you’re not married!) about my ordinary-enough decision in 2003 to buy a relatively-affordable bungalow in a funky neighborhood. (Read about the home buy that launched 1,000 arguments here.) I wondered if social reality or mainstream psychology had failed to keep pace with socioeconomic reality — later or no marriage, smaller households, women’s economic strength — which all seemed to explain the trend. I also wanted to torch articles and books I saw that spoke of a woman’s home as her “relationship object” (no man? get a mortgage!)—even though I’d never heard a single man’s purchase depicted as a relationship substitute (typically, it’s “his investment”). I would call this book Honey, You’re Home.

The publisher who took interest in my idea acknowledged that women’s home buying was interesting and all. But, actually, the publisher said, they didn’t want my book—but something rotated several inches away, which is to say a big fat first-time buyer book. Like my idea, but stripping out the women and society thing. They wanted a “category killer” or “service” book, as they say in the trade. They wanted to publish a book about the buying process, but incorporating into the mix the new post-bubble realities of mortgage finance and distressed properties and economic mayhem. Could I take a crack at that sort of book? Initially, I was sad they didn’t share my vision about the women homebuyer story. But I had to consider whether what this experienced book publisher wanted was something I could do—or I wanted to do. Maybe they knew better than me what people needed to read.

What does a first-time buyer in today’s market need to know? I asked myself as I read the coverage, or added to it, and considered delivering some ideas on the topic for this publisher. It slowly began dawning on me that the publisher’s intuition that readers need fresh home-buying information was true, but not in the way they’d imagined. The question wasn’t one of how a first-time buyer enters the real estate market following an epic bust—but should people buy at all, was buying able to deliver all its old promises? Homeownership, as an institution, was up for a reboot. The question was really this: Is it wiser to rent or own? In the past, owning was the assumed answer, but in the present and foreseeable future, the case for renting and owning look different—with owning a little less appealing than before, but not altogether off the table.

The rent versus own question didn’t just apply to first-time buyers. It applied to America, where owning a home has long been considered The American Dream. During the summer of 2010, I interviewed a family named The Cleavers, a Chicago couple who sold their Milwaukee home at a loss and were taking a pause—possibly permanent—from owning while they regrouped financially. They were among an emerging subset of rethinkers. And then there’ve always been people who’ve defended a pro-renting stance, like Matthew Amster-Burton, author of “The Renter’s Manifesto.” I kept finding books that discussed how our historic emphasis on ownership had gone overboard or led to misguided consumerist excess—as depicted in books like Douglas Rushkoff’s Life Inc. and Alyssa Katz’s Our Lot. On it went. Owning has had a lot of spokespersons, but not too many skeptics. Until recently.

Rent Vs. Own, when it showed up as the question potential buyers need to consider, was like an epiphany from a James Joyce novel. The epiphany just kept unfurling… That publisher who wanted an old-school book for first-time buyers? They didn’t see the vision. I’m happy to say that Chronicle Books bit on my idea—the same week Time Magazine published a cover story titled “The Case Against Homeownership.”  It’s not that the case against homeownership is absolute—it’s just that so many people who’ve owned have found themselves disappointed by the promises prior markets led them to believe that it’s time to rethink what we expect of homeownership. It’s that disillusionment I like exploring: Where did we assume too much, what should we expect going forward? The truth isn’t always pleasant, but it’s often not as bad as we think.