We Are the Homebuilders, Not Them

Over the holidays, the most recent Case-Shiller Index results were released for October 2012 and the business media ran with them.  According to the data, while the index declined .1% from the previous month for both the 10 and 20 city indices, the two were up 4.3% and 3.4% respectively from October 2011.  That’s good – for the financial sector – since one of the primary reasons for the Fed’s artificially low interest rates is to keep a prop under housing so as to keep any more ABS products from imploding.  But what continues to catch my attention is that the media predominantly refers to these as home prices, and not housing prices. 

There’s been a fundamental change in our perspective in the last five decades, especially within the past three.  Spending on discretionary items rose significantly during the Fifties as rising income meant that the typical American family could not only cover the basics – clothing, food, housing – but also save and then have even more to spend on "fun" things.  A young adult generation that came of age during the deprivation and fear of the Great Depression and Second World War basked in the relative ability to do as they pleased, even as they remembered the darkness that they’d survived.  But that memory didn’t get passed along to the subsequent generations even as the sense of entitlement grew.  The American family had to have more – more televisions, more automobiles, larger houses – in order to compete with their neighbors and more importantly, feed the new economic model of mass consumption.  Leisure became a principal preoccupation and ease of use a goal.  Swanson showed us that factory-made frozen dinners could be preheated and the family could share their meal in front of the television set.  When mothers began entering the workforce and feeling the stress of juggling provider/homemaker roles, McDonald’s told them that you deserve a break today, so go get up and get away…  The push to make things easy was on and has continued in full drive mode for decades now. 

This drive for the good life has carried over from the small things – TV dinners and fast food – to the larger ticket items and that now includes houses.  As residential development grew larger and builders began to market larger subdivisions, they appropriated the word home and made it their own.  For a generation of young adults that suffered heavily from divorce and broken homes in their youth, the presented images of clean, spic and span homes with smiling families – often unlike their own memories – was a natural sell that played heavily upon their emotions and dreams.  Starting around 2007 and afterwards, many families found that the purchased dream was anything but.  It wasn’t a home but merely a structure, and a pondeously heavy one at that.  There was nothing easy about having to manage the household and work to support an onerous mortgage, taken out to purchase far what was beyond one’s means.

Understand the difference between a house and home.  A house is what’s peddled by the real estate developers, a structure that’s supposed to be sturdy enough to withstand elements and provide a roof over the heads of you and your children.  It’s nothing more than the accumulation of materials and time put in by construction workers until they move along to the next structure for the next family.  Yet a home is more than that.  A home is a sense of belonging, a feeling that arises amongst the family members who all help to create it through shared activities and events, many of which are mundane yet still crucial to living a life.  Making the home clean, creating and sharing the meals, doing the homework and participating in the various activities and celebrating the events that help the children learn and grow.  But creating a home requires work, persistent and sometimes difficult; we’ve been so cumulatively lulled by the media messages that we forget how much challenge, thought and elbow grease can be involved in rearing children so that they can become – seemingly impossible at moments – productive and moral adults. 

Ignore the message of the homebuilders and take back the word home.  No builder will appear at the child’s ball game or concert.  No builder will awaken at 3 AM to comfort a child who’s sick or had a nightmare.  No builder will respond to the call from the principal about misbehavior.  No builder will spend the money – let alone time – to pay for the activity that so interests the child.  No builder will quiz the child on spelling or scientific principles and no builder will walk through the report card results with them at quarter’s end.  All of these are only a small part and parcel of what’s involved in creating a home and at no time have I ever seen a builder’s representative present.  The physical structure in which you live – single family, apartment, condo – are usually irrelevant to any of these things.

They build the houses.

We build the homes. 

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