The Economic Benefits and Costs of Homeownership: A Critical Assessment of the Research

Title: The Economic Benefits and Costs of Homeownership: A Critical Assessment of the Research

Date: 5/1/2001

Author(s): George McCarthy, Shannon Van Zandt, and William Rohe

Executive Summary:

Policymakers, nonprofit leaders, and housing experts see homeownership as key to wealth accumulation for most American families. Many argue that homeownership drives not only families' financial prosperity, but also the health of neighborhoods and, nationally, other major markets for credit, labor, and finance. What is the evidence for these claims? This literature survey addresses that question. It is the second installment of the Research Institute for Housing America's effort to establish what we know and do not know about the benefits and costs of homeownership (see the companion publication, The Social Benefits and Costs of Homeownership, Working Paper No. 00-01).
Assessing the literature, McCarthy, Van Zandt, and Rohe argue that homeownership increases "housing security" to families. Research surveyed shows that homeownership gives more control to owners over their physical surroundings and tenure, lowers real monthly payments over time, protects against unanticipated changes in rental costs, and helps build wealth. Homeownership also provides a ready mechanism for families to borrow money and get credit to, for instance, improve their home, make purchases, or invest in education or the financial markets.

Most of these benefits are available to all homeowners regardless of economic status. The authors, however, identify a very practical problem low-income families have in obtaining the most visible economic benefit of owning a home: homeowner tax preferences, most notably the mortgage interest deduction. Opinion research cited demonstrates the pervasive belief that the mortgage interest deduction is critical to homeownership. However, this popular belief belies the reality that most low-income homeowners do not realize the benefit of most homeowner tax preferences.

The value of the standard deduction makes itemizing mortgage interest and property taxes a losing proposition for most low-income households, thus reducing the economic benefits of homeownership. For this reason, McCarthy et al. conclude that the United States has created a housing finance system that makes the direct benefits of owning a home most favorable for high-income families and least favorable for low-income families.

McCarthy et al.'s review also suggests that many of the costs of homeownership hit lowerincome households the hardest. For instance, lower-income households typically own older homes requiring substantially higher maintenance expenditures than new homes. These families are the most likely to have difficulty paying for this maintenance, particularly if they are already in a highly leveraged affordable mortgage. In addition, transaction costs are more of a barrier to housing affordability for lower-income households. Many closing costs are typically a flat fee, a higher relative burden the poorer the buyer. The authors also find evidence that lower-income households tend to overinvest in housing, have highly leveraged mortgages, and live in neighborhoods that have more volatile house prices.

In particular, the lack of asset diversification is a problem for low-income families. Today's economy has broken the previous compact between employer and employee of job security in return for loyalty. Thus, today's workforce has to be far more mobile to follow available jobs. The authors cite evidence that labor mobility, rather than wage adjustment, is how markets adjust to changes in employment. Owning a home greatly reduces the mobility of households, just when they need it most to move to areas where the economy is growing and the households' skill sets are in demand.

In addition, the authors examine the economic benefits and costs of homeownership on a broader societal basis. Due to its perceived stabilizing effect, professionals and elected officials often view increasing homeownership as a central strategy for successful economic development. This strategy assumes that one homeowning neighbor will have a positive influence on the behavior of another, developing a web of mutually reinforcing relationships and expectations that contribute to the health and vitality of communities. In practical terms, homeownership establishes common economic interest: If my neighbor does not paint her house or mow her lawn, the value of my home is likely to decrease.

In fact, the authors find evidence in the literature that as homes are abandoned (measured by tax delinquencies), neighborhood house prices go down. Conversely, increasing homeownership increases the value of all homes in the area. Thus, homeownership can help to stabilize a neighborhood and start a self-fulfilling cycle of improvement and wealth creation. For this stabilizing pattern to emerge, the new homeowners must be successful-they must make their mortgage payments on time and have enough money to properly maintain their home. Homeownership must be sustainable. If the new homeowner fails, then nearby home prices will decline and the neighborhood is likely to decline.

In sum, the authors highlight two critical concerns for both business and public policy. First, the interplay between current homeownership tax breaks and the standard deduction denies the most visible, and perhaps the most important, financial benefit of homeownership to lowincome households. Decades of deficit politics have often turned this fact, combined with our nation's underinvestment in affordable rental housing, into a call to cut the mortgage interest deduction to pay for meeting the housing needs of poorer families. Perhaps the current budgetary environment is more favorable to fairly extending the economic benefits of homeownership without having to cannibalize other housing benefits.

The second critical concern raised by this study is the sustainability of homeownership. McCarthy et al. clearly point out that unsustainable homeownership is in no one's interest. Many of the recent gains in low-income and minority homeownership hinge on highly leveraged mortgage products. A slowing economy elevates the importance of post-purchase counseling and innovative servicing technology and techniques to preserve these gains. In addition, more innovation and awareness of affordable rehabilitation financing products can help reduce the cost of maintaining homes-and homeownership.