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How Homeownership Has Changed in America And Why You Shouldn't Give Up on Buying

In one short decade, home ownership has gone from being the Holy Grail of middle-class financial achievement to a very risky financial ball-and-chain.

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In one short decade, home ownership has gone from being the Holy Grail of middle-class financial achievement -- the biggest and most lucrative investment most of us would ever make, and the one most reliably likely to pay off -- to a very risky financial ball-and-chain that more and more of us are going way out of our way to avoid.

To be sure, rental housing is no joy. You're answerable to the landlord for every picture nail, plugged drain and loose window; and you get to endure bad landscaping, cheap appliances and paint and carpet colors not even Martha Stewart could work with. But if the trade-off is between spending your life co-existing with your landlord's surreal aesthetic choices or watching your life savings turn into six-figure debt as the value of your house sinks beneath the waves, more and more of us are choosing to suck it up and embrace the charms of bubblegum pink bathroom tile.

For the last few years, renting has seemed prudent and safe -- even for those lucky enough to have the cash for a down payment and a stable enough income to buy. But as the bubble has deflated, and the prices are getting closer to what they would have been in a less exuberant economy, a few hardy souls are starting to venture back in.

What's different now, though, is that there are signs that the deep expectations and motivations of American homebuyers are changing. The economic crash has created some deep ontological shifts in how we value homes and home ownership. The early signals are starting to suggest that we're on a return trip back to a much older American tradition of home ownership – one that assessed a home's primary value not on the basis of its price on the open market, but for what it offered intrinsically to families in terms of security, stability and self-sufficiency.

Recent years have seen a boom in slow food and slow money. Now, some of us are also starting to think about the virtue of slow home ownership as well.

Back to the future

For the first 150 years of our history, we were mostly a farming nation; and this fact deeply colored the way we defined words like "home," "security," "prosperity" and "freedom."

Up until around 1900, farmland was plentiful and cheap enough that it wasn't uncommon for an enterprising white guy to have 40 acres in his name by his late 20s -- either by working hard for somebody else and saving up his cash, or by toughing out the hard five years it took to prove up a homestead. But acquiring the raw land was just the start: that up-front investment would be followed by many decades of exhausting work to build up the infrastructure (barns, herds, flocks, houses, equipment) that yielded a reliably prosperous and stable farm, providing employment for a large family and food for scores of fellow citizens.

Owning a farm (or perhaps more accurately, allowing it to own you) was an all-in commitment that you hoped to make just once, and planned to stick with for the rest of your life. Ideally, your kids would take it over and improve it even further -- so any investment in your homestead was an investment in a better, easier future for them, too. And in return, the house and land rewarded you with a reliable source of money and food, a secure place for your family, and a sturdy roof that nobody could take away from you. The fact that you owned your own place is what made you a free man.

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