‘Home, Sweet Home’ And American Identity
“Home is where the heart is.”
“Home is where you hang your hat.”
“Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.”
The clichés about house and home could fill a whole blog post on their own. But these phrases are clichés for a reason: because the value of ‘home’ cannot be overstated. The desire to have a place you can call your own is so deep and profound—especially in the United States—that there is a uniquely American marriage between home, homeownership, and what we think about when we think of what it means to be “American.”
The concept of home is central to what it means to be human. But the concept of owning your home is a fairly new one. For most of human history, homeownership was only possible for the wealthiest and most powerful. Not only was homeownership out of reach for most people, but the concept of home and the ability to own property was often used to determine who did and did not belong.
A Brief History Of Home
From early immigrants seeking a home free from religious persecution to pioneers packing their belongings in covered wagons to find a more prosperous place to call home out West, home has always been key to the American experiment. However, in the nineteenth century, the debate on what it meant to be an American, became centered on the concept of home. The ability to build and sustain a ‘true home’ determined which people were respectable, and anyone who could not live up to this standard was excluded socially and politically. This rigid definition of home was used to justify the exclusion of European immigrants living in tenement housing, Chinese immigrants, Native Americans, African Americans, and the working poor from respectability and true American-ness.
On the other hand, building and sustaining a home was the main way otherwise excluded people could earn their American-ness. As Richard White writes in Smithsonian Magazine, “The home always remained a two-edged sword.” It could be a vehicle for inclusion just as much as exclusion. The Homestead Act expanded the creation of homes for citizens and immigrants alike. Labor reformers demanded a living wage, which they defined in terms of the money needed to build and support a home. The radical forty acres and a mule owed to newly freed African Americans were designed as reparations in the form of a potential place to settle. In these examples, the home was used as a tool for social equity and empowerment.
Homeownership And The American Dream
Our current relationship to the concept of home is not quite as aggressive as it was in the nineteenth century, but it remains a central element of the ever-elusive and difficult-to-define American dream.
When large-scale communities of houses were built in and around major cities in the twentieth century our relationship to home and homeownership changed forever. These new developments—combined with the baby boom and low-interest rates soldiers received coming back from World War II—meant that homeownership was possible for more Americans than ever before.
To this day, when it comes to owning a home, few people pursue the aspiration as intensely as Americans. According to Forbes, “Homeownership has long been accepted as a core component of the American dream, as it confers several economic benefits on homeowners.” These benefits include building wealth through accessing credit, acquiring equity, and reducing housing costs. And becoming a homeowner can be a personal and professional milestone.
According to US Census Bureau data, homeownership has remained consistently above 60 percent since the 1960s. But today, it feels harder than ever to get the label of “homeowner.” There are too few houses and prices are spiking for the inventory we do have. Plus, the ever-present supply chain issues are making it harder to build new houses to help fill the gap. So, is homeownership still the key component of the American dream?
Shifting The American Dream
NPR’s Chris Arnold called the housing crisis of 2007-08 “a frontal assault on the American dream.” Millions of people who had purchased homes with mortgages they couldn’t afford thought they were achieving a cornerstone of the American dream. Instead, they experienced foreclosure, and some were shut out of homeownership for good. However, the roots of homeownership and the American dream run too deep to be upended permanently by this upheaval. Arnold concludes: “There's a sort of anti-feudal impulse in America that people here aspire to live without some landlord sitting on their back demanding rents.” These impulses have been here for a long time, and we aren’t going away from them anytime soon.
In addition to the desire for freedom and autonomy that homeownership provides, it is also the best opportunity to build wealth. After all, the American dream is really about upward mobility, and wealth building through homeownership is an important rung in that ladder.
As we head into a potentially difficult shift in the market, it means we’re also heading into another possible time when the American dream feels more like a dream than a reality . As home prices rise, it gets harder and harder for first-time home buyers to afford to take the leap. A recent study found that seven out of ten people believe it’s a bad time to buy a house. But that doesn’t mean these people are going to stop buying or trying to buy; it’s in our DNA to want to own our own home after all. Instead, it means that these people need expert help now more than ever. It means that they need a guide through the rough mountains of real estate.
That’s where agents come in. Helping potential home buyers and especially first-time home buyers through the gauntlet of buying a home is not only an exciting opportunity to educate and assist, but it’s also a privilege. An agent’s job is about more than finding a house for their clients, it’s about earning their trust, listening to their needs, anticipating problems, and maintaining standards. It’s a privilege to be a key player in someone’s journey to becoming a homeowner. You are not just their agent; you are their confidant and are helping them literally change the trajectory of their lives with homeownership. You are the person that hands them the keys to their home, the keys to a cornerstone of the American dream.
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