This article was featured in One Story to Read Today, a newsletter in which our editors recommend a single must-read from The Atlantic, Monday through Friday. Sign up for it here.
Growing up, Erin Nelson used to make fun of their dad for spending so much time looking out the window at what the neighbors were up to. “Now I’m that person,” Nelson, a 31-year-old who bought their first house a year ago in Portland, Oregon, told me. “I’m always peeking out the window … That’s like my new TV.” Nelson, who uses they/them pronouns, has realized that as a homeowner, their life is bound up with the people next door in a way it never has been before.
Buying a first house is, for those who can afford it, among the largest financial decisions someone makes in their life, and lately, the process has only gotten more stressful: During the pandemic, home prices have shot up, and shopping for a house has become intimidatingly competitive in many places. But even some winners of the competition have buyer’s remorse. In a recent survey from the real-estate site Zillow, roughly one-third of respondents reported regretting how much work or maintenance their home required, and roughly one-fifth concluded that they had paid too much.
Perhaps forgotten amid the bidding wars and the rush to lock in a mortgage as interest rates rise is the fact that this transaction has a way of changing people as well. In addition to buying an assemblage of wood, glass, and other materials and committing to a host of unfamiliar chores, homeowners are also buying a psychological grab bag of new stressors, time sucks, comforts, perks, and trivial fixations—such as the neighbors’ comings and goings. Homeownership can change your mental time horizon, your conception of your community, and your stakes in a physical place.
For starters, homeownership alters people’s relationship to the tangible stuff that makes up their house. “When I [rented] an apartment, I was like, ‘I’m hanging this photo on the wall. Whatever—not my wall!’” Maia Bittner, a 34-year-old in the Seattle area who works at a financial-technology company, told me. “Now I’m like, ‘Good God, I put every dollar I have into the down payment and this drywall is like a shrine.’”
Today’s new homeowners may even feel more of a desire to preserve and perfect their living space than previous generations. Logan Mohtashami, the lead analyst for the real-estate news site HousingWire, told me that buyers tend to hold on to their home for longer than they used to; the typical length of “tenure” was five to seven years from the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s, and is now, according to the real-estate site Redfin, about 13 years. “The psychology is that this is yours and you’re going to make it as good as possible because you’re in for a long time,” Mohtashami said. Bittner does not love the work that this requires, though. The stress of home maintenance—say, coordinating the repair of a leaky window—is less meaningful to her than the stress of her job, which she feels at least has the benefit of moving her career forward.
Committing to owning a house can also tie people more closely to a place. Nelson, who works for a tech start-up, told me that after moving frequently during childhood and hopping from rental to rental in their 20s, they find homeownership “very calming” at age 31. It has also led them to wonder, “Now that I’ve settled and claimed this little piece of land, what am I going to do to invest in my community?” One of Nelson’s answers has been to devote about 10 percent of their disposable income to local nonprofits.
In his book Dedicated: The Case for Commitment in an Age of Infinite Browsing, Pete Davis, a civic advocate, has written about how making a commitment to one place at the exclusion of others can unlock a deeper sense of community and purpose in life. “It is only when you are able to turn down the dial on the part of your mind that browses, assesses, compares, and judges the relationships you are in with the people, places, and institutions around you—and, in turn, turn up the dial on the part of your mind that simply works to deepen those relationships—that these joys of commitment begin to arise,” he told me.
Buying a house is a clear way of solidifying such a commitment—though Davis noted that homeownership shouldn’t be considered a prerequisite for cultivating a stake in a community. For both renters and buyers, Davis maintains, putting down roots in one place, instead of keeping your options open, is conducive to solving local problems.
Cynically, that could be because roots make fleeing from those problems more difficult. But investing in a place can also give people a deeper appreciation of both its flaws and charms, prompting people to do the hard work of improving it. Travis Sheridan, a 48-year-old who works at a real-estate-development company, had never had the same address for two consecutive years before purchasing a house in St. Louis eight years ago. That year, Michael Brown, a Black 18-year-old, was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, about a 15-minute drive away from Sheridan’s new house. At the time, Sheridan, who is Black, started “questioning whether I could thrive in a place like St. Louis given the racial inequities and lack of social justice,” he told me. Yet he recognized that “running is easy and comes with privilege,” and having invested in a house made him “want to stick out both the good and the bad swings of a city.” He’s since volunteered with a neighborhood nonprofit and advocated at city meetings. In this way, Sheridan is similar to homeowners across the country, who, research indicates, are more likely than nonowners to vote in local elections, donate to local candidates, and turn up at public planning meetings.
But homeowners’ rootedness can also mean that they might be the ones resisting change: As a group, they tend to be more opposed to the construction of new housing in their area. (Even though liberals might generally be assumed to support egalitarian housing policies, liberal homeowners are nearly as opposed to denser housing in their area as conservative ones.) Part of the reason for this opposition might be the (usually mistaken) belief that additional housing in their neighborhood will hurt property values. But Katherine Einstein, a political-science professor at Boston University, told me she suspects that in many cases, it stems from a resistance to changes in the community that they purchased a part of. Some of this resistance is innocuous, such as when people want to preserve a green space or limit traffic. Some of it is a coded form of racism or classism. “When people say ‘This new townhouse would ruin the character of the neighborhood,’” Einstein said, “you could be a little skeptical—is it the building or the people who are going to live in that building?”
Although many people find homeownership has unforeseen drawbacks, they may less often discover unexpected perks. “There’s a slight pro-homeownership bias in a lot of our conversations, and we probably dwell on those positives enough that there’s not a whole lot left unturned,” Kevin Mahoney, a financial adviser in Washington, D.C., who works with Millennials, told me. A prospective buyer, though, would be wise to internalize a fuller psychological accounting of what they’re about to do. For better or worse, owning a small chunk of the country puts you in a committed relationship with your surroundings; you might think of your ties to a place and its people on a longer timeline, and seemingly bland subjects—drywall and planning meetings—might take on new importance in your life.
Those changes have the potential to be as fulfilling as they are exasperating. Bittner, the Seattleite, has a lovely new home. It has a wide view of the ocean, and she can look out and see seals and bald eagles, sunrise and sunset, and Mount Rainier. The house has delivered on Bittner’s two main goals when buying it: having a nice living space (especially in the era of remote work) and a hedge against inflation. And yet, Bittner said that the house hasn’t made her any happier. “I have all the same problems that I had when I lived in a 400-square-foot apartment,” she said. Plus, she has to fix her own windows when they leak.