There’s Exactly One Good Reason to Buy a House
Owning a home won’t make you happy. Filling it with love will.
“How to Build a Life” is a column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
Are you looking to buy a house in 2023? Welcome to hell. The average 30-year mortgage rate has approximately doubled in the past year, following a nearly 8 percent increase in average home prices the year before. How does a two-bedroom fixer-upper a block from the airport sound? It’s just 40 percent over your price range.
Choosing whether and where to buy a home is nerve-racking even if your only concern is your wallet. But the decision is also, in no small part, an emotional one. When I was buying my first home, I remember a stew of feelings: the pride of owning such a huge physical thing (well, 20 percent of that thing—the bank owned the rest); the aggravation of working with a realtor who was angling to run up the price; the fear that I was buying at the wrong time (I was) and would lose money in the end (I did). I also felt excited, because I expected that owning that house would improve my happiness, although I couldn’t say exactly how or why.
Owning a home can give you a nice place to sleep. It can improve your credit rating. It can even enhance your social status. But as I learned through personal experience (and, of course, research), none of those things will make you happier. Buying a home will enhance your happiness only if you do it for one reason: to congregate with the people you love.
Buying a house has an almost-mythic significance in the U.S. When the financial-services firm Bankrate asked Americans to rank the hallmarks of financial prosperity in 2022, homeownership was the No. 1 item. It beat out being able to retire, having a successful career, owning a car, having kids, and going to college.
Many studies over the years have shown that homeowners are, on average, happier than non-homeowners. In my own calculations, using the General Social Survey, 21 percent of people who own their home are “very happy,” compared with 16 percent of those who pay rent. (Curiously, 28 percent of “others” are also very happy, suggesting that couch surfing with friends or living with Mom might be underrated options.)
But none of this means that homeownership makes you happier. Homeownership turns out to be an insignificant predictor of happiness when you control for things like marriage, income increases, and social engagement.
Despite the evidence, many prospective buyers assume that their new home will boost their happiness. In a paper published in 2022 in the Journal of Happiness Studies, two Swiss economists analyzed decades’ worth of well-being data collected in Germany and found that homebuyers’ happiness was higher in the run-up to buying and in the months after doing so, then returned to prepurchase levels after a year. The research, however, also indicated that homeowners tended to expect to be significantly happier after buying than they turned out to be. This overestimate of happiness was greater than that of people who moved into rental properties instead. Renters’ post-moving happiness gains also lasted longer than buyers’, and did not return to their old (lower) levels.
The researchers found, too, that the quality of home buyers’ happiness predictions varied according to their stated life values. Although everybody’s happiness rose and then fell back after a home purchase, buyers with “extrinsic values”—who said their happiness depended on forces outside themselves, such as income and job success—were the most likely to overestimate the satisfaction they would derive from homeownership. Those with “intrinsic values”—who said their happiness came from their families and friendships—did not measurably overestimate their happiness after buying their home.
Extrinsically motivated people appear to believe that owning a home per se will bring greater happiness, just as they believe that other material things will. They also appear to be wrong. Meanwhile, intrinsically motivated homeowners seem to know that their satisfaction comes from the people in the house, which could explain why their predictions of happiness tend to prove much more accurate.
That still doesn’t directly answer the question of whether buying a house, with all the sacrifice and hassle that entails, will make you, personally, happier. Here’s what the research suggests.
If you believe that the feeling of ownership will have an enduring impact on your well-being, the answer is almost certainly “no.” That will become glaringly clear the first time your water stops and you reach for the phone to call the super, only to realize that you are the super. Similarly, the thrill you get from what homeownership says about you—that you are established and successful—will probably not last. Even the sheer comfort of a new home offers only a temporary high. We adapt quickly to housing improvements, just as we do all material satisfaction, and, accordingly, stop appreciating them.
In the 1991 movie Father of the Bride, Steve Martin’s character, George Banks, has a famous line about the house in which he raised his family: “This house is warm in the winter, cool in the summer and looks spectacular with Christmas lights. It’s a great house, and I never want to move.” It sounds like the physical comforts made him happy. But if you’ve watched that movie, you know that’s not what George meant. His eulogy to the house is a metaphor for the warmth, comfort, and beauty of his love for the people inside it.
Therein lies your formula for getting happier in your own home. If you think the house you are considering purchasing is the best place you can find to raise your family, welcome your friends, create traditions, and provide a destination for those you love, then go ahead and make it permanent. Your happiness will rise, because you have found a physical place to help you build the love in your life. If you can afford to, buy a house that facilitates your relationships by offering the space you need for a family and visiting friends, one that makes dinners and parties easy and fun.
Conversely, if buying a home threatens your relationships, don’t do it. Your happiness will very likely decrease if you have to move away from your friends or make do with space inadequate to entertain. Resist the temptation to sacrifice your human interactions for the sake of a smart investment or status symbol.
To be honest, the happy-house question is one my wife and I have answered incorrectly over and over again in our adult lives. After our first purchase, we knew the futility of buying in order to get richer or have nicer things, and resisted the urge to buy a “dream house,” but still had a problem: We just couldn’t settle down.
We made one short-term housing decision after another, moving house 19 times in 33 years, usually renting, and resisting all geographic and physical attachments. True, we were never disappointed by a house. But our adult kids now have to use GPS to find their parents. Having had greater stability earlier would be good for us now, because we would almost certainly know our neighbors and have more friends. The peripatetic life is a pretty lonely one.
Don’t let renting—and the ease of moving when you don't have to sell—prevent you from putting down roots. You need a strong network of people you can touch and see in real life. That’s the best way to make a happy home, whether or not you own it.