Americans Value Home Ownership, But Also Plan to Rent

In the wake of the recent recession, home ownership remains part of the American Dream. But, according to a new MacArthur Foundation survey, the appeal of renting is increasing and many believe the housing crisis is not over.

April 4, 2013

A new national opinion survey from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation finds that attitudes about home ownership have changed a great deal in the wake of the housing crisis.  

“America is going through a transformational period,” says Peter Hart, chairman emeritus of Hart Research, which conducted the survey on behalf of the foundation. “The unexpected is becoming the expected... [and] housing attitudes are indeed part of this new transformational world.”

Hart Research conducted telephone interviews of 1,433 adults between Feb. 27 and March 10, 2013, in an effort to help the MacArthur Foundation discover how Americans’ valuation of their homes may have changed in light of recent economic turmoil. The findings of the survey were released in a report titled, "How Housing Matters: Americans’ Attitudes Transformed By The Housing Crisis & Changing Lifestyles."

The good news for those in real estate is that home ownership is still an aspiration for 72 percent of all renters surveyed. This proportion is even higher among renters under age 40, at 84 percent.

The researchers also found that the appeal of renting may have been bolstered by recent economic insecurity. More than half of survey respondents stated that, given the nation’s current economic situation, buying a home has become less appealing (a little over one-quarter stated that home ownership has become more appealing). By almost the same margins, respondents stated that renting has become more appealing since the crisis.

Yet Rebecca Naser, a vice president with Hart Research, said that these views need not be seen as mutually exclusive.

“There’s a tendency for people to view attitudes about home ownership and renting like it’s a zero-sum game,” Naser said. “[But] you can still aspire to owning a home and see renting in your future... People are being more methodical and careful in the housing choices they’re making.”

Hart agreed, noting that changes in life expectancy and the timing of major life events also make a difference in housing preferences. He said that young people marrying later and old people living longer may opt to rent as a more flexible option, but that this does not exclude owning at an earlier or later date.

In a larger sense, the housing crisis also appears to have impressed the sociological value of home ownership upon Americans. A vast majority of survey respondents deemed housing to have “major positive impacts” on the safety and economic security of communities and neighborhoods. The study also found that at least three in five respondents believe that unstable housing situations can have “major negative impacts” on mental health, physical health, educational outcomes, and parental relationships within a family unit. Survey architects said these attitudes appear to come from first-hand accounts of recession-related struggle.

“They’ve seen the impact of unstable housing,” Naser said. “The public really does have a strong sense of the vital role that housing plays.”

Such real world experiences may weigh more heavily on Americans than positive economic reports. While a whopping 80 percent of those surveyed said they feel very or fairly stable about their personal housing situation, well over three-quarters of respondents said that we are either still in the middle of the housing crisis or that the worst is yet to come.

“The public has not seen or felt this turnaround,” said Hart. “These people are living it on a day-to-day basis [and] they say, ‘Sorry, I can’t feel it, and I can’t see it.’”