Daniel Pennell: Thoughts on American Homeownership

Yves here. Despite the prevalence of retail therapy in America, consumption does go in and out of fashion. For instance, in the wake of the nasty 1991-1992 recession, “cocooning” was in briefly, which was code for “stay at home, feel sort of miserable and read books, but pretend you are virtuous by lighting nice scented candles and making at least some of that reading New Agey.” Entertaining at home was in. If you were feeling a tad more secure, you might decorate, but nothing really splashy, just comfortable/functional.

This downturn is leading to more fundamental rethinking of what used to be a mainstay of personal security but increasingly became a consumption item, namely, owning a home. The percentage of Americans who think of homeownership as a good investment has fallen by about 20 points in the last three years, from four fifths to three fifths. But the framing of the question is revealing. In the not-too-distant past, owning a home was seen as superior to renting, because for 20 to 30 years of paying more or less the same amount of money, you’d own the home free and clear. So even though that is technically an investment perspective, the goal was not to earn a return, but to repurpose an expenditure that had to be made regardless into a deferred payment plan.

Daniel Pennell not only puts himself in the camp of housing skeptics, but also highlights the link between the scale of homes and obligatory consumption levels. And I’ve certainly observed the converse. One of the reasons for Japan’s high savings rate is, no joke, their teeny homes. I once visited what was considered an extremely luxurious apartment by the standards of Tokyo in the late 1980s. It was an at best 900 square foot three bedroom apartment with a not all that large living/dining room, a galley kitchen, a single bathroom, and the bedrooms size by side in the back. Its price then was $5 million. With that little living space, “consumption” consists mainly of going out, travel, and electronic gadgets.

So is this change in attitude simply a sign of the times, to be abandoned if we ever get past the post crisis hangover? A delayed response to shortened job tenures, which makes homeownership an obstacle to relocating? Or are Americans coming to grip with the fact that they might not enjoy ever rising standards of living?

By Daniel Pennell, a systems expert who has testified before the Virginia House of Representatives on MERS

You know…the longer I own a home the less likely I would be to do it again.

It would be so much nicer to be able to live smaller and be more mobile.

Increasingly I find that a house is a place for your stuff. Not that I am against “Stuff”…capitalism would collapse if people did not buy wasteful stuff. For that matter Chinese Communism would fail too. The difference of course is that you need to be the one selling the stuff and not buying it.

Anyway, one of two things happpens.

Either you buy a bunch of stuff that you think you need and then buy a house large enough to fit the stuff. Then you buy more stuff and need a bigger house.


You buy a big house that your current stuff will not fill so you buy more stuff so that it does not feel like a concert hall. This is probably furniture and nick nack kinda stuff that fulfills no purpose or life enhancing utility (unlike a Harley Davidson) but COSTS A BUNDLE.

THEN of course ALL STUFF and the houses it needs require CARE. It needs to be cleaned and maintained. SO now you gotta buy more stuff to take care of the stuff and the house the stuff needs. Think….Lowes and Home Depot or even Joe the Plumber.

NOW the stuff and the house for the stuff requires the TIME to take care of the stuff (time not spent riding the Harley Davidson) with the stuff you bought to take care of the stuff. Then, when you catch up you can spend more free time at the mall buying….more stuff. Since you cannot carry much stuff on a motorcycle…you probably took the minivan, the SUV or the BMW and NOT the Harley Davidson.

NOT to mention that you need to work to pay for the stuff and the house the stuff needs. While you are working you are not enjoying either the stuff or the house for the stuff or the Harley Davidson.

Now..when you are old enough that the house for the stuff is paid for, the stuff is old too, and you are likely too old to ride the Harley Davidson except on sunny Sundays with no traffic or young children around.

SO…in short. Buy a Harley Davidson and then buy nothing more than will fit in the saddle bags. Really…do you need more than that?

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  1. David

    Yes, I have recently been hearing of such stories. I recall someone had a video where he discussed that with computers it was possible to own less stuff, in his case he claimed to own only a hundred intems. For example his laptop
    computer also filled in as a hi-fi stereo, a photo album,
    a telephone, a musical instrument and a TV.

    1. Dan Pennell

      I wrote that as I was contemplating cleaning out a bunch of ..well..stuff and all the work I needed to do for spring.

      I built two sets of shelves over two weekends to get boxes of things that we will never use again and have little emotional or material value off the floor of the garage and the basement. I needed the space in the garage for the lawn tractor and to store all the household and yard tools.

      Then I was looking at 8, count them, 8 boxes of odds and ends toys ( a third of which came from happy meals I swear) and childrens clothes (some surely never worn as they had not stains) that I need to lug over to Good Will.

      Then I realized that I needed to go buy grass seed, mulch, fertilizer and about $400 worth of plants to replace what was damaged over the winter. That is going to require days of my free time.

      During the day my wife asked when I was going to repaint my daughters room for her “room makeover”. Then she insisted that I look through a Ballrd design magazine for new rugs and furniture for the sunroom.

      As I was thinking about all this my neighbor, a recently retired full colonol from the Army, was starting up his new Harley and going for a cruise.

      Thats when it hit me. I had bought a larger home so I would not always be tripping over stuff and would have a place for all the stuff. What I should have done was to get rid of the stuff. Then I would have the time to enjoy the stuff I really care about like my kids or visiting Railroad Museums or actually reading a good book. Instead I am a financial and time slave to the house and the stuff that fills it.

      I want my freedom from the stuff and the obligations it puts on my time and money.

      1. Wendy

        if you think that’s a lot of work (and it is), wait til you decide to get rid of it all. the sorting. the carting. the selling. the sorting again. the deliberating. the carting. mother of god, it is torture and takes forever. but worth it, in the end, to be free.
        I moved from a 2700sf house with full attic and basement (tons of storage for lots and lots of stuff!), to a 1300 sf apt, with part-basement (still able to keep some extra stuff), to a 975 sf apt, with no storage. The process was many steps but so well worth it. I’ll never go back to having all that crap. I’m never tempted to buy much, because I honestly just have nowhere to put it. I regret only a few minor things I got rid of, and when you consider the volume of stuff, it’s maybe a 1% or less error rate. I can live with it. Til then… enjoy storing, maintaining, insuring and housing your stuff! And enjoy some George Carlin on the topic (link above), he was ahead of his time, and is sorely missed.

      2. Lidia

        OMG. We got a gift certificate to Ikea, so of course we ended up with a storage unit, for what? For all the vinyl records we have that are just parked in those funky open wooden crates gathering tons of dust. It’s impossible to avoid! Arrrrgggh! Kill me now.

  2. Ina Deaver

    Skippy, it made me think of George, too! Something about the liberal repetition of the word “stuff.” But my favorite part of that routine is his estimation of the importance to the universe of my stuff vs. your stuff.

    Truly a classic. I hope that George is in heaven, because that would really piss him off.

    1. Skippy

      Ditto, and maybe provyour of the neerdowell pub.

      Skippy..I’ll need a drink after this life.

  3. Bart Kinsky

    “Or are Americans coming to grip with the fact that they might not enjoy ever rising standards of living?”

    yes, I think that’s it. A house is a huge step up from renting. Landlords usually are incredibly nasty people to their tenants. Having space between you and the next person means they are much less likely to disturb you. There is also more space that you can improve or utilize as you see fit. For most people it has nothing to do with stuff.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I’ve rented in Manhattan and overseas. That has NEVER been my experience. I’ve had decent landlords and nice apartments. In fact, far and away my worst experience was in the second apartment I owned, a coop, with an inexperienced board advised by an incompetent managing agent (literally, the firm had been fired from lots of buildings). I ran my experience by people in real estate and people on boards in other buildings, and they all said they’d never heard of anything so bizarre as what I encountered.

      1. Anonymous Jones

        This is so true. During my renting years, I had five different landlords in LA. All decent people. I now live in a high end condo, and the HOA board is filled with the “worst human beings in the world.” I have less freedom now than I ever did as a renter years ago. [And if you think this is just about condos, I know many people in LA who have had to literally move because they lived next to such terrible neighbors…you are not an island…yeah, you can stay and fight, but at what cost?]

        As the main point, space gets filled with stuff. That’s what happens. Every time I move, I spend so much time and money for new stuff to fill the new space (and generally have to jettison the old stuff because it doesn’t fit the vibe or some other stupid reason).

        And along with a house comes the high cost of caring for (and worrying about) the land and the improvements. It is in general good policy to know what you are getting yourself in for before you make the plunge.

  4. rjs

    he’s pretty much right; ive been in the same 8 room farmhouse since 72, and most of the rooms are full of so much stuff you cant walk thru them…

    garage & 3 small barns the same…

    & i’ll likely die before i sort through all of it…

  5. bill wilson

    1. Owning a home will become less popular as prices stagnate as interest rates rise. We have had 25 years of falling rates, now they have only one way to go, and it is not to keep falling. Prices are not going anywhere, so there goes one of the best reasons to buy a house.

    2. Spent many years backpacking around the plant. The longer I went the smaller my pack. Now I am still happiest when everything I own fits in a good sized rucksack. A couple of years ago we “sold up” and moved overseas with 2 kids, with just a couple of suitcases. When a couple of years later we returned, we still just had a couple of suitcases, and net net had a lot less stuff. We have now learned not to buy “stuff”. I don’t think we go to a mall more than once or twice a year, or maybe not even that often.

    1. darms

      Be a musician. The stuff just appears and you cannot get rid of (for example) those three blown Alamo amps because “they’re unreplaceable collector items” and since you’re also a tech “you’ll fix them someday”…

  6. jake chase

    One of the Twentieth Century’s most brilliant and original thinkers was Leo Szillard, who first conceived of the nuclear chain reaction and convinced Einstein to pester Roosevelt into creating the Manhattan Project. Szillard lived his entire adult life in rented rooms and kept two packed suitcases standing by the door. He also walked out of Germany one day before the Nazis began interning Jewish citizens.

    It would not surprise me to see a growing number of rooms for rent in these upside down houses. Everybody’s tragedy is somebody’s opportunity.

    1. Lidia

      Lots of middle- and even upper-class characters in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels lived in “rooms”. They would eat out or have food brought in, laundry sent out, etc. There’s lots of redundancy in modern living.

  7. liberal

    “One of the reasons for Japan’s high savings rate is, no joke, their teeny homes.”

    Jesus Christ, for the one millionth time, the issue is not the house; the issue is the land under the house.

    Why was there a housing bubble in the first place? Houses, as structures, don’t exist in fixed supply. Land does. Hence land is an object for speculative gain.

    The real solution to the dilemma of home ownership is to jack up taxes on land value. That removes the speculative/”investment” component of home ownership. It would furthermore have the extremely salutory effect of redirecting land rent away from mortgage companies and towards local governments.

  8. Mickey Marzick in Akron, Ohio

    This was enjoyable, akin to thinking the unthinkable!

    The realization that the “system” depends on what you own – the STUFF – coming to own you is the first step. The accumulation of stuff does not foster independence but DEPENDENCE. Anyone ever read Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backwards”?

    How many times have the mortgage, husband/wife, and children become the “reasons/excuses” for putting up with the bullshit shoveled your way daily? AFFLUENZA is not only killing US, but putting US in a hole of dependency, bordering on debt peonage, that has little to do with freedom. Consumption – MORE – is not freedom. Having the intelligence and wherewithal to know the difference betwwen them is freedom.

    And to the extent that such a belief comes about only after a certain level of saturation/satiation is attained it signifies POSTSCARCITY. This realization of the latter undermines the ideology of scarcity – economics – on which capitalism is predicated. That’s why the proponents of AUSTERITY want to take us backwards – to maintain the artificially induced scarcity on which capitalism depends.

    Getting beyond mindless consumption funded by debt is the key to starving the capitalist beast and transforming it in a way that emphasizes production for human need – not profit. To the extent that home ownership has become a mechanism with which to facilitate control and dependency via debt it is dysfunctional and one-dimensional contrary to any real definition of independence and individual freedom.

  9. Dan Duncan

    George Carlin on Stuff

    Actually this is just a place for my stuff, ya know? That’s all, a little place for my stuff. That’s all I want, that’s all you need in life, is a little place for your stuff, ya know? I can see it on your table, everybody’s got a little place for their stuff. This is my stuff, that’s your stuff, that’ll be his stuff over there. That’s all you need in life, a little place for your stuff. That’s all your house is: a place to keep your stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time.

    A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. You can see that when you’re taking off in an airplane. You look down, you see everybody’s got a little pile of stuff. All the little piles of stuff. And when you leave your house, you gotta lock it up. Wouldn’t want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff. They always take the good stuff. They never bother with that crap you’re saving. All they want is the shiny stuff. That’s what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get…more stuff!

    Sometimes you gotta move, gotta get a bigger house. Why? No room for your stuff anymore. Did you ever notice when you go to somebody else’s house, you never quite feel a hundred percent at home? You know why? No room for your stuff. Somebody else’s stuff is all over the goddamn place! And if you stay overnight, unexpectedly, they give you a little bedroom to sleep in. Bedroom they haven’t used in about eleven years. Someone died in it, eleven years ago. And they haven’t moved any of his stuff! Right next to the bed there’s usually a dresser or a bureau of some kind, and there’s NO ROOM for your stuff on it. Somebody else’s shit is on the dresser. Meditation will not relieve you of this stress either.

    Have you noticed that their stuff is shit and your shit is stuff? God! And you say, “Get that shit offa there and let me put my stuff down!”

    Sometimes you leave your house to go on vacation. And you gotta take some of your stuff with you. Gotta take about two big suitcases full of stuff, when you go on vacation. You gotta take a smaller version of your house. It’s the second version of your stuff. And you’re gonna fly all the way to Honolulu. Gonna go across the continent, across half an ocean to Honolulu. You get down to the hotel room in Honolulu and you open up your suitcase and you put away all your stuff. “Here’s a place here, put a little bit of stuff there, put some stuff here, put some stuff–you put your stuff there, I’ll put some stuff–here’s another place for stuff, look at this, I’ll put some stuff here…” And even though you’re far away from home, you start to get used to it, you start to feel okay, because after all, you do have some of your stuff with you. That’s when your friend calls up from Maui, and says, “Hey, why don’tchya come over to Maui for the weekend and spend a couple of nights over here.”

    Oh, no! Now what do I pack? Right, you’ve gotta pack an even SMALLER version of your stuff. The third version of your house. Just enough stuff to take to Maui for a coupla days. You get over to Maui–I mean you’re really getting extended now, when you think about it. You got stuff ALL the way back on the mainland, you got stuff on another island, you got stuff on this island. I mean, supply lines are getting longer and harder to maintain. You get over to your friend’s house on Maui and he gives you a little place to sleep, a little bed right next to his windowsill or something. You put some of your stuff up there. You put your stuff up there. You got your Visine, you got your nail clippers, and you put everything up. It takes about an hour and a half, but after a while you finally feel okay, say, “All right, I got my nail clippers, I must be okay.” That’s when your friend says, “Aaaaay, I think tonight we’ll go over the other side of the island, visit a pal of mine and maybe stay over.”

    Aww, no. NOW what do you pack? Right–you gotta pack an even SMALLER version of your stuff. The fourth version of your house. Only the stuff you know you’re gonna need. Money, keys, comb, wallet, lighter, hanky, pen, smokes, rubber and change. Well, only the stuff you HOPE you’re gonna need.

    All material written and owned by George Carlin.

  10. Jay Brizie

    My 21 year old son explained to me that while we old geezers live in a physical world, his generation lives in a cyber world, the world found on the screens of their electronic devices. They don’t need or want big physical spaces filled with stuff; they want the latest devices and the latest content for their devices. They get rid of their older devices.

    1. Steve

      Yeah sure.

      They will get laid in the cyber world too. If I try to get rid of my “old device”, she will take half my stuff. But I love her, so the thought rarely enters my mind.

    2. House ofSherds

      geezers live in a physical world, his generation lives in a cyber world, the world found on the screens of their electronic devices. They don’t need or want big physical spaces filled with stuff; they want the latest devices

      Then U got 2 go though U desktop each night to delete and move to trash all you charts graphs and cartoonS. You got to trash all U “STUFF”

    3. Chris M

      Kids gotta have the latest and greatest toy from China, eh? I use to be a gadget freak, but then it hit me that all our global corporations decided to give all the cutting edge technology to our mortal enemy, China. Now I’d rather just go without.

      1. Chad

        China is our mortal enemy? I guess it doesn’t take much to really piss you off. I must be rather high on the list after this comment.

    4. Yearning to Learn

      They don’t need or want big physical spaces filled with stuff; they want the latest devices and the latest content for their devices. They get rid of their older devices.

      how is that different than the 1990’s when I was 21??? Or the 1960’s when my parents were 21?

      No 21 year old wants big houses. they always want gadgets and tech. At one time it was 8 tracks, then in my time Sony Discman’s and now it’s an iPhone. In the 60’s it was lava lamps, in the 90’s Super Mario and Nintendo, now it’s Halo and XBox3. No PCs in the computers, Then it was an Apple IIe and now it’s an iPad.

      it’s all consumer crap, and it all goes into the trash, and it all needs a place to be stored.

      I was 21 in the height of Gen X with Nirvanna and the return of the 60’s music and all that. My parents were hippies and were 100% against consumerism. And as Hippies and Gen Xers aged they fell into the same old trap of buying the biggest home they could possibly afford and filling it with crap.

      Few 21 year olds talk about wanting to buy a house. Let’s see what he says in when he’s 40 and his kids talk about not wanting a big house because they only like their central-nervous-system-holo-world anyway.

    5. Lidia

      Yeah, well, we wanted the latest devices too: the 8-track, the cassette tape, the Walkman, the Discman… I even had the Sony MiniDisc recorder (a very cool device).

      Who can easily record some audio on the fly these days? At least 20 years ago we had a blasted tape recorder.

      In the future, I will take small comfort in being able to take my vinyl records and listen to them (very softly, perhaps) using solely mechanical means.

  11. ep3

    My dad always said a home that was paid for, was always a place you could go when all else failed, and stay instead of under a bridge. He said, heck, if you even just had a piece of land that was yours, you could set up a tent and at least get by until you could get back on your feet.

    1. Chris M

      You still have to pay property tax, though. $1000/month in my case. I’m trying to talk my wife into moving into a mobile home. I’m sure the blood sucking left will still find a way to steal my money, though.

      1. Anonymous Jones

        Hilarious. I hope when they eliminate your property taxes they take with them your access to public roads as well your ability to call the police when your neighbors are loud or your home is being burglarized.

      2. Ray Butlers

        The blood-sucking left? You mean those mean old rotten people who build public roads and public schools and subsidize energy (for you!) and development (for you!) and provide you with a retirement plan and a safety net if you are disabled? You mean those blood-sucking leftists? And why the hell do you have to live in a place that charges $1000 a month in taxes?? You could move. It’s a free market, baby! Live where you want and quit blaming “the left” for your problems.

        BTW the right is free to solve these “problems”…but they don’t. I wonder why not….

        1. darms

          Sorry, while I am definitely a liberal 60%+ of my property tax goes to the local school district yet I have not and will never have children. But I do pay my property taxes each & every year…

          1. joel3000

            You do want the people who run this country and take care of you when you’re old to be educated, I’d assume?

            Or would you prefer the world of Mad Max?

  12. Yellowrose

    Real life is about people and relationships. We will never be truly free until we are no longer held captive by our spaces or our stuff.

  13. RJ

    I’m sympathetic to the argument (I’m in stuff-disposal mode myself) but rental properties are often unpleasant places to live. Apartments give you no space to pursue hobbies (indeed you might not be allowed to have your mythical HD on the premises or have a safe place to park it).

    If I could own a garage and workshop without owning a house, I’d go for that deal.

  14. Strata

    If a house were merely a consumption item, the Financial sector would not be on a foreclosure rampage. A house and land are a source of wealth and power for ordinary people. Home owners form rooted communities that have the potential (if organized) to obstruct the neofeudal aspirations of plutocrats.

    Home owners have influence over the actions of politicians who feel that this is a serious constituency. Home ownership can be an intergenerational wealth building tool. More wealth in the pockets of ordinary people means less wealth concentrated at the top on percent of the population.

    These stories that Americans have soured on home ownership are a form of “accept your fate as a serf” propaganda. It is not home ownership that Americans have soured on, it is the financial and political system that is wresting affordable, legal and stable home ownership from the hands of ordinary folk and their families.

    1. Yearning to Learn

      The argument isn’t that a house is ONLY a consumption item, it is that the house was and is increasingly used as consumption instead of the traditional “forced savings plan” it once was

      homeowners in smaller homes and smaller mortgages (such as homeowners in decades past who owned homes half the size) enjoy all the benefits you have elucidated, without all of the debt.

      one need not a 3500 sq ft McMansion to have influence on politicians. I also would argue that a nabe of smaller more tightly packed homes with sporadic communal parks/gardens leads to more community than the typical Suburban plan with fenced in yards, attached garages, and little to no community space. (you never see your neighbors in the latter “community”)

      as for the rest: a house and land is not wealth if it is tied to substantial debt, as we see in America.

      the problem is that our economy took an important asset and converted it to a leveraged debt, and then increased that leverage rapidly.

  15. jaymaster

    If (when?) inflation comes back, people will want to own again.

    In the disinflation/deflationary environment of the recent past, owned housing has indeed been a boat anchor, and renters have benefited.

  16. Recycler

    Just buy the hideously noisy motorcycle and irritate everyone with your toy…. One could ride a bicycle and not be a black spot on society or many other ways to live without leaving such a blemish on our world and maybe enjoy life from a healthy perspective.

      1. Dan Pennell

        I was thinking about the value of expereince and time over volumes of stuff.

        In my life…

        1. I have sailed a 65 ft Wooden Schooner for a year. On that trip I dived with whales and sat in the cross trees sailing on the outside edge of Cape Cod during a mild storm.

        2. I have hiked every major mountain range in the US and camped in every major national park.

        3. Used to ride my KZ 750 LTD along the beaches on the Cape early in the morning. On cold mornings the heat from the engine would blow up through my jacket.

        4. Camped under the stars in almost every state.

        5.Canoed for a month through the thousand lakes. Cought a 14 lb rainbow trout too.

        6. Spent 5 years straight where I was on skis at least 90 days. Skied in CO, UT, NH, ME and NY. Did the snowboard thing before it was cool.

        7. Fought in 1 war and supported another

        8. Spent a month trapsing around Ireland.

        9. Competed on horseback for 14 years. Ridden bareback on summer nights under a moon. Remember riding out into a river and laying down on my horses back as he stood there up to his knees.

        10. Spent countless hours teaching my kids to swim, ski, read and build model railroads.

        After years in a suit or uniform. My dream is to let my hair go long, hop on a big cruiser and travel accross the country again. Camp out every night. Ride Rt 66. Camp at the bottom of the Grand Canyon again and white water raft the snake river again. Would like my wife to come along. But she HAS GOT to have her own bike.

  17. phemfrog

    My husband and I are selling our home now in order to be able to relocate for a better job. No job offers or even interviews yet, but the house just chains us down and makes it harder. Plus with prices declining, i may as well get out what i can now…I can always buy another one in the future.

  18. Michael H

    “Our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed by them…..Simplify, simplify.”

    Henry David Thoreau

  19. GregL

    My parents purchased their first home because they couldn’t find a rental that would let them keep their dog (their kid yes, but dog no).

    Likewise, I doubt that I could find a place to rent that would let me keep my 3 medium sized dog (~ 50# each).

    So I’m committed to owning.

  20. r

    liberal says:

    “The real solution to the dilemma of home ownership is to jack up taxes on land value. That removes the speculative/”investment” component of home ownership. It would furthermore have the extremely salutory effect of redirecting land rent away from mortgage companies and towards local governments.”

    WRONG. Land tax originally was meant to INCREASE development. It was a way to force people to get an INCOME out of their land. I was a way to make the land productive. If you do not want to increase development, do not tax undeveloped land.

    If you increase the land tax on a house any landlord will just increase the rent and pass it on.

    Do you think that landlords buy houses and maintain houses just so that you may have the privilege to live in it?

  21. callingcarole

    A few years ago while selling my big house my mantra was: Life is about people not about stuff. This was easier for me than my children and they still miss being able to come home to the home they had known all of their lives.
    It is freeing to get rid of all the stuff and the maintainence of the stuff. Although I started out with some boxes in storage, followed by several garage sales I found that eventually I could not remember what was in the boxes and it really didn’t matter anymore. When that happened I it was time for the mystery stuff to go.
    Selling real estate in San Francisco I meet people of all ages in transition. The nesting instinct is at work in young couples as they compete for the perfect home while middle aged and older people are looking to shed the stuff of there lives and move into smaller spaces.
    Today with the recession and planning for a permenantly smaller income my mantra is still: Life is about people, not about stuff. 99% of the time this is fine, but every now and then I do miss sitting on my beautiful velvet blue sofa in front of the fire place in my master bedroom that looked out onto Buena Vista Park.
    Shedding the stuff of life is not easy, but for me it was worth the work and today I still find myself returning to my mantra: Life is about people, not about stuff.

  22. astrid

    There are lots of serious problems with homeownership, but Pennell hasn’t really touched on them. The biggest problems with homeownership today is not stuffedness or keeping up with the Joneses; it’s that home ownership prevents job mobility in an increasing tight job market, that it’s a fixed cost in a time of increasing economic uncertainty, and that well located homes of any size are increasingly out of reach of median wage earners. From a policy perspective, homeownership is a problem because it’s a tax giveaway that transfers money from future US taxpayers and into pockets of the real estate industrial complex.

    What we really learned from Pennell is that he would prefer to own a Harley Davidson, that most obnoxious and antisocial of consumer items, rather than a larger collection of more innocuous consumer items.

  23. ambrit

    The entire idea of home ownership is tied to the fundamental relationship between the classes. (Yes, I know, but when did you get a helping hand up from a Plutocrat?)
    None of my grandparential families owned their own home back in the England of the early twentieth century. All of them were fully employed, some of them in responsible positions, i.e. directing the work of groups of others.
    As several earlier commentators have observed, the catch was in the land ownership. Places were available for rent, barely within their means, but outright ownership demanded an initial cash outlay (the dreaded down payment) beyond their ability to accumilate. The system was self perpetuating, and quite possibly would have led to a Marxist government if the War hadn’t come along and thoroughly mixed things up worldwide. (If you think that modern “socialist” regimes are Marxist, you just haven’t done your reading.)
    So, to the wonder of Americas socio-political innovation: credit for the masses! Yes, indeed, credit has been the salvation of the American Dream. Once the limitless Frontier, and the sense of potential freedom it engendered, closed by the turn of the Twentieth Century, something had to fill the psychological need of ordinary people that they had a chance in this world.
    Mystical thinking with its’ philosophy of contempt of the World has been with us in all times and everywhere. Some people have always been able to adapt to it and thrive. As civilizations have always had and tolerated spiritual searchers, they have also needed greater masses of productive workers to create the excess wealth that the society has used to support the Mystics. Well and good, the world has always coped somehow with this inner tension.
    What about the people who have to “take care of business?” This is where the credit angle comes in, follow me? By establishing a system where people can work towards something as basic and satisfying as having a “Home” to come home to, modern society has channelled incredible amounts of productive effort into socially positive persuits. The opposite result would, or will again be the dreaded “Peasent Revolts.” Once you do a little reading in history, you’ll be amazed at how many of them there were, and how bloody they really were. Irrespective of who won what, the end result was destruction and insecurity. Credit, when properly used, and that is a direct function of rule setting and enforcement, is the cement that holds our present “centrist” society together. As noted earlier by another commentator, secure homes and the neigborhoods they form, are the cornerstone upon which a stable, peaceful society is built.
    That’s where I want to live, in that stable peaceful neigborhood. After all, unless you’re going to be a modern “Wandering Savage” you’re going to need somewhere to park that Harley, or, my preference, Indian.
    Thanks for letting me rant Mz Smith.

  24. gil mendozza zuntzes

    hum…hum… The Congressional Crooked negotiators… The Sinister,Swindler & Lear Barack Obama and John ‘Wayne” Boehner,banging heads with the new Crook of the Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan… and now we have Our Crooked Evil Democracy at It’s Best!!! The Failures of this Two Party’s that Despise Each Other… the Republicanism and Democratism with the look forward to the Capitalism Collapse!!! We the:Naive,Poor,Humble,Gullible,Stupid,Crazy and the Hard Working American’s that We should be MAD AS HELL!!!. Screaming and Fighting… WAKE UP America!!! WAKE UP America, We American’s had enough of increasing Taxes and Inefficiency and Arrogance of all this Crooked Politicians… SHUTDOWN!!!SHUTDOWN!!! The U.S. Government Not WORT A DAMN !! !!! Cut $4 Trillion not in Government Spending But in FRAUD… Stupids!!! Cut $2 Trillion in Taxes… Yes!!! in Taxes!!! and Slash Down Our Property Taxes!!! We the…naive,poor,humble,gullible,stupid,crazy, have over a year the 300 percent of Increasing government taxing, and the Reckless uncontrolled of Our Standard of Living… WAKE UP AMERICA !!! We can not put food in our table… March cost me $460 IN GAS… $20 this morning,$20 in the afternoon, go to pick up my son latter $20… other $20 Hear, other $20 here and other $20 there plus so many trips to the gas station and my car is most of the time PARK!!! PARK!!! the Value of my house in 2008 was $500.000 today in 2011 is less then 250.000 but yet my taxes are much higher WAKE UP AMERICA…THIS is going to come to a very serious situation… Our Hope is Death… and Our Dream is Gone!!!… Where is Our Declaration of Independence?…?… I do know in the TOILET!!! finally do not blame this Crooked.Worthless,Useless,Criminal Politicians that we put in Office, But I do blame the:naive,poor,humble,gullible,stupid,crazy Hard Working America.

  25. Tertium Squid

    Luke 12: 15-21

    And he said unto them, Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.

    And he spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully:

    And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits?

    And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods.

    And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.

    But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?

    So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.

    This rich man embodied modern capitalism. It was everything but his own actual labors that got him his splendid position – the land brought forth the bounty, and laborers worked to enrich him.

    He had, as far as the Savior’s story suggests, never done a thing in his life to improve himself, his community, or the world. He worked at acquisition only, and sought the phony security of having way way more than you’ll ever need.

  26. Geoff

    My wife and I moved to NY from Seattle in 1999. We lived there for several years–in an 800 sq ft. apartment. We had our first child there, and hosted guests from out of town. We had so much stuff in storage in Seattle it was unbelievable. We realized how unnecessary having all the stuff we had boxed up was. Upon our return, we opened the boxes with the things that we needed or treasured and gave the rest away without ever opening the boxes. 25 in total. Having been back now for several years, and having two children and two pets, I bet we could get rid of at least 25 boxes of consumer detritus. We’d do that, I am sure, if we ever had the prospect of selling our hopelessly upside-down home.

  27. Skepticus Maximus

    You’ve all inspired me. I’m going to go home and throw out half the “stuff” there.

    I used to be able to fit all my worldly possessions inside one cheap little car and I would drive wherever my heart fancied. THAT was freedom.


  28. SubjectivObject

    I am a recent home owner, after 30 years of apartment living. The last apartment rent was significantly higher than my current 15 yr. fixed.

    I like the detached residence for the relative isolation from neighbors, for having a private outdoor space of one’s own, and the potential to develop a pleasing aesthetic environment.

    Designers/developers of apartment complex living should be packed off to Guantanamo and forgotten there. I detest how they have universally ignored the things that would give people the isolation/respite from each other that they need, and that would provide the quality of design, materials, and construction that would motivate people to care for it.

    It’s too bad that ownership can no longer be rationalized on a simple cost basis, but I much prefer the personal environment given that avialable with apartments.

    1. Mia

      I’m like you. I sometimes tire of the endless work of maintaining a house and the land it is on.

      But whenever I contemplate going back to apartment living, with the noise, misbehavior and general annoyances it entails, I shudder.

      The walls are always too thin. There are always obnoxious neighbors above or beside. Finding a decent landlord is hard. The population is usually incredibly transient. You can’t do anything to the place, either, and white walls get old.

  29. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    I am one of those who believe words are like stuff.

    More of either of them will not make you happier.

    Haiku-ize your life.

    Haiku-ize everything you write.

    1. jaymaster

      Words are like stuff.
      More of either won’t make you happier.
      Haiku-ize your life.
      Haiku-ize your writing.

      Especially your writing.

      1. Rabid Cranky Troll

        Your Haiku is seventeen words.
        And words are like stuff.
        Yet your Haiku (stuff?) makes us happier.

  30. tz

    Works for me, but 1. I have BIG saddle bags, and 2. I eat out so don’t need a fridge. 3. I telecommute, so anywhere my mifi can get a signal or has wifi works. Rain and worse does tend to be a problem.

    I knew someone with a Prius that got better mileage, but my engine was bigger than his.

  31. Fog Horn Leg Horn

    30 days, 9,000 miles, 1 BMW GS 1100 – and my Prius today gets better mileage, but it wasn’t near as fun – and two saddlebags turned out to be one too many. Oh, and that was pre-iPod, so it was a Sony Discman and wired headphones in the helmet, what a pain. A tiny “micro-device” that wasn’t quite a laptop, but did have dial up so I could do this new thing called “blogging” that none of my friends knew about, but loved reading me nightly, when I could successfully dial into AOL. Love to do it again, but don’t know if I could get my two boys into the empty saddle bag…….

    This was a fun thread kids, i’m shutting it down with a big smile on my face.

  32. jerrydenim

    I think it was best said; “The things you own end up owning you.”

    I’m a 35 year old airline pilot and make around 80k a year. I don’t own a car and I rent a tiny 300 square foot apartment in the Chelsea section of Manhattan which I share with my wife. We are pretty happy with our living space and there’s no way I would trade my apartment for a gigantic house anywhere if it meant a thirty year mortgage. Sure another 200 square feet wouldn’t be bad, but if I could change anything about my life it would be more time off from work, not more money, nicer things or a bigger house. Same for a second home. Even if it was free, the upkeep would be a nightmare plus every trip I made to my second get-away home would be a trip not taken and an opportunity to travel somewhere new lost.

    Even though lot’s of guys I work with could afford to rent an apartment in the city very few do, maybe one pilot out of one hundred that is based in the NYC area (LGA, JFK, EWR) chooses to live in Manhattan because they can’t bring themselves to relinquish the trappings of a typical American life: car, house, yard, lawn mower, lot’s of material things, washer/dryer, gigantic TV etc. For the people who are married with kids the trade off makes sense, (more space, decent public schools) but I just can’t imagine why a young single person would give up all of the great conveniences and luxuries that come with an urban lifestyle just to maintain a suburban laundry list of material things. Some guys live local and drive from the New Jersey or Long Island burbs, but many pilots make arduous, time-consuming and stressful commutes across the country in order to maintain their Mc Mansion and SUV lifestyle because their salary would require a more modest home and less stuff if they lived locally in the tri-state area.

    In 2009 when the economy tanked, the airlines cut back and my company found itself overstaffed and offering unpaid six month leaves of absence with seniority and benefits intact. Thankfully I never fell into the mortgage trap and was able to take advantage of the leave. I used the six months to take a traveling sabbatical around SE Asia and India. When I returned to work people were shocked to find out how I spent my six months and everyone wanted to know how I afforded it. Simple. I didn’t have a mortgage payment and Asia is cheap.

    Experiences not things make a man rich. I wish I had more time to do more living. You can keep the oversized house, the thirty year mortgage, and your fancy “things”. I like my freedom.

    1. Chad

      I couldn’t agree more about suburbia and urban living. I either want to live in the middle of nowhere or right in the middle of everything. From what I can tell suburbia has the worst of everything:

      Traffic, because you aren’t near anything.

      But, neighbors close enough to be a pain.

      Costly big houses to maintain.

      Long commute to work, which beats your car and is increasingly a big expense because of gas (which isn’t going to stop going up).

      No or very limited public transportation.

      Bad restaurant choices.

      You have to go into the city for almost any type of decent event.

      I will keep my small apartment in the city.

  33. Doug Terpstra

    Consumption is an old term for tuberculosis, an apt diagnosis for the global economy — we’re suffering a bad case of TB and doing nothing to treat it while it gradually kills us.

    Charles Hugh Smith underscores this post perfectly in “The Devolution of the Consumer Economy” on his of-two-minds.com blog.


  34. r

    You guys make me laugh. You don’t need a house? That makes you the ultimate consumers. Listen to yourselves,

    The city is better because it has a better choice of restaurants.

    Who needs a washer and dryer?

    I prefer to travel.

    Before the total conversion to consumerism, a house and a piece of land were how we sustained ourselves. In the back yard we grew food: fruit trees and vegetables and chickens. A hole in the ground was used to store root vegetables. Another deeper hole in the ground was where we got our water from. A third hole in the ground was where we put our poop and a forth was for compost. An attic was for dry corn and seeds. A kitchen was the place where we prepared food… everyday. A living room was where we entertained our guests, by talking and singing and dancing. A house kept us warm in the winter and cool in the summer. There was no water bill, no electric bill and no telephone bill.

    You are right that most people no longer use their house this way. It is just a place to store consumer items, park their car and watch TV. That is because people no longer grow food. They no longer even cook their own food. They would rather drop their laundry off at the laundry mat and have it done for them. People no longer make clothe or mend clothe. They no longer fix their own gadgets.

    Now we can just consume with out any connection to the land. Now we can buy prepared food anywhere. We can buy cheep clothe anywhere. Get our laundry done anywhere. Stay in a motel with running water and toilets anywhere. We can get in our cars and drive anywhere. We can watch TV anywhere. As long as we can pay for it. Heck, why not just live at Disney World year round? It is probably cheaper than a McMansion anyway. Just don’t deny that you are a consumer and don’t quit your job.

    1. Chad

      Everyone is a consumer…even you. Yes, land ownership used to provide some of your food. It has been a long time since a person’s land provided the majority of their food and clothing. My grandparents had a farm since the 30’s and even then they didn’t get the majority of their food and clothes from it. The idea that you should is just foolish…or that it’s even possible with 7 billion people. If all those people tried to do it you would see more environmental destruction than all of the factory farms have ever done. It would be inefficient for everyone to live like you describe. Every country would look like Haiti (before the earthquake). It makes me laugh that you think this would be a better alternative.

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