Home sweet home
The other day, we received a call from a gentleman who told us, in no uncertain terms, that our readers were staying in their homes for too long, and that they should sell their homes to young families so that those folks could have a chance to live the suburban lifestyle, too.
His basic message was that older adults should not be so selfish as to stay in their nice big homes when there were Americans of childbearing age who could make better use of all that space. Instead, more of us should downsize and move to condos, apartments, smaller homes or retirement communities for the good of the country.
Not surprisingly, this would also be good for the caller himself, as his line of work turned out to be buying older homes, fixing them up, and selling them for a profit to younger buyers.
Now there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as the homeowners are ready to sell. But pushing people out the door before they’re ready is, as Miss Manners might say, quite unacceptable.
This fellow is not a lone wolf, however. The Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (which prefers going by the cuddly moniker “Freddie Mac”) recently decided to investigate why millennials (born between 1981 and 1997) have a significantly lower homeownership rate than prior generations.
Noting the rising propensity of older adults to “age in place” — choosing to remain in their homes and neighborhoods as they age — the report concluded that this behavior has significantly reduced available housing stock, thus raising home prices and keeping millennials from becoming the homeowners they’d like to be.
Well, to be fair, the report said aging in place is “one factor” contributing to the shortage of homes for sale, and it ended by calling for a boost in the production of new housing rather than booting boomers from their homes.
And in fact, just two months before, Freddie had published another “Insight Report” citing a number of other reasons for today’s inadequate housing stock. Those included a shortfall in home building dating back to the burst housing bubble and Great Recession, a shortage of skilled labor in the construction industry, rising land costs, opposition to new development in existing communities and many others.
You might wonder why the researchers didn’t ask the millennials themselves why they weren’t buying homes with the alacrity of earlier generations.
Many studies (including a recent one from the Urban Institute) point to their high student debt burden, years of inability to find work, and their own propensity to settle in trendy urban areas rather than old-fashioned suburbs as some of the causes for their currently lower rates of homeownership.
As for older homeowners, there are many reasons — financial, emotional, psychological — why we might want to remain in the homes where we’ve lived for decades, perhaps raised a family, and built ourselves a life.
As Freddie admitted at the end of their most recent report, “older Americans prefer to age in place because they are satisfied with their communities, their homes, and their quality of life.”
But that doesn’t mean we selfishly want to withdraw from society or prevent younger generations from having a good quality of life too.
On the contrary, many of us have embraced a variety of ideas that can help maintain and enhance the quality of life for us and younger generations at the same time, including neighborhood villages (where an old-fashioned sense of community is recreated, with younger and older residents helping each other), cohousing communities (both multi-generational and senior-focused varieties), and intergenerational home sharing, among others.
And it’s not like older homeowners are just sitting in their homes and letting them go to rot. Many of us have spent significant sums retrofitting our homes to make them safer and more accommodating for us and for any visitors with disabilities, and increasing our homes’ energy efficiency by installing smart thermostats, new windows and solar panels.
As a result, if and when the time comes when we are ready to relinquish our homes, they should be in better shape and more useful to future buyers.
Whenever I see it, I feel it’s important to call out researchers and journalists whose work reinforces a stereotype that older adults are at economic war with younger ones and that we care only for ourselves. Like any stereotype, there might be a few who fit it, but it is by no means representative of the group as a whole.
I look forward to reading a report in the future that — rather than treating older adults as one more “factor” in society’s mistreatment of the young — praises us for staying independent as long as possible, and for taking better care of ourselves, our homes and our communities.