Homeownership Is Not For Everyone

By Jack Guttentag
The Mortgage Professor.

Some people are not cut out for homeownership. I call them NOHOs. What distinguishes them is not their income, their family structure, their mobility, or where they live, rather, it is how they live.

Homeowners live with at least one foot in the future, and have learned how to delay some gratifications for future rewards.

NOHOs live from day to day, or week to week, or month to month, depending on how often they are paid. Whatever they want, they want it now. Typically, they have nothing left at the end of their pay period, and if they run out early, they have to scrimp or borrow, usually at high interest rates.

When they make a costly purchase, such as a TV set, NOHOs price it in terms of the monthly payment, which they attempt to fit into their weekly or monthly budget. They are easily seduced by offers of delayed payments, ignoring the high prices that accompany such offers. They never get ahead of the game, and if they run into an emergency that costs money, they are in trouble. Because homeownership is rife with such emergencies, NOHOs should not be homeowners unless they can change their lifestyle.

NOHOs sometimes write me about buying a house because they have heard that owning is cheaper than renting. They would buy a house in the same way they would buy a TV set, by seeing if they can afford the monthly payment. They have no savings but have heard that it is possible to get a loan for 100 percent of the sale price. I try to discourage them by explaining the hidden costs and risks of homeownership, and by pointing out that as owners, they, rather than the landlord, are responsible for everything that goes wrong.

The bubble period of 2000-2006 was extremely friendly to NOHOs. This was when lenders were offering 100 percent financing and turning a blind eye to the adequacy of borrower incomes. It is possible that more NOHOs became homeowners during this period than in the prior two centuries.

Even if the bubble had not been followed by a financial crisis, the foreclosure rate among NOHOs would have been horrendous.

Any bump in the road is enough to throw homeowning NOHOs in the ditch. One who wrote me had calculated her monthly obligation net of the tax deduction on the mortgage interest, and fell behind on her payment because her tax saving did not become available until year’s end.

A common bump in the road is property taxes. Another NOHO who wrote me was in serious trouble almost immediately because the property tax estimate by the lender turned out to be $200 a month too low. The NOHO said he would not have purchased the house had he known the correct figure. The reason for writing me was to solicit advice on how to sue the lender.

More often, NOHOs can manage the tax when they move in but can’t manage a future tax increase. Of course, property taxes are known to rise, if not this year, then next, and it doesn’t take a lot of foresight to expect it. But foresight is in short supply among NOHOs.

During most of our history, NOHOs had to rent, primarily because they did not have the down payment lenders required to finance a purchase. The down payment requirement is the most important condition imposed by home mortgage lenders to protect themselves. In the event a loan goes into default, the down payment reduces the loss from having to foreclose on the property. This is the equity protection provided by the down payment.

Perhaps even more important, the down payment requirement is the most effective way to screen out NOHOs. Because NOHOs can’t save, they can’t make a down payment. This is the screening protection provided by the down payment.

It isn’t easy but NOHOs can cure themselves by changing their lifestyle. The key change is to elevate savings to the position of having first priority claim to income. The common practice is to treat savings as a residual, what is left at the end of the pay period after all expenses have been made. The residual system doesn’t work for NOHOS because they never have anything left. A way to shift priorities is to make a deposit into a special savings account immediately after receiving income, so that spending is limited to what remains. It isn’t easy but it can work for those determined to make it work.
Jack Guttentag is professor emeritus of finance at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania

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