Monday, August 16, 2010

Life’s Too Short to Live In Your Own House

The actual brochure I received in the mail read, “Life’s too short to clean your own house.” It’s a message that might sound appealing, but if finding time to clean all the rooms in your house is a challenge, it’s probably because you’re not spending much time in those rooms — and in that case, why even have those rooms? The logical next step has you asking, why have a house? That’s the point I wanted to make with the advertising parody shown here.

This is more than just a joke. Financial stresses and time constraints are finding more people than ever asking, “Why did we buy this stupid house?” That’s a chorus never before heard in the history of the United States, and it points to an architectural sea change that will reshape not just our homes, but our cities.

Housing values have fallen hardest in the outer suburbs of cities, as more people find the fuel costs and time costs of a long commute untenable. Combine commuting, real estate taxes, and mortgage interest with all the obligations of operating a house, from interior design to repairs, and a couple could easily be spending 2,000 hours a year, the equivalent of a full-time job, just on their house.

And for what? If you spend 10 hours working and commuting, 10 hours sleeping and grooming, and 1 hour watching television, checking e-mail, or talking on the telephone, that leaves possibly three hours in the day during which you might experience your house — but that depends on what else you have to do. On days when you have a shopping trip or an awards show, the house might as well not be there. When there is no time to really use the house, the idea of going without a house to create more time to keep up with life is not merely an idle thought. (This is one of several possible reactions. Read more about the lifestyle questions involved in my other blog, Fear of Nothing.)

The time pressure trend shows no sign of ending, so I expect the movement from suburban houses to well-located, solidly built apartments to accelerate in the next five years. This will either leave significant numbers of suburban houses vacant or drive prices down below anything seen in a generation.

When homeowners hire others to clean their houses and mow their lawns, it is a sign of this trend. If you can bring yourself to admit you don’t have time to clean your house, it is a short step from there to realizing that you don’t have time to own your house. That is a conclusion that millions of homeowners will be arriving at.