Why is home ownership so popular?

I was out dethatching the front yard this morning, taking advantage of the unusually sunny weather that has come our way, and, as is often the case when I’m left alone with my thoughts and a witless task, my mind wandered to the obvious place, wondering why on earth I ever agreed to buy this house that consumes so much of my time and energy.

When you consider all the costs of owning a house (taxes, interest on a mortgage, gas, electricity, renovations, maintenance, time, etc), there’s no way that it could possibly be a better investment than renting an apartment and investing the difference in mutual funds. It’s like having a second job, except instead of being paid to work, you pay to do it. So why do so many people own houses?

The answer is obvious to anybody whose ever given a few moments of consideration: control.

In his talk at EclipseCon, Joel Spolsky touched on Martin E. P. Seligman’s theory of learned helplessness, which as I undertstand it states that depression is a result of a lack of control over one’s environment. When you feel that you can’t influence the world around you, you tend to feel depressed.

In today’s society, what better way of exerting control over your environment is there than owning a house? Unlike a rented apartment, you can paint the walls whatever colour you like; plant a garden if you have the thumb for it, or as in my case, rip one out because you haven’t; change the floors; fill it with furniture; etc. Apparently, for most people that sense of control is worth all the afternoons mowing lawns; raking leaves; shoveling driveways; wiring basements; etc.

Thoreau, when he left Concord for a simple life in a hand-built shed on Walden pond, noted that “Men do not own their homes, but rather the homes own the men.” Maybe so, but it seems to be a type of slavery most are willing settle for.

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