Katy Burns: Home is where the heart, headaches and subsidies are
“The Chinese are coming, and they’d like to buy your house”
– a headline in the “Washington Post” last week
It seems that Chinese people are snapping up residential property around the world, particularly here in the good old U.S.A., not just for investment but for refuge. As China’s water and air become increasingly polluted and food safety scares proliferate, its economy is slowing down and political dissent is still stifled.
So rich Chinese – and they number in the millions – are looking for places to park not only their money but themselves and their children. They’re emigrating.
What they really want is a place that’s socially and politically stable, with a solid currency and generally appreciating property values.
Welcome to America! And . . . welcome to a small town in New Hampshire?
Want a nice, not-too-big, kind-of-middle-aged house in a good, conveniently located community close to major highways and within minutes of the state capitol, the cute little one with the charming golden dome?
Every four years, the lucky purchaser could be up close and personal with the parade of potential presidents who ply the state’s highways and byways, buttonholing plaid-shirted geezers in diners and sidewalk strollers on Main Street! The house has a spiffy new roof and a new lightweight garage door that can, in a power outage, actually be lifted by one ordinary human being. And that awful Harvest Gold stove and sink are history! So is the shag carpeting in the master bedroom.
Okay, the kitchen’s a wee bit dated. And the gas boiler in the basement is close to the end.
But . . . oh, who am I kidding? Those rich Chinese people are going to spring for fancy digs off Central Park! And we really don’t want to sell this fairly humble place we happily call home. Certainly not now, when the day lilies are blooming their gorgeous heads off.
But we’re deep into what we call Maintenance Season. That is when we homeowners who have no handyman skills whatsoever seek out skilled workmen to deal with the toll that age is taking on our gently maturing houses. A little wood rot here, a malfunctioning door there. A window that is beyond repair, stair carpeting of a no-longer discernible color other than a brown coffee stain midway up. The gifted artisans we hire are indeed masters of their various crafts – New Hampshire is filled with such folks – but each year we inevitably ask ourselves: Why on earth do we insist on owning these places? Why not rent? Why not pay a landlord (or landlady; we do not discriminate) to deal with the endless maintenance? For that matter, let her arrange for the plowing in winter, the mowing in summer! Not to mention asking her to fix that dishwasher that started spewing water all over the floor.
Not long ago, a friend who’d spent many years dealing with the foibles of a modest 19th-century house, replacing old leaky windows and bringing her kitchen into the 21st century, for example, left town for a new job – albeit not before dealing with a last minute roof leak (a farewell gift?).
She’s now temporarily renting in a different city. It’s a 21st-century building. With air conditioning. New appliances. And tight-fitting windows.
The other day, she reports, she contacted the building manager to ask where to buy “the weird little light bulbs in the overhead fixtures that had burnt out. He appeared 10 minutes later and replaced them himself!” I have to confess, gazing out at the industrious carpenter who’s repairing and refinishing the tired back door sill, that I was a bit envious.
But – nice as bulb-changing landlords are – I’m sure my friend will, within a relatively short time, re-enlist in the ranks of homeowners.
After all, it’s the American way. Or at least we want it to be. That’s why our federal government – almost uniquely in the world – heavily subsidizes home ownership through a variety of mechanisms.
Homeowners get big mortgage deductions not only for mortgage interest payments – even on second homes – but for state and local property taxes as well. The mortgage rates themselves are subsidized through the quasi-governmental agencies of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. And we even give favored treatment to the capital gains from the sale of primary residences.
While a few other countries treat mortgage interest as deductible – notably Switzerland and the Netherlands – none offers the astonishing array of subsidies that this country does. The taxpayer tab in this country amounts to more than $100 billion annually. In fact, in 2011, the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation estimated that the various tax breaks afforded homeowners would add up to $700 billion in lost revenues through a five-year period ending this year, 2014.
And virtually all of this benefits middle- and upper-income Americans, since they have more wherewithal to buy houses in the first place.
A lot of economists deplore this wholesale subsidization of just one sector of the economy, arguing fairly persuasively that these policies don’t really increase home ownership – the percentage of home ownership is in fact greater in a large number of countries that don’t subsidize it at all.
And they say that the subsidies enable people to buy more and bigger houses than they either need or can afford, leading inevitably to housing bubbles such as the last one, which effectively crippled the entire economy for years. They insist that at the very least, the American populace should be weaned from their housing subsidies.
But economists can theorize all they want. The truth is that Americans, no matter what their political persuasion, love their home subsidies. And they’re backed up by a large army of self-interested lobbyists, from real estate brokers to contractors to those who manufacture everything from roofing shingles to stoves to high-end furniture befitting the new mini-mansions so many of us crave.
My newly renting friend, sooner rather than later, will undoubtedly be back in her own little piece of real estate, paying a mortgage and wondering if it’s time to paint the place.
And for us, should one of those property-buying Chinese guys come to the door, we’d politely decline. After all, in a few days another year’s maintenance will be done. And we’re already looking forward to next summer’s peonies and day lilies.
(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)