Houses on the Postwar Horizon

We have seen that between 1890 and 1930 the trend toward home ownership was growing in nonfarm areas. Will this trend be resumed after the war?

Under present conditions the obstacles to home ownership are diminishing. Interest rates have come down and it is easier to get large-size loans. But prices have not been reduced, though it is possible that they will be if house building becomes a mass-production industry and advantage is taken of newer and cheaper materials and less expensive ways of building.

Of course, not all home buyers will be interested in mass-production houses. Some will prefer custom-made homes just as they prefer custom-made clothes. It is probably true, however, that they will be more expensive than articles manufactured by mass-production methods.

In the long run, any trend toward the increase of home ownership will depend on whether it is cheaper for the average family with a small or moderate income to buy or rent. A comparison of these alternatives can only be made by considering all the expense involved in keeping up the same piece of property, over the same period of time, if bought or rented.

Take two houses, costing the same, and receiving the same care, one of which is lived in by the owner and the other rented. The home owner would come out ahead of the man who rents if prices stayed put or went up. Prices o£ used houses, however, are not stable. In boom times, when there is a demand for homes, all prices rise, including those of used houses. In bad times, they go down. Also the neighborhood may change. What is an attractive and even a fashionable neighborhood now, may become a slum 25 or 50 years hence. One must also consider depreciation as well as repairs and alterations that a house needs as it grows older.

Thus, the advantages of renting or buying are not easy to measure. Nor can one foresee what the future will hold. However, we know that, generally speaking, a person who bought a home in 1928—when prices were high—was almost sure to lose money if he sold it during the depression. At the bottom of the depression, say from 1931 to 1934, the carrying charges on his mortgage plus taxes sometimes were more than the rent he could get. By contrast, anyone who bought a home in the early 1900’s would probably have made a profit if he sold it during the boom of the 1920’s. The trouble with these calculations, of course, is that they assume profits or losses if a man sells his home, but they don’t throw much light on how the man came out who didn’t sell, but hung on to his home.

Authorities reckon that those who bought property in 1935 had a good chance of beating the cost of renting if they held on to their homes for at least 10 years. If they sold before 10 years had passed, they would probably lose money.

But money isn’t the only consideration, perhaps not even the most important one, when it comes to deciding whether to buy or rent. The desire to own one’s own home is deep-seated in human beings.

A Washington, D. C., newspaper ran a letter not long ago, from a private written from “somewhere in the jungles of Burma.” This soldier told what he hoped for when he got back home. There were just a few fundamental things he wanted: “a secure job, to have a car, to own a home someday, to raise a family, and to live like any other responsible American.”

“There are many more fellows with the same thoughts in mind as I have,” he wrote. “I am thinking of building my own home when I get back.” So he asked for pamphlets and books about planning and building a house and landscaping the lot. He even knew just about how much money he was going to spend on his house.

That soldier in Burma is like a lot of other people who find rewards in owning a home that can’t be measured in dollars and cents. This reward comes in working out plans and in turning them into reality. It comes also in a personal pride in ownership and responsibility for a home. These things cause many to build or buy homes despite all the apparent difficulties.

People who have that feeling about a home of their own will cheerfully assume the responsibility of a mortgage. They will consider the chance that they might lose their jobs, move away from the community, or perhaps get a cut in wages, but it won’t make any difference.

Of course this human impulse to own one’s own home is more apt to be turned into action when times are good and people have money to invest. In the early 1930’s, though times weren’t good, the government stepped into the picture, and it became easier to get loans at lower interest. Many families were saved from foreclosure. Home ownership was encouraged.

Some housing authorities think, however, that ownership may have gone a little too far among families with small or moderate incomes. What they mean is that for people of such incomes, renting may be cheaper or at least safer in the long run. They admit, however—as everybody must admit—that each family has to decide the question for itself and that many families will decide to own homes even if they think that renting is cheaper and safer.

Many people believe that a revolution will take place in house building after the war. New materials, new methods of construction, and new selling and building organizations will give us, they think, better and perhaps cheaper houses. But such changes, if they come, will take time. Realistic thinkers don’t expect any immediate utopia as soon as the firing stops.

You have only to compare any house built recently with one 20 or 30 years old to see the strides made in construction. For example, the heating system and electrical installations, the window glass and insulating materials are far better in modern than in old houses.

Also, better homes are being built because new and cheaper materials have been found, such as wallboard, plastics, asbestos cement, and asphalt products. Wallboard (made of wood, vegetable and mineral fibers, or of wastepaper, gypsum, or plywood) has many uses-as an insulator, a substitute for plaster, for sheathing, or even as outside wall covering. Plastics have greatly improved paints and glues, while asbestos cement, which is light and fireproof, is used in shingles, siding, and wainscoting. Bituminous products are used in roof covering, roof tiles, and in waterproofing.

The authorities tell us that after the war plastics, steel, glass, rubber, and the light metals, aluminum and magnesium, will be even more important in house-building. They have become much more abundant, and new and unusual uses for them are being found every day.