playing house with debt shot with the Olympus PEN E-P1
Playing House with debt (2011) Olympus PEN E-P1 + M.Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm@F4.6 1/800s ISO 200

Photographic notes
This shot was taken in a newly built residential street. This is right in one of the most densely populated parts of Berlin. They build these row houses with tiny back- and front yards and underground garages almost to mimic the suburban life. Of course the houses do not offer much more in terms of space than a decent apartment. The yards are tiny and the neighbors literally sit closer to you in your own garden than if you were sitting on a park bench in public. The new owners even tried to close the street off for foot traffic but the thousands of people nearby made very sure it stayed open. For me this is like playing suburban house in the smack dab of a gentrified city. Everyone else kind of wrinkles their noses about the people living here. In the meantime though this style of town house caught on. What a waste of space when one considers the lack of housing and the skyrocketing rents and real estate prices.

Games People Play

There is this interesting American term called “Playing House”. It has two meanings. Either a couple pretending to be settled, married and living together when in fact they are anything but. Lana del Rey has a beautiful song about this meaning (her evocation of the 1950s and 1960s fits this article as well). The second one means kids playing adults. Pretending to be a couple, cooking, having their dog as a kid or things like that.

But I would like to add a third meaning. Playing House with debt is a game that adults can play. I am taking an inspiration from psychiatrist Eric Berne’s book “Games People Play” in which he says that we all play partly subconscious games with one another. Even though the book is clearly stuck in 1950s and 1960s American society the core idea is still interesting.

Not every game is dysfunctional and some are even beneficial for social interaction. The problem is that we tend to play them without further reflection. We just play. Most people would not consciously play those games and often deny that they are even playing them in the first place. Eric Berne tries to make us aware of these games so that we can either play them because they are beneficial or that we cease to play the dysfunctional ones.

Let’s own our Home

One of the biggest games we play is owning a home. A majority of people would say that owning a home is something good. Banks, mortgage lenders, builders and even the government tell us about the many good things that come from owning one’s own home. Have you ever seen an advert extolling the virtues of renting?

Home ownership is still an important yardstick with which we measure ourselves against coworkers, family, friends and peers. Home ownership provides a kind of psychological comfort that says “no one can take away the roof above my head”. Which of course the bank can very easily. Home ownership signifies someone as having achieved something in life. Home owners are good and responsible people, they save, they work and can take care of their property. You are a real person if you own a home.

Of course all these reasons are buttressed by financial arguments. You would save rent later in in life. You could sell the house for profit or your children could inherit the place. You are independent of landlords or increases in rent.

It is all an Illusion for most people

Buying a home is for most people the single most important financial decision they could make in life. It is like a marriage but you can only really divorce in 20 or 30 years once your mortgage is paid. And all the good reasons for buying a home are mostly wrong.

I am not even talking about the financial reasons. Putting most of your financial assets into one object is not good investment advice. Home owners always never prepare for unexpected costs and repairs and so are in need of a new mortgage sometimes even before the old one is paid. I have seen so many coworker taking out second mortgages to fix something important. Home ownership does not fit well with today’s more flexible labor markets and your children might not even want to live in their house or they lack the funds to fix it up after your death.

What I criticize though are the non-monetary reasons for owning a home. The game as it is. These reasons are purely psychological and in fact unnecessary for a happy life. So many people feel they lack something without their own home which is absurd. Owning a home is first and foremost a huge obligation. Instead of being independent from renting a home, owners are now slaves to their banks and jobs for the next 20 to 30 years. Want to move someplace else? Want to cut back on working? Going back to university? Changing your lifestyle? A house makes this much more difficult.

Even worse is that many people make this kind of commitment in their early twenties or thirties. How can you know what kind of life you want in ten or twenty years? And then you are bound to the house and the mortgage. Owning a home this way takes away freedom and flexibility not only in a financial sense but a psychological one too. You worked so hard for this home and have already made 15 years of mortgage payments. It is hard to give this life up and it makes you a prisoner in it.

Freedom and Options

There is nothing more important in life than freedom. It does not matter how much freedom you use but the possibilities are what makes freedom so valuable. Playing house takes them away. It chains you to a place, it chains you to your work and it chains you to your family. Sounds harsh does it not? But really think why you want to own a home and are willing to slave yourself to a mortgage for a third of your remaining life? Are those reasons really rational and good? Is this really what you want? Are you not just playing a game? Trying to keep up with your peers, doing what others say one should do with life?

If you can buy a home literally with cash go ahead and do it. I’d love to if I had the cash. Maybe save money and buy something later in life for retirement when the kids are on their own. But don’t play house with debt when your not even thirty years old. Live, experience, change things up, be free and flexible or settle down but keep some options open. But don’t start playing house with debt.

In case you are curious. I had this obsession with owning a home but a part of me fought against committing to home ownership. I am glad I never did with all the changes going on in my life. The burden of being stuck would have been too much. But yes I very much thought I had to play the game until it was my turn and I refused.

4 responses to “Playing House with debt”

  1. Jim Grey Avatar

    I’ve owned three homes — four, if you count the one we rented out for a while.

    Exiting the first house and buying the second happened around the time of the great housing crash. Selling the second house happened just as the housing market was coming back. All tolled, we made very little money. In the second house, my monthly mortgage payment was far less than what it would have cost to rent the same house. But after I added up all the repairs and improvements I had to make and then divided by the number of months I lived there, that amount of money added to the mortgage payment was equal to the going rents.

    The housing crash is not a normal event, however. Most peoples’ homes slowly appreciate in value. When they want to do something different with their lives, they sell and take the equity with them. Selling takes work, but it can be done. When I’ve rented, I’ve been subject to a lease with penalties for moving out before the term. So I’m not sure, frankly, which one is better.

    1. Paul Avatar

      I think the specific financial pros and cons depend very much on the country. Buying and selling a house is much easier and cheaper in the US while the rental laws are usually better here in Europe. In Germany minimum leases are usually capped at one year.

      I think both are valid alternatives if people would make a rational financial decision instead of chasing their dream of owning a house like some do.

  2. walker Avatar

    Even if I do not agree on some thoughts what you’ve said it’s true, unfortunately darn true!

  3. May More Avatar

    Thoroughly interesting post – You pose your argument so well and i do agree with much of it – For me freedom is the most important thing too. I have owned homes, sold homes, bought another. I have also had relationships end and be taken for my share of the property and obviously left feeling bitter. We must have been playing at house.
    I remember my Gran rented all her life and never regretted it.
    Thanks for linking up.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.