Whose dream home is this anyway?

Imagine going to McDonalds and seeing someone – let’s call them Bobby – order a Family Favourites Dinner Box – four boxes of fries, four burgers, four Cokes, and a box of nuggets. It’s such a calorific meal, that even when shared between four people, each serving still contains over half of your entire daily allowance of kilojoules in a single meal. Bobby sits there, eats a tiny fraction of the meal, just enough to make up a single serving, and then throws the rest in the bin.

Why? It’s not like there weren’t plenty of smaller options on the menu. It’s not like there wasn’t a homeless person out the front who might have enjoyed a meal. It’s not like it was the least expensive option available – in fact, it was one of the most expensive.

If Bobby told you it was to look successful and fit in, you would most likely be perplexed.

All-you-can-eat

In all-you-can-eat restaurants, cruise ship buffets, and pot luck dinners, we usually react with disgust or anger to those who pile their plates high and then leave them untouched, wasting vast quantities of food. But in other contexts, waste is practically celebrated. As Jacob Lund Fisker points out in his excellent Early Retirement Extreme book, for some reason, we are considered more successful if, in addition to the lounge in which you are sitting watching TV, you have another, unused room in which there sits and additional couch and TV! It’s not ‘greedy’ to have more couches than people in your house. But it is greedy to pile your plate with shrimp you don’t eat. How does this make sense?

The family home

For all the talk about ‘hardworking Australian families’ in politics and the media, you could be forgiven for thinking that families with children make up the majority of households. But according to the ABS, only 71.5% of Australian households consist of families – and the definition of ‘family’ according to the ABS (and me too, actually) includes couples without children. Of the households characterised as ‘families’, couples without children are now more common than couples or single parents with children. Combining these figures, just over half of Australian households consist of a single person or a couple, while nuclear, step, blended, and other families, as well as shared house arrangements, make up the rest. It is worth noting that many single parent households and share houses may also consist of two people – a parent with one child, two flatmates who share a home but are not in a relationship and hence are not considered a ‘family’ grouping. Thus, it is likely that the number of dwellings containing one or two people rather than three or more is a reasonable majority.

And yet, we all dream of the ‘three bedroom home’ – in fact, the ABS in a separate article reports that the average private dwelling in Australia does indeed have three bedrooms. And this is the national average and includes that ‘glut’ of small apartments we’re always hearing about – some suburbs have much larger homes, like in O’Malley, where the average dwelling has five bedrooms – but the population is largely made up of ‘older’, ‘established’ and ‘elderly’ couples and families, and only 0.8% are described as young families with children.

Take a look at the front cover of any home magazine, any real estate brochure, any bank home loan package, and chances are you’ll see a picture of the ‘Australian Dream’ or whatever your local version of that is – a brightly lit rendered brick home with an expansive lawn, a red roof, and bold front door.

Yesterday, we went to the beautiful Sigatoka sand dunes to do a 5k walk through the national park. On the way back, we saw a billboard advertising ‘dream homes’ in Fiji – clearly, the dream house is a universal phenomenon.

Sigatoka sand dunes
Sigatoka sand dunes

DreamHome

The ‘Dream House’

We are all sold the ‘dream house’ ideal – the McMansion, when for some of us, it doesn’t really suit at all, and for others, it may only suit for a certain amount of time.

A young couple or single who start out with a more modest unit, may be subjected to constant assumptions about ‘upsizing’ – fastfood terminology perfect for association with the McMansion phenomenon – regardless of whether they actually require additional space. Just as getting married appears to be a license for people to ask you about your reproductive plans, if you buy a place smaller than society expects, be prepared to be asked when you will upgrade.

On the other hand, say you have children living at home for 30 years- that’s about half of your adult lifespan. Surely there are better solutions than to stay in the same house for a lifetime. But we equate moving once the kids have left home with ‘not coping’, ‘getting older’, and nearing the end. ‘Downsizing’ we call it, in our dreadfully depressing vocabulary.

When we first started saving for a home deposit, I had been pretty much sold on the ‘dream home’. I wanted the white picket fence, the hedges, the red door. Fortunately, my husband insisted that, in addition to houses, we also look at apartments and units, and we eventually found a place we loved, that is ‘right size’ for us (more of a ‘Happy Meal’ than a ‘McMansion’). And it suits our lifestyle so much more. No lawn to mow. No external painting to do. No wasted rooms.

Some people buy a family home in anticipation of having children. But the average time a house is held for is only 7 years. As much as most of us think of our homes as our permanent addresses, they rarely are. Others, with no intent to have kids, end up buying a ‘family home’ simply because it is the only sort heavily advertised, and considered a milestone, just like buying your first car, graduating, or getting married.

It’s time we reframe how we think about buying houses and moving, and concentrate on ‘right sizing’ for ourselves and our families.

If you have a large family, by all means, buy the box set of burgers, the bucket of chicken, the 2.5L Coke. But if you’re single or in a couple, does it really make you look more successful to be sitting there eating a family size tub of icecream or 5 extra-large packets of fries?

Joyful Homemaking

23MortgageWhat does your dream home look like?

Today’s featured image is my hotel room door in Fiji. It’s a small room, but it’s the right size for us!

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14 thoughts on “Whose dream home is this anyway?

  1. Well put.

    Not to mention the costs associated with buying a house – the stamp duty and other fees. That money is essentially going in the bin if you have to move again in (let’s use your average) 7 years. And how many people would just do this by selling and buying a new house? That’s even more fees.

    I see housing as a service – much like paying for a private school or a train ride. For me it’s a service that allows me to live in a nicer suburb that I could possibly afford to buy – it’s safe, it’s very close to my work, it has regular public transport and it has a school very close. Some people spend 20k a year sending their kids to a private school because their local public school is bad. They usually have a mortgage on top of that. If you look at housing as a service, you can spend that 20k a year on renting instead of the fancy school, to live in a suburb that has a good local public school. You don’t have to worry about mortgage repayments or house maintenance. If you want to move – you move, without the associated fees of buying or selling a house.

    If you want a dream home – buy one that you won’t move out of, forever. Otherwise it’s not really ‘dream home’ is it?

    1. Thanks for your comment Aly. ? I really like your view of housing as a service, and I completely agree.
      Negative gearing tax concessions in Australia mean that there are quite a few areas in which renting is cheaper than paying a mortgage. While we hear a lot (largely from property developers spruiking new estates) about ‘rent money’ being ‘dead money’, it is certainly true that ‘interest payments’ are ‘dead money’ too. The vast bulk of your mortgage payments, at the start, are simply paying interest – only a small slither comes off of the principal. Plus there are a bunch of expenses that home owners have to deal with that renters don’t, as you point out – stamp duty, real estate agent commissions, and all of the day-to-day stuff like repairs (some estimates suggest 1-2% of the house value per year), building insurance, council rates, some types of water rates in some states, etc.
      Were it not for the attractiveness of negative gearing, it would likely make more financial sense to buy – landlords would want to make a profit on their investments, and so, rental prices would take into account all of these expenses.
      Of course, there are still some areas in which it is cheaper to buy than to rent. We were lucky enough to find one such area, and from the day we moved in, our mortgage payments were lower than if we had rented the same place. If you find a place like this that suits you, then buying makes sense! (Provided, of course, that you have the kind of lifestyle that suits a permanent address – people whose jobs take them here and there will likely be better off renting still for the reasons you suggest)
      I’m not entirely sure that a ‘dream home’ really exists. I looked at one variable in this post – family size, and whether a couple pre-kids and post-kids needs the same size home as when they have kids. But there are other variables too – like age and health. When you are younger it might make sense to live near the uni you’re going to, an easy car-ride from the supermarket, and have a great view. When you’re older, you might prioritise easy access to the markets that you can walk to if you can no longer drive, being nearby a good clinic, and having a nice neighborhood community, no steps and an easy-access bathroom.
      To give another analogy, your ‘dream dress’ at 20 will likely be quite different to your ‘dream dress’ at 40, 60, or 80 in terms of style, size, material, cost etc. But fashion magazines and runways are dominated by the styles that suit only the young, rich and slender. Most of us recognise that what looks good on us at 20 probably won’t look as good at 30, 40, and certainly not 50, but we tend to think that the same house will suit us for decades. ?
      What do you think?

  2. Re dream home – I completely agree. If I had to define my ‘dream home’ it would be something I buy much closer to retirement, likely in my mid 40s or maybe 50s. Building it with health and retirement in mind. At that age, I would also hope that career options/professional life direction would be more settled such that moving would no longer be necessary. For example – being appointed judge or getting university tenure would erase the need to constantly relocate chasing job opportunities.
    But unless those things have happened, I don’t think any home we buy would be ‘dream’ per se. More like an adequate (maybe even a very good) temporary housing solution. I can live with that, it doesn’t have to be ‘dream’. I imagine people would drive themselves insane if they constantly pursued ‘dream’ things. Sometimes you’ve got to settle and find happiness elsewhere.

    1. Great point Aly, I think this is the perfect ‘re-framing’ of the ‘dream home’ concept: a dream home is one that fits *your dream life*, not some supposedly ‘ideal’ life concocted by a marketing team.??

  3. Of course, another option is to not have a home at all, http://www.tropicalmba.com/ style, as you earn on the go, or post-financial independence as you note in the ‘How long can I travel?’ blog.
    After all, home is where the heart is, and why confine your heart by four walls?

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