On the Bookshelf > Passionate About Home

Why did Americans spend more than $149 billion on home remodeling projects in 2005, according to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies? Why is one hour of programming on HGTV drawing bigger audiences than news programming on CNN or MSNBC?

The answers to these questions boils down to “house lust” and, according to Newsweek writer Daniel McGinn, it’s a habit that’s changed the relationship between Americans and their homes. In his book House Lust: America’s Obsession with Our Homes, McGinn investigates what drove Americans to spend more than ever before on home remodeling and new construction. Even as the real-estate market cooled, McGinn says we’re still emotionally vested in our homes and in the housing market.

McGinn notes that in the last ten years, as the economy boomed, Americans became enthralled with real estate, both as an investment and as a way to enhance their lives. Web sites such as Zillow.com and Realtor.com became popular sources to check on the values of friends’ and neighbors’ homes. A proliferation of home-improvement and real-estate television programs—such as Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Design on a Dime and House Hunters—helped demystify the home design and selling process.

To be sure, much of the real estate “madness” was confined to the east and west coasts. While home values appreciated 20 percent annually in parts of the United States, the midsection of the country experienced only modest gains in housing prices from 2004- 2006, according to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. New Hampshire, too, experienced a housing boom: Real estate values in the state doubled from 2000 through 2005, according to New Hampshire economist Russ Thibeault. “People wanted larger, more expensive houses,” says Kendall Buck, executive vice president of the New Hampshire Home Builders Association (NHHBA). “Larger homes mean higher prices because of regulatory barriers, increased impact fees and building material costs, and the high cost of land.”

McGinn has several theories behind the American obsession with real estate. Most notable are the desires to keep up with the Joneses and build Passionate About Home By Debb ie Kane A new book investigates Americans’ love affair with their homes—and Granite Staters are among the smitten. something grand because “we deserve it.” Others used a home as a savings account, refinancing more often and tapping into their home equity to fund other spending. McGinn attributes these attitudes in part to the television programs that make viewers aware of ways to improve their homes.

“There’s one set of people who look at the bones of a house strictly in economic terms, and others who look at its artistic value,” says McGinn. “Newhome construction almost became a fashion-style business.”

New home sales increased dramatically in the last ten years. McGinn points out that, in the early 1990s, only half of homebuyers wanted a new home; in 2003, nearly 73 percent of buyers wanted a new home. New homes are bigger than ever before, too. A single family home has more than doubled in size from 983 square feet in the 1950s to 2,330 square feet in 2003.

Dr. Debi Warner, a Littleton psychologist who works with clients in the throes of construction and renovation projects, says most New Hampshire homeowners are looking at practical reasons to build and renovate, often doing the work themselves. “Most people aren’t swept up in keeping up but are pursuing the fulfillment of their dreams,” she says. “They [remodel or build] in order to achieve satisfaction with their home or to meet a need.”

Since McGinn interviewed McMansion owners in Maryland and home renovators in Newton, Massachusetts, the real estate picture has changed in New Hampshire but not as dramatically as the rest of the country. New-housing starts here dropped in 2005 while figures were still up around the country, according to NHHBA’s Buck. He predicts that, while still low, new-housing starts in the state will begin to trend upward this year. According to Thibeault, houses for sale in New Hampshire in April 2008 were staying on the market an average of fifteen months, versus three or five months several years ago. Vacation-home sales, which account for a majority of sales north of Concord, are slow, too.

Despite the real-estate downturn, McGinn believes “house lust” is here to stay, citing what he calls a permanent shift in homeowners’ attitudes toward their property. Thibeault agrees, but sees differences in the New Hampshire market. “There’s still ‘house lust’ in the vacation house market,” he says. “But overall market sentiment has changed. The investment aspect is much weaker than the shelter aspect.”

This is good news for McGinn, who says we’ll be happily obsessed with our homes for years to come.