Johanna Lasser had lived in a dozen apartments before she bought her first house two years ago, a rundown Victorian in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. Ms. Lasser and her husband, Jimm, figured they would fix it up, stay a few years and then move on to a house in the suburbs, or one in a better school district, as many people do.
It didn’t take long for that plan to stop making sense.
“Once you’ve got all that work done, where would we go in the city except to another place that somebody had just fixed up?” said Ms. Lasser, 40, a stay-at-home mother who’s pregnant with her second child. “We’d just be switching apples for apples.”
Ms. and Mr. Lasser, 43, a filmmaker, are not the only homeowners with doubts about moving these days. Americans have been moving less over the years, with only 11 percent changing households in 2017, down from 13 percent in 2007, according to United States census data. Historically, we stayed in our homes for around six years; now we’re now staying for 10, according the National Association of Realtors.
The mood is affecting how we live in our homes and where we spend our money. More than three quarters of the respondents to an October Zillow survey, for example, reported that, given the option, they’d rather spend a lump sum of money renovating their current home than on a down payment for a new one.
What happens, though, when the home you think is your starter house becomes your forever house?
As first-time home buyers, we often cobble together what we have for a down payment with the expectation that in five years (because, face it, we like to believe that life operates on an endless loop of five-year plans) we’ll upgrade to something larger, or in better condition, or in a better neighborhood. Realizing that we may not actually be able to move runs counter to an American ideal that there’s always a better version of our lives a few pay raises away.
“We are restless people, we like to feel like we could move at any time. If you think of your house as your starter home, you know you can just leave,” said Melody Warnick, the author of “This Is Where You Belong: Finding Home Wherever You Are.” “That’s a belief that we cherish because it gives us a sense of freedom.”
But increasingly, the math doesn’t work and we find that we’re not so free to go.
A brew of short- and long-term trends has led us to this moment. Millennials, saddled with student debt, are buying their first homes later in life, and so are less likely to move again. Inventory is tight (largely because homeowners aren’t moving), home prices are high, and interest rates are rising.
Added to that, the 2017 federal tax overhaul capped the mortgage interest deduction at $750,000 and limited sales and local tax deductions to $10,000 a year, making it less desirable for owners in high-tax states like New York to buy a home with a jumbo mortgage or a giant property-tax bill.
In short, if you were lucky enough to lock in a historically low interest rate, whatever you buy today will cost you more than it did just a few months ago. The Lassers, for example, pay roughly $12,000 a year in property taxes for the six-bedroom house that they bought for $1.475 million in 2016. But if they decided to move to the suburbs, their property taxes would likely be higher, and if they bought a house priced at or more than what they paid for their current home, their monthly mortgage payments would be substantially higher at current interest rates.
“With our next purchase, we will have less buying power,” Ms. Lasser said. After the couple finishes bringing the house back to its original glory — a $350,000 project that will involve restoring the original exterior and interior details, gut renovating four of the six bathrooms and renovating the kitchen — she doubts they’ll actually want to leave.
“If you’ve gone through one remodel, I don’t think you ever want to do it again,” she said. “And where would we go?”
Now, rather than scrolling Zillow listings, the couple is paying closer attention to their neighborhood schools, a detail they had overlooked when they bought the place because they figured they’d be gone by the time their daughter, now 4, was old enough for elementary school. “We were not at all prepared for her being in elementary or middle school in the city,” she said.
There are upsides to abandoning the idea of the next house. People who have lived in one place for a long time report feeling better, healthier and more content, according to Ms. Warnick. “Imagine if you channeled some of that restless energy into building strong relationships with people in your neighborhood or planning the block party?” she said.
But if you bought your home during one life stage, it may not necessarily fit so well with the next one.
Mary Botel, 38, bought a 750-square foot bungalow in Portland, Ore., in 2011 for $100,000, when she was single. At the time, she thought it was a good deal and a great place to live for a few years. Seven years later, she is married and now shares the tiny space with her husband, Blaine Botel, 35, and his teenage son. The quarters are tight, requiring the family to pare down on their possessions and stay organized. “Everything now has to have a place,” she said.
Initially the neighborhood was rough — her car was stolen once and so were her boots, snatched off the front porch in the middle of winter. But as the economy improved, so too did the neighborhood. Now apartments in the rental building next door rent for about $1,400 a month, substantially more than Mrs. Botel’s mortgage payments. “If we were to move today, even if we sold, our money wouldn’t go very far,” said Mrs. Botel, who works for Multnomah County, Ore.