Why Use the Best Lumber in a House That Won’t Last?

A Freakonomics Radio listener named Kevin wrote in response to our recent episode called “Why Are Japanese Homes Disposable?” First, here's a quick summary of that episode:

It turns out that half of all homes in Japan are demolished within 38 years — compared to 100 years in the U.S.  There is virtually no market for pre-owned homes in Japan, and 60 percent of all homes were built after 1980. In Jiro Yoshida’s estimation, while land continues to hold value, physical homes become worthless within 30 years. Other studies have shown this to happen in as little as 15 years.

The Folly of Eminent Domain Takings of Failing Mortgage Loans

University of Arizona economist Price Fishback, who has been on this blog before, is one of the leading scholars of the economics of the New Deal. He has a great new set of insights to share on the U.S. mortgage mess. He's also the co-author of the forthcoming book Well Worth Saving: How the New Deal Safeguarded Home Ownership, with Jonathan Rose and Kenneth Snowden.


The Folly of Eminent Domain Takings of Failing Mortgage Loans
By Price Fishback

Several cities around the country are considering using eminent domain to take control of troubled mortgages in their cities.  An Associated Press example of how the proposal will work calls for the city to use eminent domain to force the lender to accept $150,000 for a $300,000 mortgage on a home that has a current market value of $200,000.  The city would then refinance the loan while cutting the principal owed by the borrower to $190,000.    

Eminent domain requires a public purpose for the taking of an asset.   The public purpose claimed here is that property values and property tax revenues can be boosted by preventing a mass of foreclosure sales.  Real estate studies do show that increasing numbers of foreclosure sales are associated with lower housing values in nearby neighborhoods.  However, the spillover benefits of preventing foreclosures, tend to be focused on houses in nearby neighborhoods. 

Does High Home Ownership Lead to Higher Unemployment?

That is the surprising question asked (and answered) by David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald in a new working paper. If this effect is real, and if the mechanisms by which it occurs are true, then this paper is hugely important for policymakers, civic planners, and the rest of us:

We explore the hypothesis that high home-ownership damages the labor market. Our results are relevant to, and may be worrying for, a range of policy-makers and researchers.  We find that rises in the home-ownership rate in a U.S. state are a precursor to eventual sharp rises in unemployment in that state.  The elasticity exceeds unity: a doubling of the rate of home-ownership in a U.S. state is followed in the long-run by more than a doubling of the later unemployment rate.  What mechanism might explain this? We show that rises in home-ownership lead to three problems: (i) lower levels of labor mobility, (ii) greater commuting times, and (iii) fewer new businesses. Our argument is not that owners themselves are disproportionately unemployed. The evidence suggests, instead, that the housing market can produce negative 'externalities' upon the labor market. The time lags are long. That gradualness may explain why these important patterns are so little-known.

Blanchflower, a Dartmouth economist who regularly writes for the Independent (U.K.), recently published an op-ed in that paper which applied these findings to the European situation:

The Latest in Happiness Research

In the L.A. Times, Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton highlight some of the more interesting recent findings in the field of happiness research.  Two surprising examples from the article:

1. "A study of women in the United States found that homeowners were no happier than renters, on average. And even if you're currently living in a cramped basement suite, you may find that moving to a nicer home has surprisingly little impact on your overall happiness. Researchers followed thousands of people in Germany who moved to a new home because there was something they didn't like about their old home. In the five years after relocating, the residents reported a significant increase in satisfaction with their housing, but their overall satisfaction with their lives didn't budge."
2. "[D]ozens of studies show that people get more happiness from buying experiences than from buying material things. Experiential purchases — such as trips, concerts and special meals — are more deeply connected to our sense of self, making us who we are. And while it's anyone's guess where the American housing market is headed, the value of experiences tends to grow over time, becoming rosier in the rearview mirror of memory."

Who Suffered Most in the Housing Bust?

A new working paper (abstract; PDF) looks at how the recent housing bust affected minorities. Economists Patrick Bayer, Fernando Ferreira, and Stephen L. Ross looked at mortgage outcomes "for a large, representative sample of individual home purchases and refinances linked to credit scores in seven major US markets."  Here's what they found:

Among those with similar credit scores, black and Hispanic homeowners had much higher rates of delinquency and default in the downturn. These differences are not readily explained by the likelihood of receiving a subprime loan or by differential exposure to local shocks in the housing and labor market and are especially pronounced for loans originated near the peak of the boom. Our findings suggest that those black and Hispanic homeowners drawn into the market near the peak were especially vulnerable to adverse economic shocks and raise serious concerns about homeownership as a mechanism for reducing racial disparities in wealth.

Kerwin Charles, Erik Hurst, and Matt Notowidigdo on the U.S. Labor Market

Three of my colleagues and friends at the University of Chicago -- Kerwin Charles, Erik Hurst, and Matt Notowidigdo -- recently presented some new research that aims to understand the ups and downs in the U.S. labor market.  It’s more serious and important than the usual stuff we deal with on the blog, but every once in a while we deviate from trivialities when something really good comes along. 

They’ve been kind enough to put together a layperson’s version of the research below.  For those looking for the full-blown academic version, you can find that here.

A Structural Explanation for the Weak Labor Market
By  Kerwin Charles, Erik Hurst, and Matt Notowidigdo

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, the labor market has remained anemic.  Between 2007 and 2010, the employment-to-population ratio of men between the ages of 21 and 55 with less than a four-year degree fell from 82.8 percent to 73.8 percent.  As of mid-2012, the employment-to-population ratio for these men remained depressed at 75.6 percent.[1] 

In our new working paper (abstract; full PDF), we show that the recent sluggish labor market in the U.S. - particularly for prime age workers without a college degree - can be traced back to the large sectoral decline in manufacturing employment that occurred during the 2000s.  After decades of relative stability, total manufacturing employment in the U.S. fell by 3.5 million jobs between the beginning of 2000 and the end of 2007 (see chart below).  These manufacturing jobs were lost even before the Great Recession started.  During the recent recession, another 2 million manufacturing jobs were lost.  While there is talk of a recent manufacturing rebound in the U.S., the recent increase is only a tiny fraction of the total manufacturing jobs lost during the 2000s.

Research from My Favorite Economic Gabfest

I’ve just gotten back home after a terrific few days at the Brookings Panel on Economic Activity.  It’s my favorite gabfest of the year, featuring economic analysis that is both serious research, and also connected to ongoing policy debates.  (OK, I’m biased--I’m an editor, and organize the conference along with Berkeley’s David Romer.)  And while I think some of you may enjoy slogging your way through the latest papers, others may prefer your summaries simpler and lighter. So I went ahead and recorded a few short videos summarizing the papers. I hope you enjoy!

Is an Auction the Best Way to Solve the Roommate/Rent Dilemma?

We've blogged before about the very common roommate/rent dilemma -- that is, how to fairly split rent among roommates given that different rooms have different features. A reader named Michael Jancsy writes in with an auction solution and a request for feedback:

I recently designed an auction website [called "The Rent Is Too Damn Fair"] to help friends split apartments ... The auction works by allowing each roommate to bid on each room in an apartment, and then identifies the permutation of roommates to rooms with the largest consumer surplus (sum of all bids minus rent paid to landlord) to decide who should live in what room. Each person's rent is then calculated by dividing the surplus evenly over the occupants, so that the difference between a person’s bid and the rent paid is the same for each person. 

Inequality Across U.S. States

A Bloomberg article by Virginia Postrel explores a discouraging trend in income inequality.  For decades, incomes across states in the U.S. converged -- i.e. poor states caught up to rich ones -- just as Robert Solow's growth theory predicted:

Poor places are short on the capital that would make local labor more productive. Investors move capital to those poor places, hoping to capture some of the increased productivity as higher returns. Productivity gradually equalizes across the country, and wages follow. When capital can move freely, the poorer a place is to start with, the faster it grows.

That steady convergence, however, has stopped.  One possible explanation?  High housing prices in rich cities, caused by government regulation:

Should You Ignore the Weather When Buying a New House or Car?

An NBER working paper (full PDF here) by Meghan R. Busse, Devin G. Pope, Jaren C. Pope, and Jorge Silva-Risso explores the role of projection bias when choosing a new car or house. It turns out that weather conditions are a huge factor when consumers are debating big purchases like houses or cars. The abstract:

Projection bias is the tendency to overpredict the degree to which one’s future tastes will resemble one’s current tastes. We test for evidence of projection bias in two of the largest and most important consumer markets – the car and housing markets. Using data for more than forty million vehicle transactions and four million housing purchases, we explore the impact of the weather on purchasing decisions. We find that the choice to purchase a convertible, a 4-wheel drive, or a vehicle that is black in color is highly dependent on the weather at the time of purchase in a way that is inconsistent with classical utility theory. Similarly, we find that the hedonic value that a swimming pool and that central air add to a house is higher when the house goes under contract in the summertime compared to the wintertime.