I was watching a soundless clip from a new movie by enigmatic director, Jim Jarmusch.
Bill Murray sits in a cement bunker-like office, the only ornament in view a wigged skull propped on his otherwise nondescript desk.
As Murray dials the phone, I wonder: "Does he own or rent this place?"
Of course, that question is utter nonsense. This is a MOVIE for goshsakes and what difference would it make in the arc of the character or story to know the answer to this piddling question?
It's trivial, comical, and irrelevant.
But it's definitely juicy, because my brain dressed it up like a fur-ball; this cortex I carry around is teasing me, taunting me.
Americans are awakening from a bender. Feeling bruised and abused, we have been drugged and fogged by what was for many years we called, The American Dream: home ownership.
Let's stay on that phrase for a second. "The American Dream" means everyone's dream, right? This is what you aspire to, sacrifice for.
You are defined by whenever and how grandly you make this dream become reality.
Yet, given the housing meltdown, sub-prime loan debacle, and soaring foreclosure rates, along with the promise of tight money and excruciating lending requirements for years if not decades to come, this dream is now flitting away, and quickly morphing into a nightmare .
Typically, there are two things we can do, psychologically, when we think that a big carrot is being taken away. We can blame ourselves for its disappearance, or we can revalue the carrot.
I'm not sure what I'm going to do in the next several words, because frankly, I'm ambivalent.
Home ownership, in an ideal iteration, is a fine thing. It tends to make people put down roots, so they develop communities, friendships, and take care of their properties so neighborhoods do not succumb to injury.
Plus, as long as mortgage and taxes are paid, no one can raise your rent or toss you out.
If housing prices increase over time, along with certain tax breaks, you can even realize an increase in your overall wealth.
Sounds like a dream, so far, does not it?
But with the creative financing of the past decade or two, home ownership took on two unusual characteristics: instability and price speculation. With variable interest rates, a homeowner actually began to pay a form of "rent" which could have been dramatically jacked-up, overnight.
And with rapidly rising prices, taxes often rose as well, making those that chose to stay put where they were fork out more cash, even as their net worth worth on paper.
Take away price appreciation, take away subsidized interest rates, take away no-qualifying loans and no-down-payment-required, threaten to decrease the tax deduction for home ownership, and imperil people's jobs, and you are looking at a dream that you can not wait to escape from.
There has always been an unwritten rule of thumb in real estate. If you were going to pay as much in rent and in forgone tax breaks as you would buy, then you should definitely buy.
That's a no-brainer.
If prices are appreciating, it even pays to stretch. So, if home ownership costs 150% to 200% of renting, you might still want to buy, especially if you are making a high income and you can use a sizable tax break.
But in a market with flat or declining prices, or if you are going to pay three times a rental fee to own, then you're very possibly throwing money away.
Bill Murray looks awfully smug in that film clip.
I'll bet he's renting.