Dennis Hockman: Home ownership as an act of pride and community-building
A decade ago, it was wildly popular for real estate experts, elected government officials and professional opinionists to claim that homeownership was patriotic. Today, post-housing bubble, claims that renting a place to live is the smarter value have become just as popular.

The problem with the current home ownership conversation, it seems, is that everyone wants to talk about houses only in financial terms: good investment, bad investment. Haven't we gotten over that yet?

What we need to consider is not whether home ownership or renting a home is a better financial move, but how a well-maintained, well-loved home contributes to the civic good.

Throughout the ages, the world's most celebrated voices of their times have extolled the virtues of home.

The 18th-century writer Samuel Johnson said, "No money is better spent than what is laid out for domestic satisfaction."

A century later, Charles Dickens wrote: "Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration."

More recently, 20th-century existentialist Simone de Beauvoir said, "The ideal of happiness has always taken material form in the house, whether cottage or castle."

It's safe to say that the concept of "home" is a big deal and has been for a long time. Here in the United States, owning a home is even deemed patriotic. I'm not sure I agree.

What's patriotic is not necessarily the ownership part, it's understanding that where you live is part of a larger community, and that taking care of your house, condo or apartment contributes to a strong neighborhood. Strong neighborhoods contribute to good cities and towns, good cities and towns make great states, etc.

In reality, though, it's only natural for people to invest more time, energy, money and interest in maintaining a house when they are paying a mortgage, not rent. Maintaining a rented home is the responsibility of the owner, not the tenant.

This dynamic results in maintenance of nonowner-occupied residences that's often guided by economics, while maintenance of owner-occupied residences is more likely to also focus on aesthetics when it comes time to replace lighting, the front door or the kitchen sink.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not disparaging the notion of renting a place to live, and if you pay attention to the news, you've no doubt become familiar with the many negative aspects of owning a home.

Put all of that aside for a minute and consider the reasons our country exists in the first place. The earliest settlers to North America were adventurers, soldiers, farmers and tradesmen who, despite a strong work ethic and marketable skills, were prohibited from owning property.

Taxes and feudal dues paid to the land-owning aristocracy compelled people to leave their homelands, voyage across a dangerous ocean and settle in an unknown land, all for a chance at a better life, including the opportunity to own property.

Were they driven by the promise of a smart investment that could easily be sold for a profit if times got tough and a better job became available elsewhere? Or was their desire fueled by the sense of pride they'd derive from establishing a place of their own?

Today, there is less talk of pride than value. And yes, in times of economic distress, houses may not be the best investment — but why should that change the way we feel about our homes?

The value of a home shouldn't be assessed by financial measurements alone, but by emotional, social and intellectual criteria. Viewed in this way, owning a home isn't just about dollars and cents; it's about freedom and independence.

I know the wet blankets out there will be quick to point out that being stuck in a house you can't sell is the opposite of freedom — but that's not the kind of independence I am talking about. Granted, if you are the type of person who wants to be able to pick up and move at a moment's notice, owning a house is just one of the many complications that are going to make that difficult.

The kind of freedom I am talking about is more of the "king of my own castle variety." Your home may be the one place on earth where you call the shots. Characteristic of our national identity, owning one's home is, in part, the reason so many endured great hardship to start over in America.

Taken more broadly, owning a home is still a genuine symbol of patriotism. It says, "I like it here, am willing to stay and want to be part of making this place even better."

Likewise, for many, the concept of owning and making a home is tantamount to the pursuit of happiness. Perhaps architect, interior decorator and furniture designer Terence Conran said it best: "Having a warm home that looks good and works well, and that you and your family and friends enjoy, must be one of the most worthwhile things in life."

Dennis Hockman is editor of Chesapeake Home + Living magazine. He can be reached at dhockman@tribune.com.