But many real estate experts now believe that home ownership will never again yield rewards like those enjoyed in the second half of the 20th century, when houses not only provided shelter but also a plump nest egg.
The wealth generated by housing in those decades, particularly on the coasts, did more than assure the owners a comfortable retirement. It powered the economy, paying for the education of children and grandchildren
All those theories advanced during the boom about why housing is special —
that we were running out of usable land — didn’t hold up.”
Instead, Mr. Humphries and other economists say, housing values will only keep up with inflation. A home will return the money an owner puts in each month, but will not multiply the investment.
Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, estimates that it will take 20 years to recoup the $6 trillion of housing wealth that has been lost since 2005. After adjusting for inflation, values will never catch up.
Set against this dismal present and a bleak future, buying a home is a willful act of optimism.
The couple’s first venture into real estate
That quick appreciation started them on the same track as their parents, who watched the value of their houses ascend for decades. The real estate crash interrupted that pleasant dream.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to see the prosperity our parents did, but I don’t think it’s all doom and gloom either,”
With minor swings in sentiment, the latest results reflect what new buyers always seem to feel. At the boom’s peak in 2005, they said prices would go up. When the market was sliding in 2008, they still said prices would go up.
“People think it’s a law of nature,” said Mr. Shiller, who teaches at Yale.
For the first half of the 20th century, he said, expectations followed the opposite path. Houses were seen the way cars are now: as a consumer durable that the buyer eventually used up.
The notion of housing as an investment first began to blossom after World War II, when the nesting urges of returning soldiers created a construction boom. Demand was stoked as their bumper crop of children grew up and bought places of their own. The inflation of the 1970s, which increased the value of hard assets, and liberal tax policies both helped make housing a good bet. So did the long decline in mortgage rates from the early 1980s.
Not everyone views the notion of real appreciation in real estate as a lost cause.
Bob Walters, chief economist of the online mortgage firm Quicken, acknowledges that the recent collapse will create a “mind scar” just as the Great Depression did. But he argues that housing remains unique.
“You have to live somewhere,” he said. “In three or four years, people will resume a normal course, and home values will continue to increase.”
All homes are different, and some neighborhoods and regions will rebound more quickly. On the other hand, areas where there was intense overbuilding, like Arizona, will be extremely slow to show any sign of renewal.
“It’s entirely likely that markets like Arizona will not recover even in the 15- to 20-year time frame,” said Mr. Humphries of Zillow. “The demand doesn’t exist.”