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Hints for Navigating the Newest Challenges of Homeownership
The New Housing Landscape

Hints for Navigating the Newest Challenges of Homeownership

Animations and illustrations by Wonderlust

Home-owning today often means smart technology, rising costs, and homeshares. How should modern home-owners and buyers respond?

Home ownership has changed dramatically in the last decade. The rise of home-focused security technology, smart connected devices, and the popularity of home-sharing platforms has permanently changed not just the housing market, but the relationships we have with our homes. Even the process of finding a home to purchase is different: In the age of instant analysis, 95 percent of buyers used the internet during their home search, according to the National Association of Realtors® Aspiring Home Buyers Profile.

What do all these changes mean for homeowners, both new and experienced? Ethical, technological, and practical considerations that didn’t exist just a few years ago now affect household members—and anyone who crosses their threshold. We talked to more than a dozen homeowners to find out what new challenges and questions they face today and how people should think about finding, buying, and owning homes.

Select a hint to learn more

Hint 1

Be upfront about your security technology.

Jim and his then-girlfriend were recently dog-sitting in the Bay Area when something happened that still makes his skin crawl. The couple couldn’t find any coffee and began rifling through the kitchen. A minute later, they got a text from the homeowner directing them to the right cabinet.

Unbeknownst to Jim, there was a camera in the kitchen sending a live audio and video feed directly to the owner’s cell phone. The device was installed to look after the dog, but the homeowner had failed to inform Jim. The couple had stayed in the house for more than a day with no idea they were being recorded.

“It immediately becomes a question of, where are the other cameras?” Jim says. “What else is she watching us do? I completely understand wanting some level of safety in your house, but your behavior changes when you realize you’re being recorded. All of a sudden, the house is not a house anymore.”

This is the exact situation that tech-happy homeowners need to keep in mind if they plan on installing connected recording devices—and want to avoid potential invasions of privacy. In fact, there are even various state laws regarding home surveillance with which homeowners should be familiar. Some are in the habit of telling everyone who comes over about any camera technology. The conversation feels more necessary as the technology becomes more standard: Before it was acquired by Amazon for $1 billion in 2018, Ring says it was already in one million American homes.

The intention, of course, is security. But homeowners should be clear with anyone who enters their home about what’s being recorded and what happens to the footage, if they’d like to keep their houseguests (and dog-sitters) coming back.

Decide how to balance original architecture with modern conveniences.

Hint 2

By her estimate, Lindsay visited 100 houses in Seattle before landing what she calls the “perfect starter house,” a Tudor-style built in 1926. She and her husband fell in love with the original molding and hardwood floors, but still spent six months renovating before moving in.

When Lindsay and her husband purchased their Tudor, the couple actively decided to eschew modern conveniences to maintain as much of the original charm of the house as possible.

“If I lived in a beautiful new glass box, I’d think more about adding technology to my home,” Lindsay says. “But in my 100-year-old house, I just need the lights to work.”

But new technologies can ultimately make home life significantly easier, especially for families with hectic schedules. Clarissa and her family recently moved into a home built in the 1950s and replaced the old electrical systems with smart tech. Not only did they install connected switches, but they also added a smart thermostat, indoor and outdoor security cameras, and even a smart oven. In practice, the entire house runs on voice command.

Clarissa never thought this level of technology would be impactful. But as a mother of two young children, Clarissa’s quality of life has been significantly affected by being able to do things like preheat the oven from her phone. “I was skeptical when my husband first bought our smart oven,” Clarissa says. “But these small adjustments to every day routines save so much time better spent playing with your kids and doing things that matter.”

Different approaches will make sense for different families, but connected tech is only going to become more standard—the global smart home market is expected to grow from $20.38 billion in 2014 to $58.58 billion in 2020. So regardless of philosophy, it’s important to make those decisions early. Once you can change the heat by talking to the thermostat, it’s hard to go back, no matter how much you might miss the original wall molding.

Even with the benefit of the internet, hire a pro to be on your side throughout the process.

Hint 3

When they first moved to downtown Minneapolis in 2013, Glenn and his wife saw 18 houses in two days. Their second housing search, this one in the summer of 2017, was less hectic but complicated by the fact they had started a family. They eventually realized the suburbs were more practical and bought a house in Eden Prairie.

This is a natural progression of homeownership for many young families, but Glenn insists both processes were only manageable because they decided to hire a real estate agent who was a member of the National Association of Realtors®.

“One of the biggest lessons for us was finding a Realtor who really knows what you mean but also isn’t afraid to push you,” Glenn says. “We found someone we really trust and who made the home-buying process easy.”

This lesson is true for many first-time homeowners. Melissa found their first real estate agent in Chicago so unhelpful that she tried slogging through hundreds of online listings herself.

After someone referred her to a Realtor®, though, she realized how important it was to have someone with years of experience on her side. She went from searching with a very narrow scope to seeing open houses in different neighborhoods, some of which weren’t listed online. And her agent knew what listing agents to work with, tell-tale signs of costly renovations, and had a wealth of local market knowledge.

“I think online listings have actually made the process more complicated than ever,” says NAR president John Smaby. “There’s so much more information to wade through and the market moves faster than ever, which is great, but doesn’t necessarily paint the whole picture. So I think it’s more important than ever to have a Realtor on your side.”

Hint 4

Explore all financing options before the house search to avoid overpaying.

The median home value in the United States is $225,000, and in major cities like San Francisco (with an average home sale price of $1.2 million), it’s becoming increasingly difficult for young professionals to buy property.

Of the more than 8,000 people recently surveyed by NAR for an Aspiring Home Buyers Profile, only 10 percent of those under 34 years old own property. There are obvious financial benefits to owning your home: Instead of losing money to rent every month, that money can go into a mortgage payment. But rushing into that mortgage can be disastrous if it’s not done right.

Median Home Value

San Francisco
New York City
New York

Andrew Hunting, a real estate agent and Realtor® in the Bay Area, sees it all the time: An interested home buyer is continuously outbid by cash-only offers. Discouraged, they end up agreeing to a mortgage significantly higher than budgeted.

This grief can be mitigated. From companies that allow customers to earn equity without a down payment to intensive processes like underwriting, there are a variety of financial options to explore even before seeing a house.

“People feel like they just have to give up and that takes up a lot of emotional energy,” Andrew says. “So with buyers, the biggest thing is to do all your homework, prep up front, and stick with a strategy.”

For Garrett and his husband, that meant living frugally in order to save for a down payment. By putting 50 percent of their combined income into a money market account with a high interest rate, they were able to purchase property: a two-bedroom condo in Salem. It was a trying regimen, and one that might not work for everyone. Most important is establishing long-term goals, and researching the possible ways to get there.

Hint 5

What’s good for the environment is usually good for your bills.

Glenn, the homeowner living in Minnesota, considers himself an environmentally conscious person. But even after seven years in the Midwest, he still needs to crank the heat up to be comfortable.

That first bill was a surprise for the family, who, like many first-time homeowners, expected the same monthly expenses they paid while renting.

When he first started looking to lower his bills, Glenn noticed how impactful modern home technology could be, not only for saving money, but energy, too. What was good for the environment was also going to be good for him. Home energy assessments can usually be done in less than a day and can pinpoint leaks and other energy deficiencies. Innovations like solar panels can bring significant savings in the long term, and there are even smart window shades that adjust to help maintain inside temperatures.

Solar isn’t yet feasible for the family, but a smart thermometer is helping in the meantime. When it senses he’s home, the heat goes up. When it senses him leaving, the heat goes down. It’s a simple step that might not sound significant, but has reduced Glenn’s bill and saved energy.

“Everything adds up,” Glenn says. “Wherever you can make small adjustments to make life a little more affordable, it’s something to think about it, especially if it’s as something as small as getting a Nest.” Smart devices can also help with other utilities, monitoring and identifying leaks and water pressure that rack up water usage, for example. And with many local governments working with utilities companies to offer incentives for homeowners to be as environmentally conscious as possible, some upfront investment in energy efficiency will pay off in the long run.

Hint 6

Home-sharing can be rewarding—if it’s done responsibly.

Sam never thought he’d be running a bed-and-breakfast out of his Moab, Utah home. But when he quit his job and looked for new ways to earn extra income, he found Airbnb.

He started by renting out one room for two months in peak tourist season, then added a second room and more availability. Five years later, Sam books around 400 reservations annually.

“Someone once asked me, ‘How could you let strangers come into your house?” Sam says. “I said, ‘People don’t come 5,000 miles to steal your television set.’ The people coming through mostly just want a good experience.”

In many ways, Sam is the perfect host. He lives in a multi-bedroom house by himself. Moab is situated within 40 miles of two national parks. And he has an extremely welcoming personality, acting as a de facto tour guide of the area while also baking what he claims is the best bread in Utah for all his guests.

However, Sam stresses that hosting is still a job. He has responsibilities not just to his guests, but to his neighbors. Other local hosts ran their properties as hotels and weren’t on-premise, which led to enough noise and property complaints from the local community that Airbnb hosts are now required to own a business license.

For Sam, running a property that way almost defeats the purpose of Airbnb. There’s a reason he doesn’t get complaints from neighbors and has five stars across almost 200 reviews: Sam is not just a person running a hotel, but an integral part of the experience for people visiting his beloved city.

“I not only get to meet all these people, but they pay me!” Sam says. “Plus, someone will pet the dogs for me.”