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The Paradox of the Joneses: Superstar Houses and Mortgage Frenzy in Suburban America

Clement Bellet

CEP Discussion Papers from Centre for Economic Performance, LSE

Abstract: Despite a major upscaling of suburban houses over the last decades, house satisfaction has remained steady in the United States. I show that upward comparison in size can explain this paradox, as top housing size mirrored the U-shaped pattern of top income inequality. Combining data from the American Housing Survey from 1984 to 2009 with an original dataset of three millions suburban houses built between 1920 and 2009, I find that suburban owners who experienced a relative downscaling of their home due to the building of bigger units in their suburb record lower satisfaction and house values. These homeowners are more likely to upscale and subscribe to new loans. Results are robust to household fixed effects and concentrated in counties with lower segregation, suggesting a causal link between inequality and mortgage debt. In the absence of keeping up with the Joneses, I estimate the mortgage debt to income ratio would have been 25 percentage points lower at the eve of the 2008 financial crisis.

Keywords: inequality; social preferences; subjective well-being; housing; household debt (search for similar items in EconPapers)
JEL-codes: D01 D03 I30 R20 (search for similar items in EconPapers)
New Economics Papers: this item is included in nep-hap and nep-ure
Date: 2017-01
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