David Diesslin, the founder of his own namesake financial advisory firm in Fort Worth, Texas, said that early in his career, in the mid-1980s, he hesitantly helped a couple buy a house he didn't think they could afford. 

"I helped them ... telling them that I thought this was a mistake," he says. He felt voicing his concern was enough. But they were attempting it during a very tough economic environment in Texas. After a while, they couldn't cover the mortgage and the housing prices plummeted. "And long story short, that larger house not only cost them their housing dreams, it cost them their marriage and it had a big impact on their children."

The lesson he took away: "Happiness is not defined in housing."

Yet the desire to be a homeowner, to be landed, is so ingrained in the American consciousness that someday they might unravel it in the genome. From birth, most of us are taught that the home we live in should be our main source of wealth, the fundamental vehicle we use to build equity and join the ownership society. It's our birthright-the way we shake off the distant memories of unjust past economic systems such as feudalism and tenant farming where our identity was tied to barons. To be an owner is to enjoy not only economic freedom but political freedom as well.

And yet these days, some are questioning whether that dream is still practical or necessary. We live in an increasingly mobile society where people rarely live in the same place for more than a few years-either because they are footloose by nature, or because permanent job situations are more difficult to come by. And given the high costs of moving, closing on a property and paying taxes on it, a short stay of five years or less in an expensive house could be devastating, especially if there is no security blanket. Even pundit Suze Orman sometimes asks viewers on Saturday nights if it might be wrong to dream of home ownership.

The 2007 housing crisis, of course, offered a grotesque passion play on the subject. According to the Zillow Home Value Index, the median home price in the United States was $147,800 at the end of November 2011, having fallen 4.6% from the year before and some 24% from the peak. That doesn't account for bloodbath cities like Orlando, Fla.; Riverside, Calif.; and Phoenix, whose home prices were cut by more than half. Meanwhile, some 28% of mortgage holders were underwater in negative equity for the third quarter of 2011. 

Home values had made a slight comeback with the home buyer tax credit introduced by the Obama administration, but once the credit expired, the hopeful surge in home prices evaporated in 2010, and prices plunged again, especially in places where the bubble had been the worst, like Florida, Arizona, Nevada and California. Gone were the dreams of the mid-2000s, when speculators and average people alike thought they could use overvalued houses as piggybanks to pay for cars and toys on credit or otherwise flip the homestead in a couple of years or see 20% gains every year. 

The question, both timeless and timely: Is home ownership right for everybody?

Alan Moore, an advisor with the Financial Service Group in Racine, Wis., says the argument that people should own homes under all conditions is just not true. Very often he tells retirees not to buy. "The timeless advice that everybody has been giving, the American dream that you buy a home, pay it off over time and after you retire you don't have to pay rent-well it's just not true," he says. "If you do own your own home you have maintenance issues, you have property taxes and depending on where you live, that alone will run up your bill to where you basically feel like you're paying rent."

A home also ties retirees down, Moore says, making it hard for them to travel. And for everybody, a home makes it impossible to react in emergencies, especially if you've tapped yourself out on debt (not knowing the difference between what you can borrow and what you can afford).

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