An overwhelming 85% of Americans prefer homeownership over renting, Fannie Mae said in a new study. However, while this remains the prevalent attitude, economic realities still keep many from actualizing this dream.

Demographics such as income, age, marital status and employment status are still considered significant drivers in the decision of buying a home or renting, Fannie found that beliefs about housing help determine whether Americans intend to rent or buy their next residence. 

"The whole world thinks about underwriting or what's my income (when evaluating the homebuying decision), but what is driving consumers seems to fall more in this attitudinal world," said Steve Deggendorf, one of the authors of the study. "People are thinking about this process (of buying a home) as being very deliberate, but with most people it is complex." He even describes it as emotional, and in most cases, employing a series of subjective and objective beliefs on the consumer's part. 

Fannie produced the national housing survey based on feedback from 12,014 interviews that occurred in 2011.

When looking at feedback from Americans who already have a mortgage, 40% cited attitudes about finances—such as the ease of getting a mortgage, affordability, homeownership benefits and financial stressors—as drivers that will shape whether they buy or rent their next property. About 39% of homeowners in the same group cite attitudes about housing as influencing their next move, while 21% say demographics such as income, age, marital status, employment, race or urbanicity will be primary drivers of their next decision.   

"Traditionally people tend to focus on demographics and the underwriting process," said Li-Ning Huang, product manager and one of the report's authors. "But everybody's situation is different and for some current mortgage owners, the top driver is whether they can afford a new mortgage or are they qualified."

The key drivers of homeownership change when analyzing the responses of Americans who are currently renters. With this group, the majority — or 42% — suggest attitudes about housing such as whether renting or owning makes more sense, flexibility, good or bad market timing, negative experiences and underwater status — are driving whether they rent or own their next residence. Thirty-three percent of current renters say demographics like employment, age, income and marital status also are important homeownership drivers, while only 25% cite financial attitudes as having an impact on their next housing decision.

Sixty-five percent of homeowners who own their homes outright are driven by demographic considerations such as employment, income and age. Only 17% of these homeowners cite their attitudes toward housing as a driver behind their housing decisions, while only 19% consider financial concerns as the main driver.

The takeaway from the study, according to Deggendorf, is that "for a large number of people, emotions rule."  He added, "We need to think about how they approach the housing decision and think about the kind of help that they may need (in the process)."

Even in the wake of a financial crisis with many homeowners underwater, the number of survey respondents who cite the negative financial effects of the housing crash as key drivers of their next housing decision is minimal, according to Fannie's research team.

"We asked people whether they have ever been underwater or have been thinking about delinquencies," Deggendorf said. "Those factors did not rise to the top of the list. It is very interesting to see those were not big drivers of the homeownership or rental decision."

What's keeping homeownership alive is the fact that it's not a stock or bond, but something desirable for individuals and families to live in even without a significant return on investment. "The nonfinancial benefits that people derive from the consumption of housing mitigate the negative financial experiences that many homeowners have had," said Deggendorf.

Still, Deggendorf and Huang believe the report suggests real estate professionals need to address the underlying attitudes that drive homebuyer decisions.

"If we helped people understand these attitudes that are driving their decision-making process, it would help them make better housing decisions," he said.

Rather than just having consumers chase the home they dream about, a more conscious, direct approach would be to help them balance their wants against what they can afford, Deggendorf and Huang said. The research team says it's important to educate and inform potential homebuyers since many of them may be ignoring their ability to safely buy a home, while others are potentially overbuying by listening more to their emotional desires.

Fannie's research team believes prudential regulators also should be informed of the attitudes shaping homeownership to ensure any steps they take are in line with the consumer population.

The good news is homeownership as a goal for Americans hasn't changed in the past six years.  

"Our study shows that the negative housing events of the past few years have not discouraged people from wanting to own a home," the Fannie study concluded. "Exposure to mortgage default, perceived home value appreciation/depreciation, and self-reported underwater status are not significant factors in the models in predicting individuals’ intentions to own a home for their next move."

kpanchuk@housingwire.com