I refresh my email compulsively, stealing moments between toddler snacks and sunscreen reapplications, cracking open a LaCroix as I scroll through my inbox. When my real estate agent’s name pops up, my heart skips a beat. Each email from her, or rather from the automated home listing search she set up for us under her name, is bursting with possibility: Would it be brick? Stone? Would there be a butler’s pantry, or a mudroom for catching our family’s wellies and coats and dog leashes and backpacks?
The longer I wait, it seems, the more elaborate my imagined forever home becomes. A big tree fit for a tire swing! A kitchen garden! A soaking tub!
But time and time again, the home in my inbox underwhelms. It is overpriced or ugly or in need of more repairs than financially sensible—or more often than not, all three. When something within our (reluctantly stretching) budget finally catches our eye, we call our agent immediately—only to find the property is already under contract. Sight unseen. All cash.
The real estate world calls this a “seller’s market.” I call it the slow death of my forever-home dreams.
We sold our first home, nestled in a quaint and desirable neighborhood just outside Washington, DC, in the summer of 2020. The offer we accepted for the small craftsman, where we brought home both of our babies, was well above asking price (all contingencies waived). We were flying high.
Armed with the confidence that comes from a great investment and a wad of cash to put toward our next down payment, we traded a walkable coffee shop and innumerable takeout options for a rental home in the country with wide-open green spaces and a farmer’s market down the road. The plan was to stay there just long enough to find a nice plot of land and build a little homestead for our family. Easy as pie.
But we weren’t the only ones embarking upon an urban exodus. US cities were shedding people steadily even before the pandemic, and according to Postal Service data, 15.9 million Americans filed a change-of-address request between February and July of 2020. Many of them were spurred—or enabled—by COVID-19 lockdowns, seeking more breathing room as homes morphed into places where work, school, meals, and rest all unfolded under one roof.
We all know this because housing has been a dominant subject of dinner-table conversation for years. Roughly one in five Americans either changed residences or know someone who did in just the first few months of the pandemic, according to Pew. Seven out of ten people worked from home at some point during the pandemic, putting new pressures on a housing market that had already been tightening for years.
Though median US home prices rose relatively steadily over the past decade, they soared during the pandemic, climbing 30 percent from early 2020 to early 2022. It has felt a bit like the 1630s’ tulipmania, with crazy offers and escalations being made on homes in desirable locations, or any location at all, in a real estate feeding frenzy.
It seems we have collectively awakened to the fact that, yes, our homes really do matter, especially when we’re forced to live in them.
Except, it is harder than it has been in generations to actually find a home.
The internet offers little solace, with headlines like “Now is basically the worst time ever to buy a house,” “Now Is the Worst Time to Take Out a Mortgage, Fannie Mae Poll Finds,” and “Why the Road Is Getting Even Rockier for First-Time Home Buyers.”
Yes, rising interest rates and a small uptick in inventory have cooled the real estate market slightly. But prices continue to climb, and the average US buyer still faces a nightmare scenario as lending gets more expensive and the number of homes available is still extremely limited.
How did we get here?
Housing economics is complex, and our pandemic-shaped visions for our living spaces were certainly not the only thing that broke the US home market. Fuel prices and bottlenecks at lumber mills, construction labor shortages, and growing income inequality have all played a role.
But there may be a larger underlying factor contributing to our real estate woes, one that long predates the pandemic. Birthed through decades of suburban sprawl and reinforced today by HGTV, Pinterest, and Wayfair, it’s exceedingly hard to admit: Could it be that the problem is, well, us?
American expectations of what a home should be and look like and cost are rooted in decades of seemingly boundless growth in the average homebuyer’s appetite for more: more square footage and lawn for those in the suburbs, more cultural amenities and cachet for urban dwellers.
The preference for nicer, bigger, and better-located homes fueled a peculiar kind of unsustainable growth in the US housing market that, ironically, has left us wanting—or worse, stranded.
The current US housing crisis is, in one sense, merely further evidence of the kind of overconsumption that researchers John de Graaf, David Wann, and Thomas H. Naylor wrote about 20 years ago in their classic critique, Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic. Affluenza, they argued, is caused by “the idea that every generation will be materially wealthier than its predecessor and that, somehow, each of us can pursue that single-minded end without damaging the countless other things we hold dear.”
But for Christians, the broken housing market is more than just an opportunity to practice the virtue of contentment—though it is definitely that. With a dream home out of reach for so many, it may well be time for us, followers of the man who had no place to lay his head (Matt. 8:20) and armed with all the promise of eternity, to reimagine what home is truly for.
Americans have, by many measures, the largest homes in the world. And although we love to pick on McMansions, just about all new houses are bigger than they used to be.
Census Bureau data shows that, between 1978 and 2018, the median size of a new home in the US increased by 781 square feet, or 47 percent. Take a drive through almost any neighborhood built soon after World War II, then drive out to most any suburban residential development erected in the 21st century, and this fact is obvious.
Given technological advancements in building materials and a far more globalized supply chain, one might assume that homes are cheaper to build than they were half a century ago, and thus we build larger ones. In reality, adjusted for inflation, the price per square foot of a new single-family home in the United States has remained relatively steady between 1978 and 2020, according to various analyses of Census and other government data.
Yes, there are regional outliers, superheated housing markets in the Northeast or on the West Coast where homes have in fact become less affordable. But on the whole, it’s not so much real estate affordability that has changed in the past several decades but rather what it is we are trying to afford.
Exploring the “why” behind American home size, Atlantic staff writer Joe Pinsker summed up the causes: “Over the course of the 20th century, government policy, the invention of cheaper, mass-produced building materials, marketing by home builders, and a shift in how people regarded their houses—not just as homes, but as financial assets—encouraged ever larger houses.”
There is nothing inherently wrong with owning a large home. But large homes have come at the expense of affordable homes. Despite the fact that wages haven’t kept pace with housing costs, builders have responded to the desire for bigger homes, making smaller, reasonably priced, and first-time homes even harder to come by. This especially hurts low-income and other marginalized groups who, on top of combating predatory lending practices and historic exclusion from mortgage access, now face rising rents and a market with little tolerance for small down payments or less-than-perfect credit scores.
“What [builders] build is a response to the market,” said Matt Bowe, owner of Alair Homes Hunt Country. Alair is a design-build firm in Loudoun County, Virginia, a DC exurb and one of the most rapidly expanding counties in the country.
“If they felt that, en masse, the market valued quality and durability over size and flash,” Bowe said, “then that’s what they would build.”
This means many builders prioritize cheaper fixtures and building materials that are not so much made to last as they are to impress for minimal cost, Bowe said. “Culturally, we’re conditioned to think we deserve more.”
Bowe couldn’t be closer to the truth.
Clément Bellet, an economist at the Erasmus School in the Netherlands, found in a 2019 study that US suburban homeowner satisfaction fell when homeowners compared their house to bigger, newer houses nearby. Bellet wrote: “Homeowners exposed to the construction of large houses in their suburb put a lower price on their home, are more likely to upscale to a larger house, and take up more debt.”
But it’s not just a problem of affluent suburbs. The American dream of larger homes in low-density communities is widespread and deeply entrenched. A University of California, Merced, study found that, when asked to choose between a development of single-family houses and one with higher-density options, most participants preferred the low-density option—regardless of their ethnicity, educational attainment, or political views.
This preference plays itself out at city council meetings across the country. Even when cities put plans in place for modestly higher-density developments, residents often push back and override those plans (for various and sometimes well-intentioned reasons).
In sum, at a time when housing shortages are no longer just a big-city problem, our home-related desires are seriously out of step with the realities of the communities where we live.
Suppose we could free ourselves from this accumulation mindset and develop contentment with less square footage. It would certainly not solve the housing crisis, but it might help us thrive in the dwellings we have to settle for if we never close on our dream home.
But idols can be made out of any type of home. Consider the pandemic remodeling boom and explosive demand in the US swimming pool industry. Locked out of luxuries like travel, we poured our savings into luxurious dwellings; pool companies are still working through yearlong backlogs.
I’ve often asked myself (while simultaneously pulling at my hair as I click through 87 photos of a house I can’t believe I’m considering buying), when we hold the physical home itself in such high esteem, are we still missing the point?
Carly Thornock is a house coach in Utah who helps individuals—mostly moms—learn how to perceive their homes in ways that foster positive family relationships.
Thornock studied marriage and family at Brigham Young University, doing the bulk of her graduate research on houses. In a 2019 study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, Thornock and her coauthors explored the correlation between square footage and quality of interactions among family members—things like kindness and warmth and effective decision making.
“I [didn’t] believe that if you have a bigger house, you’re a happier family,” Thornock said. “I have seen enough people and traveled around the world enough to know that there are plenty of very happy, very functional families that have very small, humble homes. So [what was] the mitigating factor?”
Ultimately, the study found that a house’s size was only one factor in how well a family functioned. Just as important was how people were thinking or feeling about their house. It was “completely explained by how people are filtering their house through their brains and emotional experience,” Thornock said.
Image: Jon Krause
This means there are things we can do to change our perception of our home, no matter the size. For instance, according to Thornock, we can consider the stories a home tells about the people who live there and what they’re about. Those stories can be shaped by something as simple as a collection of photographs—no pool or added square footage necessary.
“With family photos, many people respond with a story in their head of ‘I belong. This is me. Here’s my mom and my dad and my siblings. And we are part of a group,’” Thornock said. “What we bring into our space and reinforce to our psyche is what we end up creating for ourselves.”
Though we know that, as Christians, we won’t truly ever be home here on earth, by no means is the desire to create a lasting, beautiful, life-giving space in which to spend our days something to be sacrificed in a guise of ascetic piety. Quite the contrary. Making homes here is godly and good, an occupation specifically blessed in Jeremiah when God commanded his people to “build houses and settle down” and “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you” (29:5–7).
Like money, our homes themselves are morally neutral—it’s what we do with them that matters. Many theologians and Christian thinkers have mused over the inherent human longing to link the eternal to the present by way of our homes.
Wendell Berry wrote in Hannah Coulter, “It is by the place we’ve got, and our love for it and our keeping of it, that this world is joined to heaven.” Similarly, late 19th-century Presbyterian clergyman Charles Henry Parkhurst asserted: “Home interprets heaven. Home is heaven for beginners.”
To those sentiments, however, C. S. Lewis added a timely reminder in The Problem of Pain: “Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”
So, how then is the believer to fashion these “pleasant inns”? How do we reconcile our good and right longing for home with the realities of the financial hardships, real estate woes, and exaggerated domestic appetites that we experience here on earth?
Once again, we might refocus on what home is truly for.
The best homes I have stepped foot inside—the ones that feel most like a home—are almost never the biggest, prettiest, cleanest, or most well organized. They are those that seem to envelop you upon crossing the threshold with signs of real, actual life: dishes in the sink and toys strewn on the floor, a stack of interesting, yet-to-be read books on a side table, furniture arranged to foster conversation, tea on the stove, mugs with a story, and a “let me dig around and see what we have in the fridge” attitude that is neither fussy nor sterile. They are infused with an earnest Galatians 6:10, do-good-to-all-people mindset, and it shows.
“Homes are for our growth and connection,” Thornock said. “So this is our connection with God, with ourselves, with our spouses, with our friends, and our communities and extended family.”
Evangelicals of late have been on a campaign to reclaim and reform traditional notions of hospitality. Much has been published in recent years about investing our homes in the ministry of outreach, from The Gospel Comes with a House Key, Rosaria Butterfield’s paean to “radically ordinary hospitality” without crocheted doilies, to Kristin Schell’s turquoise table theory of hospitality without the house.
A common thread is getting comfortable with messiness, along with embracing the sacredness of ordinary home life. “Love is enfleshed in the meals we make, the rooms we fill, the spaces in which we live and breathe and have our being,” writes Sarah Clarkson in The Lifegiving Home.
None of this requires expensive furniture or oodles of square footage. An air of hospitality can be created anywhere, from a humble kitchen sticky from the mess of toddlers to a studio apartment in an urban high rise.
The idea of home as a tool for gathering has influenced Bowe, the Virginia builder. His heart for creating a sense of home has led to his work with Habitat for Humanity as well as Tree of Life, a local ministry that provides housing and other necessities for low-income families. The son of Irish immigrants who have lived in the same small Cape Cod for 60 years, Bowe says his perspective on home design is shaped by his own upbringing.
“I like to design homes that encourage and invite interaction and cooperation and getting along and living, human interactions as opposed to these grand, big spaces that encourage people to go find their own corner and do their own thing,” Bowe said. “If I’m building a custom home for someone, I’m certainly building a custom home for them, but I’m thinking about how this home has to serve families [beyond]. I’d like to hope in 150 years, it was worth restoring.”
There is an Irish blessing that says, “May your home always be too small to hold all your friends.” When our perfectionist, Pinterest tendencies rear their ugly, curated heads, we’d do well to remember it.
What a lot of the hospitality conversation misses, however, is that a house is more than just a tool for outreach. Christian homes also offer protection to those who reside there—physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
This holds true for any of the increasingly diverse American family types: grandparents caring for their grandchildren, foster or adoptive parents, multiple generations living under the roof, and couples with unfulfilled longings to hold a child of their own.
Writer Andy Crouch argues that a household need not even consist of a family at all, but could simply be a community of unrelated persons “who may well take shelter under one roof but also, and more fundamentally, take shelter under one another’s care and concern.”
It is also imperative to acknowledge that, for many, home is tragically something far less than that ideal—a place of neglect, abuse, and loneliness. But we can acknowledge this while affirming that the home at its best is a haven, rejuvenating and equipping its inhabitants to serve others and carry out their calling “out there” in a world marked by turmoil and distress.
In Letters and Papers from Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “[A home] is a kingdom of its own in the midst of the world, a stronghold amid life’s storms and stresses, a refuge, even a sanctuary.”
Bowe, who has made a life of building sanctuaries for other individuals and families, agrees. “I always think of [home] as those four walls that can protect a family. If you think about the home as a vessel for all of the really impactful things—and of course these can be eternal things for families of faith—it’s a really important place. As hard as my hardest day could ever be, I know that when I go home, I can shut all of that out.”
In Isaiah 32:18, we are reminded of God’s heart for our forever home with him, in which “my people will live in peaceful dwelling places, in secure homes, in undisturbed places of rest.”
The biblical ideal of home as a sanctuary ought to motivate Christians to work, as we’re able, toward extending the gift of dwelling places to others. That could take the form of volunteering for a Habitat house build or, as in Bowe’s case, partnering with ministries that address housing insecurity. For some, it may even entail advocating for affordable housing options in our cities or volunteering to serve and seek solutions for America’s growing homeless population.
As we wait for heaven, we ought to—albeit imperfectly—fashion our communities and our earthly homes to function as much like heaven as we can. In his book on eternity, Surprised by Hope, N. T. Wright asserts that “people who believe in the resurrection, in God making a whole new world in which everything will be set right at last, are unstoppably motivated to work for that new world in the present.”
For followers of Christ, central to the making of a whole new world, of course, is the remaking of ourselves. And this is perhaps the paramount use for our homes: They act as the trellis upon which we grow in holiness, the framework for our sanctification. As the primary place where the life of a believer unfolds, where connection happens, where a sense of belonging and identity is cultivated, and where we can, under fertile conditions, grow up into who we were ultimately created to be, our homes present a ripe opportunity to order our daily lives around eternal truths.
Home is not only for something; it is ultimately for God. Therefore, the way we arrange and build the home matters deeply. A thoughtfully crafted home—whether grand or humble—is its own brand of worship.
In The Hidden Art of Homemaking, Edith Schaeffer writes: “For the Christian who is consciously in communication with the Creator, surely his home should reflect something of the artistry, the beauty and order of the One whom he is representing, and in whose image he has been made!”
Yet at a glance, the typical home of an American Christian doesn’t look much different from any other American home. No building or home design trends seem in any significant way to differentiate the home of a Christ follower from the next house on the block, save for the occasional reclaimed-wood, Scripture-emblazoned sign from Hobby Lobby.
Should there be a difference? As Schaeffer points out, shouldn’t the physicality of our homes, our very dwelling places, offer something of a reflection of the one they supposedly center around?
Perhaps the best example of what can happen when Christians think deeply about how the purpose and structure of home can draw us to God comes from the late 18th century.
In 1774, a woman known by her followers as Mother Ann Lee led eight members of a small Quaker sect away from persecution in their native Manchester, England, to America by way of New York Harbor. They settled near Albany and set about building a utopian community, a literal heaven on earth, where members pooled thir resources and lived in common houses. They called themselves the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. We know them as the Shakers.
Their worship was eccentric—dancing in vexation over their sin—and their theology was unorthodox—chiefly their conviction that sex was the root of all depravity and, with that, strict chastity requirements. But the Shaker movement slowly grew, and new communities appeared throughout the Northeast and spread to the frontier as far as Kentucky and Indiana. It peaked at around 5,000 members in 1840.
If the Shakers are mostly remembered today for their clean, minimalist furniture and crafts, it’s because they devoted significant energy to developing a design philosophy centered on making room for God and for their own spiritual growth.
In Shaker design, functionality, cleanliness, and order were keys to removing distractions that might lead one’s focus to stray from God. “Go home, and take good care of what you have,” Lee commanded in the Testimonies, a book of her sayings collected after her death (and therefore questioned by some historians). “Provide places for your things, so that you may know where to find them, at any time, by day or by night; and learn to be neat and clean, prudent and saving, and see that nothing is lost.”
In practice, that meant Shakers mastered the use of cupboards and boxes for storage. Their trademark wall pegs were aesthetic second, practical first: a means for hanging chairs and other objects to free up floor space for diverse uses.
Adornment—flashy drawer pulls or woodworking flourishes—was symbolic of the covetousness and materialism of the era’s roaring Industrial Revolution and so was to be avoided. Instead, Shakers believed that beauty derived from God and showed itself in harmony, proportion, quality, locally sourced materials, open spaces, and abundant natural light. (“Light, all light, because that’s what God is,” one Shaker told Commonweal Magazine in 2019.)
Anything that detracted from God was removed, and what was left was a style that has remained almost universally beloved and admired to this day, even as other home interior trends have come and gone (hello and goodbye, avocado-hued appliances).
The Shaker experiment ultimately failed—only a few members of the sect remain today in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. But in their attempt to build heaven, the Shakers created a blueprint for home design that has not only endured for centuries but also transcended religious and geographic boundaries. As Shaker communities shrank in the 20th century, their furniture was purchased and shipped around the country and the world, heavily influencing Danish modern designers and midcentury American tastes. It has been displayed at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and at art exhibits around the world.
Shaker style’s clean simplicity eventually buckled to maximalism as the design pendulum swung back in the other direction. But it has returned to the mainstream today, easily found on the online storefronts of interiors giants like Pottery Barn and Design Within Reach, and influencing design shops like Plain English and deVOL Kitchens.
It’s not surprising that Shaker style is again having quite the moment. Its definitive minimalism can appear as an antidote to so much of what plagues American life, offering liberation from an excess of possessions to manage, clean, and repair and the subsequent financial freedom that comes with owning and caring for fewer things (or fixing fewer poorly made items).
Where we have endless, mindless scrolling, the Shakers had the adage “Hands to work, heart to God.” Where we have an epidemic of loneliness, they had radical communal living supported by their homes and the objects within them. Where we have the ability to place a quick Amazon Prime order for a product that was manufactured half a world away, the Shakers had local, purposeful craftsmanship that lasted generations. Where we have endless piles of clutter, they had spaces and objects marked by functionality, order, and simplistic beauty.
What the Shakers were after was, in their own words, “true gospel simplicity.”
What might Christian homes today look like if we again embarked on a collective deep dive to reimagine how 21st-century living spaces could reflect the gospel and support our growth in holiness? For many of us in this broken and expensive housing market, the best home we’re likely to have for years is the one we’re already in. So what might it look like to “seek the prosperity” of the home in which God has placed us?
The answers are probably as varied as the places we call home. It will look different for the family with the suburban Houston palace than for the single with the claustrophobic Manhattan studio. And the lesson of the Shakers is not necessarily that Christians must embark on a Marie Kondoesque plastic purge, ridding our homes of any possession not hand hewn from locally milled maple.
Rather, the call is to consider to what degree—if any—our homes are present reflections of an eternal reality and the one who makes that reality so. God set eternity in every human heart (Ecc. 3:11), and the Shakers, perhaps more successfully than most, captured the eternal longing for our Creator in the meticulous crafting of every ladder-back chair, cabinet, peg, broom, and basket, each one fashioned with heaven in mind.
The Shaker example suggests it is similarly possible for us, as modern American Christians, to forge an honest, eternal-facing path forward in our consideration of all things home. In a time when it’s uniquely difficult for many to store up real estate treasures on earth, we have an urgent opportunity to convert our real estate into treasures in heaven.
Perhaps historians will someday look back on us and remark how our homes pointed in new ways to universal truths, as critics have said of Shaker design. To quote from Schaeffer’s Art of Homemaking once more, “There should be a practical result of the realization that we have been created in the image of the Creator of Beauty.”
At the time of this writing, our family is still without a permanent home. We are renting and searching and praying and hoping. I’m longing to prop up our beloved family photos somewhere they will stay long enough to collect a quarter inch of dust, to paint a room, to lay an enduring foundation for our family’s own “heaven for beginners.”
And as we watch the world quiver under the weight of war and political discord and injustice, I’m reminded that home isn’t found in the perfect house, but in the people that enter, the reflection of eternity it offers, the shelter it provides, and the growth and connection it creates. No matter the location, no matter the size, no matter the people who dwell there, these things remain.
Even still, I’ll keep looking for a tree fit for a tire swing, some Shaker pegs to catch my kids’ winter coats, and a big ol’ tub to ease the aches and pains of this long, joyfully arduous journey toward our true forever home.
Julie Kilcur is a writer based in Virginia.
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