Illustration by Shonagh Rae

While the housing bust has managed to destroy home values and bottom lines for builders across the country, one thing remains unscathed: Americans’ commitment to homeownership. Whether they own their home outright or are underwater on their mortgage, rent or live with their parents, a recent poll of 2,000 likely voters conducted on behalf of the NAHB found that a large majority of Americans want to own their own home.

The poll, conducted May 3–9, 2011, by the GOP-oriented firm Public Opinion Strategies and the Democratic-leaning Lake Research Partners, found that 94 percent of respondents ranked owning their own home as at least somewhat important. A clear majority, 74 percent, of respondents said it was “very important” or “one of the most important” priorities in their lives, ranked just below being successful at their jobs and slightly more important than the ability to pay for their own education or that of a family member.

Surprisingly, at a time when home prices in many areas are setting new post-boom lows, when asked if they agreed with the idea that “owning a home is the best long-term investment they can make” and worth the market’s ups and downs, three out of four of those polled said they did. Even among homeowners who were underwater on their mortgage, the rate of those who agreed with the statement was almost two to one. “Despite the current housing downturn, Americans still see homeownership as a core value and a key building block of being in the middle class and creating strong jobs in their communities,” said Celinda Lake, president of Lake Research Partners, in a press statement. “The bipartisan consensus outside the Beltway is that owning a home remains an essential part of the American dream.”

Having the money to invest in the first place seems to be the biggest challenge. When non-homeowners were asked about their biggest obstacle to buying a home, lack of savings for the down payment and closing costs came first, at 31 percent. Presumably, that answer stems in some measure from the fact that 20 percent of those polled indicated that either they or a member of their immediate household was out of work and looking for a job.

Respondents were evenly split in their feelings on the proposal to require home buyers to put a minimum 20 percent down on a home purchase. However, opinions largely fell along lines of who was likely to need to pony up the cash. Among respondents aged 18 to 54, those who rented or had a mortgage opposed the measure by 59 percent and 58 percent, respectively. Of those respondents aged 55+ who owned their home outright, 65 percent supported the stricter down-payment standard.

Many of those same respondents, however, did approve of the government making homeownership easier in other ways. When asked whether it was appropriate for the federal government to use the tax code to encourage homeownership, 73 percent of voters said it was. Support across party lines remained strong, with 79 percent of Democrats, 71 percent of Republicans, and 68 percent of Independents supporting the idea of tax incentives. Even among Tea Party supporters, 68 percent approved of the measure. When asked about the particulars of the home mortgage interest deduction (MID), respondents were less cohesive, although support for the tax breaks stayed above the 50 percent line in every option the pollsters offered. With a 71 percent disapproval rating, elimination of the MID was the most unpopular government proposal. However, when voters were told that eliminating the deduction would improve the federal budget deficit, opposition fell to 65 percent.

A suggestion to limit the MID for those earning $250,000 a year or more met with 55 percent of respondents opposing the measure, and eliminating the deduction for interest on a second or vacation home was unpalatable to 53 percent of respondents.

“With health care, you see a drop-off in support for high earners, but not here,” said Neil Newhouse, partner and co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies. “The data show that people want these incentives not just for themselves but for anybody.”

As for how these likely voters intended to act at the polls next year, 57 percent said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who supports eliminating the MID.

However, there is something more than the lure of a wise financial investment that made homeownership appealing to those surveyed. While 69 percent of non-homeowner respondents agreed that homeownership was the best long-term investment and worth the risk, an even larger portion of those respondents—73 percent—indicated that it is one of their goals to eventually buy a home. Among homeowners, 46 percent said their home was their best investment. But when asked whether they were happy with their decision to own a home, a full 95 percent answered “Yes.”