Home is where the heart is

What drives Nepal's singular obsession with owning a house?

Kathmandu's dense settlement as seen from Halchok.

Owning a house is a mark of success in Nepal — much more so than elsewhere. And if that house is in Kathmandu Valley, then you have really made it.

You might have a stable job and family, but unless you have a roof over your head that you own you are not settled by society standards. It could be a small house and the tiny plot, as long as it is yours.

Owning a house is part of our everyday conversation in households. There is always someone talking about how they are building their house, how there is no water coming out of an expensive bore well, how a neighbour built a multi-story structure and blocked out all the sunlight.

Homes hold a special place in our society that very few other things can match and it is reflected in our numbers too.

Nepal may lag in several economic and human development indicators, but when it comes to home ownership rates, it is far ahead of the rest. Some 85% of Nepali households live in homes they own. Proportinately, more people in Nepal own the houses they live in than in the US, UK, and Germany.

Most other countries with higher home ownership rates than Nepal, such as Singapore and Russia, were able to achieve it due to their strong social housing programs. The fact that so many Nepali families own their own houses with little governmental support is remarkable. Nepalis prize homes as their most important investment.

But even with this high home ownership rate, thousands of new houses are built every year, feeding the urban sprawl. New apartments and housing projects come up to address demand.

And yet, there are never enough houses to meet that growing demand. More and more cultivable agricultural land and green space are being turned into housing plots.

Economically, it makes more sense for Nepalis to own their own house, even if it is at the very edge of the city. Unlike wealthier nations where buildings generally follow a standard national code for health and safety, most homes in Nepal function as isolated and self-sufficient units.

Germany, for example, has laws that require housing units to have regular access to water and sewage, Nepal has no such centralised directive. A house in a Berlin neighbourhood will have roughly the same level of access to water and garbage collection as the one next to it.

A house in one Kathmandu neighbourhood may have a running water and sewage system, but only if the owner is able to drill for water and have a septic tank.

In the US, if landlords build a house with cheap construction materials and endangers the lives of tenants, they can be taken to court and prosecuted. In Nepal tenants are completely dependent on the whims of the landlord.

So, it makes sense that people would want to move into their own house where they can make their own choices rather than live under the tyranny of someone else.

Even if the landlord is agreeable and the living environment acceptable, renting is not a long-term, financially sound solution. Given how the rents have soared in the cities, it makes more economic sense to build one’s own home.

Houses in Nepal are not just places of shelter, but also of income. Owning a house doesn’t just save rental money it can also earn rental cash. In a country with very few mature investment opportunities, a home is a nest-egg. Many Nepali families sell off their homes in times of acute need: to send a family member abroad, pay hospital bills or marry off children.

Homes become important at festival time, and Nepali culture places a lot of emphasis on communal gathering and cooking, all things that are more conducive in personally owned houses.

Nepal has always had a historical home-ownership culture. Until very recently, most of Nepal’s population lived in rural areas where land is plentiful and houses are built with local materials. There were few constraints on building and owning a home. Houses were within the reach of many people, creating a cultural legacy towards home ownership that has persisted.

Ultimately, there is a universal and innate desire to own your own home.  In archaeological remains all over the world, we see human settlements created with a meticulous level of care.

From the earliest cave paintings, humans have been decorating and creating a material environment. Building technology may have advanced, but this fundamental human desire to elevate personal space from a place of rest to one with meaning has not changed.

Homes are where we spend the most time, they are where we create memories. They are an extension of ourselves. How they are built and look end up becoming a reflection of how we think, act and behave. That is why we seek to permanently own this extension.

By owning our own house, we give ourselves more freedom. In the end, home is where the heart is, and who would not want to own their own heart?

Avani Adhikari is a student of Economics and Urban Planning in Singapore.

Avani Adhikari