Tuesday, February 12, 2008

House Lust

From House Lust by Daniel McGinn:

During this boom and the ensuing bust, newspapers and magazines devoted acres of space to covering it. Much of this discussion focused on examining the economic forces that drove the cycle—and debating who deserves blame for letting America’s home-philia get so out of hand. Should Alan Greenspan’s Federal Reserve have let interest rates remain so low for so long? Should lenders have given so many loans to millions of high-risk “sub-prime” borrowers? Should real estate agents have encouraged buyers to aggressively overbid for homes in hot markets? Was it really wise that so many Americans came to regard it as perfectly normal to borrow against the equity in their homes to pay off a credit card or fund a trip to DisneyWorld?

Those questions interest me, but they’re not the subject of this book. Instead, my aim is to explore the behavior and psychology that drove the boom—and how those behaviors and psychology helped contribute to the bust that followed. How did home renovations come to routinely turn families’ lives upside down? Why do thousands of us now watch reality shows about home-flipping or house hunting? Why did so many people decide to start investing in real estate, or quit good jobs to seek a fortune selling houses? How did House Lust become so contagious?

In HOUSE LUST, I travel the country to examine these and other questions, meeting memorable characters and having a lot of fun along the way.

Extreme Downsizing
How moving from a 6,000-square-foot custom home to a 370-square-foot recreational vehicle helped quell one family's 'House Lust.'

By Daniel McGinn | NEWSWEEK WEB EXCLUSIVE | Feb 12, 2008

Two years ago Debbie and Jim Ward had a bad case of the-grass-is-always greener.

The couple had built their dream home in Bethesda, Md. With six bedrooms, six bathrooms and nearly 6,000 square feet of living space, it was everything they should have wanted in a home. Yet they found themselves looking longingly at the house across the street, which had a nicer, more kid-friendly back yard.

It was their typical MO, Debbie says. Since age 14 she's never lived in the same house more than three years. Like her parents, she and her husband tended to view houses the way corporate climbers view careers: if you aren't moving up every few years, there's something wrong. "We were the ultimate 'House Lust' people," says Debbie, who contacted me after reading my recently published book of the same name. "Two years after we built this house, we had angst it wasn't perfect."

But in recent months they've made a giant transition that fundamentally changed the way they view houses. It began in early 2006, when Jim was awarded a grant to travel the country raising public awareness of disability rights issues. Debbie dreaded the thought of his spending long weeks on the road, shuttling between airports and hotels while she cared for their two sons, now aged 4 and 2, by herself.

To avoid that the couple had a radical idea: what if they sold their Bethesda home, bought a top-of-the-line RV, and the whole family traveled for Jim's work together? In March 2006, just after the housing market's peak, they sold their Maryland home for $2 million. For $150,000 they purchased a Fleetwood Discovery recreational vehicle—which, with its full-wall slide-outs, measures 370 square feet. They packed only what they needed and loaded everything else into 19 crates that now lie in a storage facility. Then they started driving.

Friends thought they were crazy—and weren't shy about telling them so. "What are you doing to your children?" wrote one, whose attitude—that children deserve a stable home that doesn't move between campgrounds every few nights—was hardly unique.

But after more than 25,000 miles the family's attitude about how much space they really need—and at what expense—has been transformed. "I'd always thought a big house was what you should get, especially if you're paying a decent price for it—that's the right way to live," Jim says. "This had taught me a lot about downsizing and simplicity." While Debbie admits missing her dishwasher, she says, "Everything we need is right here, and we're within arm's reach of each other."


When they began their journey they assumed they'd return to the D.C. area and purchase a house when Jim's tour of duty was complete. But last week they were parked in an RV park in Sacramento, Calif., where Debbie has family, and they're laying plans to vacate the RV and move back to terra firma. But as they've begun shopping for houses again, they're using a new definition of what will make them happy.


But beyond selling high and buying low, the experience has helped them in other ways. Life in the RV "just helped define what a home is and what a home means to you," Jim says. "It isn't necessarily more space or more money."


Daniel McGinn is a national correspondent at NEWSWEEK and the author of "House Lust: America’s Obsession With Our Homes," published by Currency/Doubleday.

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