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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

House Lust

Sunday's NYT's Business Section had a great review of a book that names the name: House Lust 

Who Needs a 401(k)? I’d Rather Have a Castle
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By HARRY HURT III
Published: January 20, 2008
HUMANITY’S need for shelter has always inspired grandiose desires that can become tantamount to lust. The Tenth Commandment even places housing and lust side by side, admonishing, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s wife.”


Putting a modern-day finish on this propensity is “House Lust: America’s Obsession With Our Homes” by Daniel McGinn (Currency, $24.95), which chronicles an epic of satirical, if not quite biblical, proportions.

Mr. McGinn, a national correspondent for Newsweek, focuses mainly on the demand side of the nation’s most recent housing boom-turned-bust. His aim, he says, is to “explore the behavior and psychology that drove the boom — and how those behaviors and psychology helped contribute to the bust that followed.”

He raises several provocative questions that strike at the covetous soul of America’s culture and economy.

“How did home renovations come to routinely turn families’ lives upside down?” he asks. “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?”

Mr. McGinn organizes his quest for answers into seven chapters that span the nation’s geography and the selected segment of demography he defines as “upper middle class” or “flat-out rich.”

He tackles obsessions with house size in a chapter entitled “Mine’s Bigger Than Yours,” set in Potomac, Md. In Las Vegas, he sniffs out “That New House Smell” and the psychological need to live in an unspoiled home built from scratch. In Newton, Mass., he diagnoses “Fix-Up Fever” of people who renovate or add on to their homes, not just for the sake of making prudent investments but for the purpose of one-upping their neighbors. He goes “Searching for Cash Flow” in the form of income-producing rental properties in Pocatello, Idaho, and gets a personal “Welcome to the Jungle” when he decides to get his own real estate license after paying a visit to a National Association of Realtors convention.

Mr. McGinn steers clear of examining cases of home mortgage foreclosures and predatory lending practices. As a result, he leaves the reader to draw the specific causal connections between the types of obsessive behaviors he describes and the recent housing bust. But the gist of it is that like poorer people, many affluent people spent — and borrowed — more money than they could afford because they believed that their magnificent homes, in lieu of diversified savings or retirement plans, would yield magnificent profits.

What makes “House Lust” worth reading is its marshaling of facts that speak eloquently for themselves. Why have Americans recently become so obsessed with their homes?

Two sets of statistics say it all. First, homes are the most common personal investment. By 2006, some 69 percent of Americans owned their homes, up from only 44 percent in 1940. Second, homeownership has been — at least until the advent of the subprime mortgage crisis last summer — an easy road to amassing wealth. From 2000 to 2006, Mr. McGinn reports, the average price of a home in the United States soared 56 percent.

Add to this a newly overwhelming lust for space. In 1950, the average American home measured just 938 square feet. By 2005, the average had grown to 2,434 square feet. The size of the putative American dream house expanded even more.

At a convention of the nation’s home builders in 1984, an ideal “New American Home” on display encompassed 1,500 square feet and cost less than $100,000. In 2006, the ideal house was 10,023 square fee, and was priced at more than $10 million. In the interim, Bill Gates of Microsoft built a 66,000-square-foot home near Seattle at an estimated cost of $100 million.

The rise in house sizes has not been accompanied by qualitative leaps in the use of space. Yes, there have been innumerable technological advances in everything from heating and air-conditioning to kitchen appliances. Home theaters and so-called mud rooms, for changing into and out of foul-weather garments, have become the rage.

But as Mr. McGinn notes, “Unlike the robber baron-era mansions, modern-day megahomes don’t feature dozens of bedrooms or entirely new kinds of rooms — they mostly just take the rooms you’d find in a normal house and make them really, really big.”

The challenge of filling up those rooms, he adds, is being met by outsize furnishings like the “extreme ultra king bed” that is 12 feet long and 10 feet wide.

The sheer absurdity of house lust seems made for a humorist like Mark Twain or P. J. O’Rourke. Although Mr. McGinn’s partly tongue-in-cheek profiles of obsessive homeowners are mildly entertaining, most of the one-liners are lame or redundant, or both.

“Today, in some neighborhoods,” he observes, “finding someone who doesn’t know the square footage of her house can be as hard as finding a Playboy centerfold who doesn’t know her bust size.” Twenty pages later, he notes, “Today a homeowner who doesn’t know the square footage of his house is becoming as rare as a high school senior who doesn’t know his SAT score.”

In publishing as in real estate, timing is everything. Mr. McGinn’s book went to press late last summer just as news of the subprime mortgage mess was breaking.

“Our homes may no longer be making us rich,” he writes, “but living through an era when we thought they might has resulted in a permanent shift in thinking — one that will leave many of us happily obsessed with houses for years to come.”

The millions of Americans currently facing home mortgage foreclosures will probably regard such unbounded optimism as the eighth deadly sin.

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