The sin of ‘house lust’

Posted Jan. 28, 2009, at 6:24 p.m.

In his new book “House Lust,” writer Daniel McGinn explores the complex relationship Americans have with their homes. It’s not an abstract exercise; if one cause could be attributed to the current recession, it’s that too many Americans confused the value of their homes with their personal wealth.

The worst came from those who bought houses they could not afford to pay for and lost to the bank. But the problem goes deeper into mainstream America and lies with a mind-set that includes measuring personal financial success against one’s neighbors, and having unaffordable expectations about what a home should be.

Mr. McGinn traveled the country, talking with people about their feelings, aspirations and values relating to their homes. A woman in Bellingham, Wash., who owns a house with hardwood floors, multiple bathrooms and granite countertops, confides: “My house is really pretty, with plenty of room, but it just doesn’t do it for me. My artistic imagination isn’t lit up by it — It’s too much ‘practical,’ and not enough ‘dreamy.’ It’s a little soul-less.” That sort of assessment seems more appropriate for a potential spouse, not a building.

Mr. McGinn defines “house lust” using comedian Jeff Foxworthy’s “You might be a redneck” routine: “If you can instantly identify whether a countertop is made of Argentine Balmoral or Giallo Imperial granite, you may have House Lust. If, upon hearing that a friend has bought a new home, you can’t resist asking its square footage, the lot size, and the year it was built, it’s very possible that you have House Lust.”

“Homes and real estate have always had a peculiar hold on the American psyche,” he writes. “Our Founding Fathers considered land ownership a prerequisite to voting. A generation later, their pioneer descendants settled the West, drawn largely by an irresistible lure: cheap (or even free) land.”

But “house lust” is a recent phenomenon, Mr. McGinn notes, quoting Yale economist Robert Shiller: “Before the last decades of the 20th century, it is striking that there was relatively little public discussion [in newspapers] of home prices.”

In his self-described holy war against the United States, Osama bin Laden aimed to ruin the national economy through fear. In a perversely ironic twist, many Americans turned to their homes as a refuge from a scary world. Instead of flying to Europe, they added a sunroom or an entertainment room. Some sold their homes in the New York area for seven-figure prices and built enormous waterfront homes in Maine. And the values kept climbing, even if personal income did not. Then, when a flight to Florida for a vacation no longer seemed life-threatening, many borrowed on the value of their homes to pay for the trip. Or for a new boat. Or to pay off the credit cards.

A more grounded expectation for housing is in order. If your house is structurally sound, dry and warm, you are ahead of most of the people in the world. By all means, decorate, paint, insulate and improve. But as the lyric in a Bob Dylan song warns, “And don’t go mistaking Paradise for that home across the road.”

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