The American Dream on Steroids

Real estate costs are the sum of location-location. And when the location has uncommonly mild weather, and is wedged snugly between coastal mountains and the Pacific Ocean, those costs are terrifically high.

But the San Diego real estate market means more than that to the people who live here. It has a powerful, magical aura. The ups and downs of home prices are like a force of nature that can win wars or doom civilizations. Five years ago, real estate prices were at their zenith, buoyed by a giddy faith that they could only go up. It seemed like half the people I knew sold real estate at least part-time.

When that bubble popped, we all became agnostics. And cold-hearted realism makes me think it’s a good time to buy. I’m looking for a bigger house.

This desire runs contrary to my puritanical nature, which says 11 hundred square feet is more than enough in which to raise and house a family of four. But temptation drives me to take my hard-earned home equity (driven upwards during a long ride on the inflation train) and plow it into something with one more bedroom and one more bath.

I have to say that upsizing is something I’ve resisted for at least a dozen years. I bought a Normal Heights bungalow in 1998. Barely two years passed before my real estate agent began to wonder whether my family was “bursting out” of our its little shack. I’m not sure we even had any kids yet, which meant we’d only be bursting out because we’d bought too much crap and needed a bigger house to store it all in.

Once you decide you need a bigger house, the people who want to help you buy it and finance it are happy to reassure you that you’ve made the right decision. One mortgage finance guy told us that spending more money on a house was a great idea because our interest deduction would increase by leaps and bounds… by five thousand dollars a year in one home-buying scenario.

His logic underlay a thing I call the super-sizing home-buying mentality. Buy the bigger meal at McDonald’s and you get more food for the money. Never mind that you didn’t want the extra food in the first place and you really are paying more than you need to. The same thinking applies to buying a bigger house: If you don’t buy more house than you need you’re just giving Barack Obama five thousand bucks a year he doesn’t deserve.

House hunting is a voyeuristic adventure that lets you see your home city from the inside out. This is true even though realtors do all they can to make the house you’re looking at as impersonal as possible. Photos of family members, little kids’ artwork… anything that tells you that this is someone else’s place is banished from a house, as it’s being shown, so that possible buyers can better imagine themselves living in it.

The realtor’s charade includes staging the house by setting the dinner table and even renting fancy furnishings that were never were used by the current owners. Some homes are sold by investors who’ve refurbished them and want to turn a quick profit, and once you’ve seen a few of them they all look about the same. The tell-tale sign is granite: Granite counter-tops in the kitchen, granite-lined showers in the bathroom,  granite, granite, granite.

I grew up in a house that was built before WWII and that’s what I’m looking for today. I say this even after seeing many other families, of the educated classes, migrate to San Diego’s new northern suburbs in search of more space and better public schools. But I like the look of old neighborhoods. I like plaster walls and wood floors. I’ve got no quarrel with people who prefer the suburban aesthetic. Old homes are just more my thing.

Today, the San Diego home market is sluggish after going through nearly four years of devaluation. Lots of home owners owe more than their houses are worth. Foreclosures and short sales are everywhere. Lenders have started asking hard questions and actually saying “no” when they don’t think you can make payments on your dream house.

If I end up staying where I am, I’ll still feel lucky to live in the nice weather by the sea. I’ll also be able to maintain a smug attitude, knowing that I’m living in a house that has plenty of room for people who value the right things. Let those new-rich slobs keep their McMansions! I’m doing just fine. Unless something better comes along.

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2 Comments on “The American Dream on Steroids”

  1. tomfudge Says:

    At this point I’m actually in the absurd position of having made an offer on a home that’s more home than I need or even want. It’s in Kensington and has a total of 25 hundred square feet. I made an offer because it was a house because, frankly, it was such a good deal. Maybe this is a version of the supersizing mentality I described: Buy more house than you need because it’s SUCH a good deal. If our offer is actually accepted and the bank approved the loan (two very big ifs) I’ll tell myself it’s a good investment, which is true. I just wonder how long it’s going to take to vaccum the place.

  2. Jerral Says:

    My wife and I have come full circle from a smaller, almost too small first home where we managed quite well with a bath-and-a-half and three small bedrooms… then a couple of larger-than-we-needed homes (in our situation those were headmaster’s residences at schools where I was headmaster)… back again to a small home, an apartment with 1300 square feet of living space. I like very much living in the apartment that can be easily left locked while we travel. The trick is to learn to be happy with what you have when you have it. It’s a curse to live always in a state of wanting more than you can have.

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