'Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House': A Chronic Case of Real Estate Sickness

“...this story is about what happens when, for whatever reason, your identity becomes almost totally wrapped up not in who you are or how you live but in where you live.”

Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House

Publisher: Knopf
Length: 245 pages
Author: Meghan Daum
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2010-05

“...this story is about what happens when, for whatever reason, your identity becomes almost totally wrapped up not in who you are or how you live but in where you live.”

Meghan Daum’s Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House is an homage to what I call real estate sickness. Real estate sickness, for those of you unfamiliar with its symptoms, is an unremitting, all-consuming interest in the housing market. You may already own a home, you may rent, you may be making earnest if hopeless attempts to purchase a home of your own. No matter.

Symptoms vary in severity from flipping through shelter mags like Dwell to watching televised home redecoration shows or consuming the Restoration Hardware catalogue the way another might thumb porn mags. Maybe you follow Zillow, an online index of home values, the way others post obsessively on Facebook. Maybe you spend valuable Sundays cruising open houses, poking your nose into manses you will never afford.

Other symptoms: Your conversation is one dimensional, spiked with references to loan rates, points, and closing costs. Your mind is fixed on that perfectly distressed chest of drawers resting alluringly outside the faux antiques store next to the chic little coffee shop you’d frequent -- if only you lived in that house.

Having bought our first house a mere nine weeks ago, I feel well qualified to weigh in on real estate sickness, for I suffered from it, and to some extent, I still do. The house my husband and I blew our savings on is a modest three bedroom in a decent but not great neighborhood. To our left, blocked somewhat by a cement wall, Interstate 80 threads its incessantly busy way. To our right, we have actual neighbors in a house. At the end of our short block, Bay Area Rapid Transit trains run overhead, all day and most of the night. The nearest street is a major thoroughfare, four lanes across.

The furnishings we managed to collect over our years together do not work in this house, which is long and narrow. The windows, original to the place, are sieves. The fencing is visibly termite-eaten. The roof and foundation, however, are solid, we have a real fireplace, a cherrywood floor, a driveway, a garage, an actual washer and dryer (I still find myself subconsciously looking for my green plastic bag of laundry quarters) and, astonishingly, we have a small yard.

I still covet the gorgeously unattainable homes in North Berkeley, with their perfect furnishings, gloriously blooming gardens, and lovingly refurbished windows. But—but—at age 42 I am in a house, an okay house, with a room to call my own, one I sit writing in at this very moment, with a reasonable notion that over time I, too, will have nice furnishings, refurbished windows, and a glorious yard. Alas, it is not my lot to inhabit one of the majestic homes on streets like the Alameda or Los Angeles Avenue. Not in this life. Still... I covet.

The difference between me and author Meghan Daum is I can accept my lot with equanimity and even gratitude. Until the end of the book, where Daum is hit with the metaphorical equivalent of a baseball bat, she is a woman whose entire existence is consumed by the next great living space. In 15 years she moves 18 times, spending phenomenal amounts of money and effort on places ranging from acceptably imperfect to barely habitable.

Even as the book closes, with the baseball bat having morphed into the sword of Damocles (I can see it in the New Yorker now: block that metaphor!), she writes that someday soon, her 900-square foot cottage on a steep Los Angeles street will be on the market. It’s simply too small, and then there is the garage problem. The garage, which Daum failed to inspect at time of purchase, is not really a garage at all, but a crumble of stones that once housed a VW bus, which Daum paid to have hauled away. Did I mention Daum’s retaining wall, so critical when you own a hillside home in an earthquake prone area? It’s hopelessly damaged, not up to code.

Let's not get ahead of ourselves, though -- let's get back to the beginning. Daum was born into a bohemian family who did their fair share of moving. Her father is a musician; her mother, an artistic sort who shared her obsession with homes and home decor with her only daughter. The family moved several times, notably from Austin, Texas to Ridgewood, New Jersey when Daum was about eight.

The Daum family busily sets themselves up not as residing in New Jersey, but actually, really, in Manhattan. To this end, Daum’s father, who has left academia to write music for movies and television, acquires a small office in the city with a New York phone number, which rings at the Daum home. The ruse of this number, of Daum’s mother’s frantic, constant redecorating, her Sunday cannoodling in Connecticut houses she cannot afford, instills in her daughter the same longing. By the time Daum is in college, her mother has moved from the family home to a place of her own, cunningly decorated; her father, having found some musical success, rents a Manhattan space that he lives in to this day.

Daum is frank about of the depths of her lunacy, which begins with her college choice: the deciding factor not being the best faculty nor the best program -- but that which provides the most possibility of living in a Manhattan prewar apartment. Although she ends up attending Vassar (nowhere near a Manhattan prewar) she later realizes that: “it wasn’t the prewar apartment I craved but, rather an ineffable state of being I can only describe as domestic integrity. This integrity has something to do with being able to not feel like an imposter in your own home and, therefore, in your life.”

After a decidedly miserable time at Vassar (entailing many dorm moves) Daum lands in New York, with a job as an editorial assistant at a beauty magazine and, wonder of wonders, a shabby but huge Manhattan prewar apartment. Its size and rent require two roommates, initially not a problem. Unfortunately, over next few years, Daum outgrows her roommate situation. She moves into a plain, one bedroom apartment she can barely afford, only to have her childhood obsession with All Things Little House on the Prairie rise up, blooming into longing for a farmhouse.

So she moves to Nebraska.

Daum is a good enough writer, funny enough, logical enough in her warped thinking to convince the reader that Nebraska is not so bad. For one thing, the cost of living is cheap. Meaning so is some very nice real estate. While many Americans may harbor negative, ill-informed views of Nebraska (my one visit there, during a cross-country trip, involved dinner at the sole restaurant in town, the Beaver Bar. The dilapidated movie theater was playing The Care Bears Movie), Daum not only finds a nice farmhouse, but a guy to live in it with her.

They get a puppy, paint the place, buy antiques.Alhough Daum realizes the guy isn’t forever, for a while, life is good. Even as she enjoys a life of socializing, drinking beer on her porch, and hanging out with the fellow—in other words, a life many of us would kill for—the old gnawing returns. Lincoln, Nebraska, clearly has many charms, and to read about it, is not the backwater one might assume. Alas, Daum is a writer. She needs to be in a “real” place. That place is Los Angeles.

Daum is clear-eyed about her choice, one she recognizes as an intellectual step down from the ivory towers of New York intelligentsia:

“I won’t lie: conspicuous intellectualism is not L.A.’s racket. When Midwestern kids get on that proverbial Greyhound bus... the brainy ones tend to go east and the good-looking, not-so-brainy-ones tend to go west.... I’m generalizing, of course.”

For reasons having nothing to do with looks, I headed west at age 17 and spent 11 largely miserable years in Los Angeles. I was certain the unending heat had fried nearly everyone’s brains. In 1998 I moved north. I will never forget my first ride on the San Francisco Bay Area Regional Transit system: people were reading books. Real books -- not romance or the For Dummies series. I felt I had finally come home.

Still, Daum mounts a good defense of L.A. There are smart people there, and real bookstores, and if you like your weather frying hot, you can have it, every day. She feels L.A. is down to earth in a way the Bay Area is not; Angelenos don’t proselytize about their goat cheese or how great their city is.

Well, they do proselytize the gospel of female starvation and worship at the temple of the workout. Please pass the goat cheese. As for Daum: “Either you’re among the chosen or you’re not. Either you get why it’s good to live in L.A. or you don’t.”

This doesn’t stop her from a blast of moves through rentals, borrowed houses from acquaintances, even an apartment in famed Topanga Canyon, where the roads are so steep helicopters answer paramedic calls. However, even as Daum is building a life for herself in L.A., she is pursuing a farmhouse in Nebraska. She will divide her time between LA and Nebraska, living out her Laura Ingalls fixation.

I could continue, but doubtless you’re getting the idea here. Daum’s search—for self, for validation both from within and without, for inner peace, for domestic integrity—takes the years most of us are in grad school or dropping out of grad school or screwing up starter marriages, stablishing careers, finding that right person, settling down in the first house, maybe having the first kid, or barring the kid, a dog.

While some of us were doing the usual things, Daum was moving and moving once more, into houses with intact tiling from the '30s and slanting floors, from rentals she invested ungodly amounts of money into. At a time when most people are still using furnishings handed down by parents or perhaps harvested from the trash, Daum, single and childless, owned three beds, one of them antique, and had more antique furnishings in storage. She is on intimate terms with Home Depot. She is, more often than not, celibate for long periods of time: she is too busy with her latest real estate project.

None of this grinds to a halt with the purchase of the 900-foot bungalow, which is sort of falling apart, has a yard at several levels, as befits those terrifying hillside houses in Los Angeles (with their worthless retaining walls), and the Roman ruins garage. Daum spends time and money on it, has it appraised, then, amazingly, meets a man.

This man is a jock and has tons of sports equipment that ruins the lines of her cozy cottage, but by now that baseball bat (and no, it’s not the man) has begun its inexorable swing, and Daum is batted partway into a reality where people just live in places without fetishing them. They do so because they must, because other pursuits are more compelling, because hey, there is more to you than the place you live in.

Daum is 40 when this realization dawns, but she is a such a funny, sweet character that you are willing to go along for the ride. Or perhaps you, too, realize the allure of the summer Williams Sonoma Catalogue, with its sustainable patio furnishings and $1,000 barbeque, which, should you be able to afford them, won’t make you feel intact, domestically or otherwise.





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