Meghan Daum on House Hunting in the Bubble

Meghan Daum, an essayist, novelist, and columnist for the Los Angeles Times, traces in her latest book her search for a place to call home. A suburban child, Daum explores how the search for perfect apartments and houses consumed her from New York City to Nebraska to Los Angeles. In this excerpt from Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House, Daum, who visited Zócalo on May 7, goes house-hunting in L.A. at the height of the real estate bubble.

True scholarship requires obsession, baseless fixation, an absorption with the kinds of minutiae that, to the average person, holds about as much interest as varieties of chimney soot. Given the consumerist, manic, solipsistic nature of this pursuit, there are of course countless Internet enablers to choose from. Not just Craigslist, but also realtor.com, MLS.com, ziprealty.com, redfin.com, and my own imaginary start-up icantevengetuptogotothebathroombecausethenext housemightbeit.com. I looked at realtor.com so frequently it appeared on my computer browser if I so much as typed the letter r, my old standbys like radiodiaries.com and rollingstone.com fading into the background like a pet forgotten because of a new baby. Quickly exhausting the listings in my immediate vicinity, I eventually became expert on home values elsewhere, taking a curious solace in my discovery that a three-bedroom, two-bathroom Craftsman back in Lincoln was merely $110,000 and, even though I have no connection to the place, a similar house in Portland, Oregon, could be had for $340,000. Maybe I liked knowing that should the Southern California housing market ultimately elude me, I could always go someplace where prices were on a human scale. Maybe I also liked the reminder that as “basic” a rite of passage as buying a home was supposed to be, some regions were more basic than others. In most moments, I knew it wasn’t just a house I was after but, rather, proof of my existence. The house was not just a house but also an I.D. badge for adulthood, for personhood even. It was the only thing that would make me desirable, credible, even human.

Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That HouseI was quite a treat to be around during this period. Not only was I unable to carry on a conversation about anything other than brokers’ fees and pocket listings, but I had inadvertently entered something of a second latency period. This is not to be confused with my mini-latency period of a few years earlier, when I’d literally been moving around too much to think about dating. This time, I had opportunities to date but no interest in taking advantage of them. I didn’t even want to have sex. The reasons for this were probably manifold and best left to a psychiatrist, but as far as I was concerned, I was saving myself for home ownership. I mean that quite literally. I did not want to get into a relationship or even go on a date until I owned property. I did not want a man crossing my threshold, drinking my tap water, or even parking at my curb until that threshold, tap water, and curb were in some way legally registered in my name. I did not even want to meet a potential romantic partner until I could look him in the eye from my bar stool and say, without apology or drama, “I own a house.”

In honor of this vow of delayed gratification, I kept myself looking and feeling about as sexy as your average meter maid. My hair, though always short, was entirely too short and, thanks to a misguided effort to come across as “feisty,” an unfortunate shade of red (make that shades, since the red had a way of quickly turning pinkish and then orange). There was a bloated, phlegmatic quality to my physical being. I was doughy and epicene and also strangely hyper. Anyone who encountered me during this period found himself face-to-face with a sort of asexual monomaniac. Though I could stumble through polite, non-housing-related conversation for twenty to thirty minutes, any opportunity I sensed to change the subject to down payments and appraisal fees would be seized like the second-to-last piece of shrimp on a cocktail platter. To anyone who would listen, I nattered on about the houses for sale that I hated, the houses not for sale that I coveted, the envy aroused by those who bought ten years earlier during the slump, the smugness of sellers, the desperation of buyers, the calamity of it all.

This is embarrassing but not exactly mortifying. Mostly because everyone was talking like this at the time. My conversation may have been tiresome, but it was hardly aberrant. At parties, cliques would form in corners around topics like these – comprised mostly of women but including plenty of men, too – and the discussion would become so animated and loud that eventually the hostess would come over and say, “What’s going on here?” only to find herself helplessly drawn in. A woman I’d befriended the previous year, a writer named Carina, happened also to be house hunting during this time, and the two of us soon found ourselves bonded together as if real estate obsession secreted some kind of hallucination-inducing superglue. Like pregnant women who share and dissect every aspect of gestation with painstaking detail and outsized enthusiasm, we spent hours visiting open houses and driving around strange neighborhoods one of us (usually me) was convinced was the next hot place. We spent several times that many hours talking to each other on the phone about Carina’s latest conversation about mortgages with her financial whiz brother or my latest theory about why buying a house that came with a rental unit and therefore required me to be a landlord “might actually make me a better writer” (this theory totally escapes me now and, mercifully, was never tested).

If there’s any one experience that encapsulates the inflated home values and near surrealism of that time period, it was the afternoon Carina and I went to an open house in the neighborhood of Mount Washington. Neither of us, her especially, particularly wanted to live in Mount Washington, but it had a reputation for slightly lower-priced houses than much of what was available in Silver Lake or Echo Park, and I’d suggested we give the neighborhood a gander. After failing to find the first two houses on our list because the streets depicted on my MapQuest printout appeared to have no relationship to the actual streets of Mount Washington, we found the third property, a small, cabinlike house on a wooded hillside.

Between the used-car-lot-style flags and the “Another fine property from Blah Blah realty” sign in the yard, a line of about a dozen people had formed by the doorway. Despite the shabbiness of the house – the paint was chipped, and the roof appeared to be sliding off like a loose toupee – I took that as a sign that the place was so much in demand that it simply could not contain all the people who wanted to look at it. This turned out to be true, although not in a good way. In fact, it was true in the most depressing way possible, which is to say that only six people were allowed inside at once because the foundation wasn’t guaranteed to hold any more than that. notices posted on the front door and on the walls stated disclosures about electricity (there was none in the kitchen and study), plumbing (apparently there were sewage “issues”), and rodents (rats and mice definitely; opossums maybe).

A large deck of at least two hundred square feet, which may have been larger than the living room, jutted out from the hillside, offering a sweeping view of pine trees and palm trees and the distant decks of neighbors. It was easily the best thing about the house. Unfortunately, it was barricaded with caution tape because, as the agent explained, it was “unsafe for walking on.” It would, in fact, need to be torn down. And while she was on the subject, the agent said (and not at all sheepishly, which should have been astonishing but was commonplace in 2004) the deck wasn’t the only thing that needed to be torn down. Given the condition of the roof, the foundation, and the walls, potential buyers were to take it under advisement that the entire house should probably be torn down. If we had any questions, she said, we could talk to the owners, who, contrary to custom, were actually on the premises. She then gestured to a stained orange couch on which three elderly people of questionable hygiene were staring into space smoking cigarettes, their ashes cascading around a glazed ceramic ashtray on the floor, sometimes landing in it, sometimes not.

The asking price on this house was $425,000. I’m pretty sure it ultimately sold in the mid-$500,000 range.

When Carina and I went back to the car (I remember that we were wedged between a new BMW and an Audi; people who drove cars like that were looking at houses like this), one of said she felt like throwing up, and the other said she felt like crying. I can’t remember which of us said what, but I do remember that this trip was the beginning of the end of our house-hunting phase. We were no longer excited pregnant ladies as much as we were mutual enablers of a mounting addiction.

“I can’t do this anymore,” Carina said to me as I made the first of several wrong turns on the way home. “There’s something very, very wrong in all of this.”

“I know,” I said. “If only I’d been ready to buy a few years ago. Why do I come so late to everything? Why do I miss the boat every time?”

“Because we’re Gen X,” she said. “We were born both too late and too early. The economic forces conspired against us, and now we’re fucked and the boomers live in mansions they bought for $67 back in the early 1980s and we’re destined to live our lives paying rent to guys who wear tinted eyeglasses and Members Only jackets.”

She didn’t say exactly that, but she came close and might as well have. It’s one of the reasons we’d hit it off before our entire friendship got strung out on real estate. She quit looking for a house shortly after that. She was in a relationship that was at that awkward, one-year point at which thinking about the future feels both necessary and premature. Though she was willing to buy a house for herself, part of her was shopping not just for her house but for something that could potentially accommodate another person, a place for a couple and maybe even a family. That’s why when she saw the house on Escalada Terrace, a short, breathtakingly steep Echo Park street lined with bougainvillea and oversized, flowering succulents, she called me from the car.

“I just saw a supercute place,” she said. “It’s too small for me, but you might like it. It’s $475,000, but it’s been on the market for like a month, so maybe they’d go down.”

“There has to be something wrong with it,” I said.

“There’s something weird going on with the garage in back,” Carina said. “But who cares about that? It has awesome views from the kitchen. And fruit trees.”

Fruit trees, I thought. Awesome views. Possibly less than $475,000. By now it was the beginning of June. Summer was sliding into view like one of those expensive cars rolling off an assembly line. I was convinced I was approximately seventeen minutes from being priced out of the market.

Reader, I bought it.

Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., a division of Random House, Inc.

*Photo of Echo Park courtesy jek in the box.


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