House Lust, The Subject of Meghan Daum's New Book

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She’s been writing funny and revealing stuff about her life for a long time — once famously confessing in The New Yorker that she couldn’t afford to live in Manhattan; that piece became the title of her book of essays,“My Misspent Youth.”

Her new book “Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House” has a title that sums it up.

It’s the American Dream. (That’s one of those phrases Americans — and their realtors — take for granted. There is no corresponding Korean or French or Canadian “dream” of owning your own home, preferably a little colonial with a lawn and a backyard. Other countries don’t allow mortgage interest as a tax deduction.)

Writes Virginia Postrel:

The fantasy of a life transformed is what makes the ads and features in interiors magazines so enticing—no fashion or celebrity magazine glamorizes its subjects as thoroughly as Architectural Digest or Elle Decor—and what gives HGTV’s low-budget shows their addictive appeal. The longing for the perfect life in the perfect environment can make real-estate listings and “For Sale” signs as evocative as novels. This domestic ideal gives today’s neighborhoods of foreclosed or abandoned houses their particular emotional punch. A stock-market bubble may create financial hardship, but a housing bust breaks hearts.

Although Ms. Daum did buy a house in 2004 and watched its value rise and then fall, her self-deprecatingly funny memoir isn’t a tale of real-estate speculation. Rather she uses her lifelong obsession with finding the ideal living space to probe domestic desire, a deeper restlessness than the search for quick profits.

Whether because of alienation or ambition, Ms. Daum’s family, when she was growing up (first in Austin, Texas, and then in New Jersey), shared “a chronic, lulling sensation of being aboard a train that was perpetually two stops away from the destination we had in mind for ourselves.” That feeling manifested itself in a “perpetual curiosity about what possibilities for happiness might lie at the destination of a moving van.” The result was a childhood filled with weekend trips to visit open houses, dinner-time conversations about relocation and, in Ms. Daum’s teenage years, her mother’s sudden move to her own home: “four walls whose color scheme required approval from no one. It wasn’t another man she wanted but another life.” (Ms. Daum’s parents did not divorce.)

I’ve been living in the same one bedroom apartment since 1989. Will I ever own a house? Not anywhere near I live now — a nasty little shoebox with .25 of an acre on a busy street would run me $500,000 with $12,000 a year in taxes. I’m hoping to buy one, or at least rent one, in France in retirement, and living in 1,000 square feet (about the size of an affordable house in my town) allows me the extra cash to fly to France in the meantime.

My Dad has been scouting houses in coastal Maine, trying to figure out what to do with his. I know a house is a major dream for millions of people and you need a space with room(s) for kids and their toys and pets and activities. We lived in a house when I was little, and when I was in high school, but, other than my rental on the top two floors of a Toronto house, and our rented apartment in an old house in rural New Hampshire, it’s been apartment living since then for me.

There are some amazing houses in my town, one, a huge shingled Queen Anne painted the pale pink of strawberry ice cream with green shutters and several with wisteria trees snaking up across their verandahs and eaves. There are one or two I would love to live in, but could never afford them.

I really love our apartment. I’ve re-painted it a bunch of times, especially since attending interior design school. We have astonishing views northwest up the Hudson and I have hawks and geese and crows swooshing so low over my top-floor balcony I can hear the wind through their wings. I love the light and quiet and feel blessed to own my own home. Its small-ish size and manageable mortgage makes me feel safe, even while working in an industry shuddering through insane and terrifying changes.

I basically see a house as a money pit, something that endlessly needs upgrades and repairs, mugging you financially when you can least afford it — new boiler! new roof! new driveway!

How about you? Do you love your house?

9 thoughts on “House Lust, The Subject of Meghan Daum's New Book

  1. Thomas Medlicott

    Megan was interviewed on NPR the other day, and yes, the American dream of home ownership is entrenched down to the youngest generation. I do love my home of 33 years which I was able to purchase in SoCal for $31,000.00 in 1977. Unfortunately, our personal “American Dream” has meant borrowing on home equity. That is how big ticket items – landscaping, central heating and air, income taxes, surgeries, three kids, etc. – are paid for when there is no other money. Our house was built in 1909 when orange groves and other Victorian houses lined the street. I walk about 100 feet to my studio workshop and have done so for twenty-seven years. I would like to always live here, work here, perhaps die here. I think I found the soul of this house, it nurtures me.
    Tom Medlicott

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    It sounds lovely! I love houses of that period in their scale and proportion. How great that you can work there as well in your studio. My terrace, May to October, is mine!

    I do wave hello to our old house in Toronto when I drive by it and have gone back to visit our childhood house and my Granny’s carriage house (which she later lived in on the same street and which is now memorialized in a coffee table book of cool, old Toronto homes.)

    Are there still orange groves and Victorian houses? The smell of orange blossoms is so romantic!

  3. larryb33c

    Yeah, I guess I love my house. It took me a while to get there, however. We bought our house in ’97, and at the time I was going along with my husband’s wishes(well, he was my boyfriend at the time. We actually married on the day we moved into the house.)Owning a home was not a huge deal for me. I remember thinking I did not like the idea of doing yard work. I told my husband that he would be in charge of that. Alrighty… that lasted about about 2 weeks into our first spring. I do about 95% of the yard work now. I do like doing it more than I thought I would. (hmmm.. I fear I am coming across as more of a pushover than I am.)
    A lot of the houses we looked at had some bad do it yourself projects. I remember lots, I mean LOTS of sponge painting. It was quite the thing at the time (well, this was Columbus, Ohio. I’m sure its time had passed in other parts of the country.) Oh yeah– this was also the tail end of the country kitchen look. Ugh. (Now when I look at listings it is the generic cherry cabinets/granite countertops/ SS appliance look that is so prevalent– No thank you) We finally found our house going to two open houses that were next to each other. Everybody liked the house next door. Our house had to reduce the price to compete. The house next door had been fixed up (but not really to my liking). Our house was part of an estate sale. We were attracted to the fact that not much had been done with the interior. The house had good bones, but it was difficult to see due to old carpeting and the fact that it had not been painted in years. Most of our furniture was mid century stuff (nothing high end– think Heywood Wakefield) so it was OK for the 1929 house.
    We stayed in our apartment for about month while getting the house ready to move into. We didn’t really do anything big– pulled up the carpet, painted, that sort of thing. God knows why– perhaps the influence of living in rentals for years– but we painted just about every damn room white.
    We went about 8 years without doing much to the house. I told myself– as long as its clean, no problem. The only thing we really spent money on was a new roof, a new furnace, and some glass block windows for the basement. What we needed to have done was– well, paint of course, the floors needed refinished, and the kitchen and bathrooms needed to be fixed up. For a variety of reasons, we really could not get anything done until we did the upstairs bathroom. I was under the impression that this would be an easy thing to take care of as we would be hiring someone to do it. Wrong. First you have to get someone to show up to work out an estimate. Then if you’re lucky they’ll actually send you an estimate. Then you have to have someone actually agree to do the work. Then, you’re still not home free. They have to actually show up and do the work. Pay no attention to the time frame they give you. This is irrelevant.
    After the bathroom we decided we would do whatever work we could on our own. This precluded anything having to do with floors. We got the floors downstairs refinished. We had carpet installed upstairs. We had hardwood floors, but decided on laying carpet down upstairs. It makes things a little more serene.
    In the kitchen we went with real linoleum– not vinyl. I love it. We also did a big undertaking. Our cabinets were high quality custom cabinets that the previous owners had installed in the 70’s Fear not– they were not colonial or anything. They were very simple, plain front cabinets. We sanded and painted them white and I really could not be more pleased with the results. Our kitchen has a nice retro look to it now. And it is so much brighter. And the walls are a color– not white (yeah– we got rid of all the white.)
    So now I love my house. We’ve sunk some money into it– but not a HUGE amount. I guess it is a wash as far as a money pit goes (when comparing it to renting). And our house has increased in value by 75%. Our neighborhood has remained stable as far as home values go. And we have a dirt cheap 15 year mortgage. Even with all that, I still say it is a wash when you factor in taxes, interest, insurance, and maintenance. I never bought the whole “a house is an investment” thing. There have to be other reasons you want a house to make it worthwhile.
    Buying a place in NYC, though? ridiculous. I cannot imagine purchasing a property and still paying 900 dollars a month maintenance on top of everything. I was born in NYC. My parents were renters. At that time you could be middle class and live in New York. We moved to my father’s hometown in Mass. when I was still a baby because yes, my parent wanted a house too. hey– at that time you could be middle class and buy a 200 year old house 10 minutes from the ocean! I’m pretty sure you’re looking at 500 grand for the house my parents bought for 24,000 dollars.
    Anyway, what I meant to say is I was not really prepared for how happy it would make me to fix up my house. I guess I am more superficial than I thought.
    That was kind of long. Sorry.

    1. larryb33c

      Oh– I see I wrote The “floors needed refinished”. You, not being from central Ohio, are probably not familiar with this odd construction. Yes, it is all very proper here– you may drop the infinitive form of the verb in many cases.
      Another example: “Does the cat want out?”
      I thought it was a joke when I first heard it.

  4. Caitlin Kelly

    No, I love this…thanks!

    I could (and have) spend all my time and $$$$$ laviishing attention on the apartment. The livingroom walls went from faux-finished (we did it) taupe-gray to a fab Chinese red (water washed, we did it) to a flat Gervase Yellow, an odd yellowy-green by Farrow & Ball (the Porsche of paints. Amazing colors.)

    I feel every penny is worth it (I never used home equity for anything; we took another loan for the bathroom reno) for the sheer pleasure of it all. My secret fix was taking four 50-yr-old paint-crusted flat radiator covers to…the auto body shop. They did a fab job taking them down to the metal and priming them for a new coat of paint. I’ve since taken them other household items as well, including a fan vent from the bathroom.

    The kitchen desperately needs a re-do but it won’t be cheap. I am enough of a perfectionist (and have studied design) that I feel confident designing it, but not doing the quality of work required.

    I figure, given how much time we spend in our homes, why not make them lovely, even on a budget? I wanted our 5×7 (yes) only bathroom to feel/look like some foreign spa, and it does. I am happy every minute I am in there.

    1. larryb33c

      This is true. Money well spent. And there is great satisfaction in doing things yourself. The auto body shop thing sounded like a great idea– I bet it looks great.
      Here is something funny. After all the fixing up, we had our sofa and chair reupholstered. We had it done by the same people who did it 10 years ago. We were happy with the work. When it showed up– I kind of looked at it and then said “It looks great, but I’m pretty sure that that is not the fabric I picked out.” And then, I actually entertained the idea of keeping it in the fabric I really didn’t like because I felt bad for them! I came to my senses though realizing that I should get what I want for the 3000 dollars it cost!
      it still made me feel a little bad, because it was kind of wasteful and I’m one that likes to buy used stuff because it is 1) higher quality, and 2) well– its better to reuse, right?
      I really hate the whole disposable furniture mentality– you won’t find me at Ikea.
      I could never live in a new house. This is the newest house I’ve ever lived in. However, the houses I grew up in were early and mid 19th century vintage (our neighbor’s house in Mass. was built in 1704, so ours was relatively young there. Our house in Ohio was built just before the civil war so it was one of the older ones) and I don’t think I want to live in a house that old again. Too much work, and it is always going to be drafty.

  5. jake brodsky

    For all it’s quirks and flaws, I love our old farm house. It has cost us more than I ever would have thought to keep it going, but we pay it willingly because it feels like a real home.

    Our house is not large. There are no guest rooms. The hay field behind our house is ours. The stream running through the field is there for kids to play in. We fly kites, launch rockets, shoot arrows, build stick forts, climb trees, chase fireflies, and so on. It is home for me, my wife, our three children, and a cat.

    There are no covenants, there is no Home Owner’s Association. Though we usually are able to mow the grass, should we skip a week in the spring, we won’t get any phone calls from nosy busybodies.

    The only down-side is that our county does assert itself rather obnoxiously, given that most of the laws and regulations come from the majority suburban population on the Eastern side of county. I suspect that it surprises some to learn that that there are still old farms in the western part of the county.

    My wife grew up in an old farm house too. Her parents home dates back to the early 1760s. When you live in old houses and old farms that go back to the days of our ancestors, you feel a certain connection with the community and to the land that you just don’t get when you live in a suburban tract mansion or crammed in a apartment among millions in a metropolis.

    I wanted more than just a Model B house on whatever street we could find it on. Our home is a lovingly crafted custom house that started off in 1902 without any indoor plumbing, electricity, or central heating. Over the last century, it grew and got updated several times. It is all well built, well cared for, and we continue it.

    It is not and never was fancy. It was never more than a family home for people who don’t spend much time inside. But it suits us. I hope to be here at least until our children are all living on their own.

    Mobility is a wonderful feeling, but so are roots. That’s what we have in our home.

    1. larryb33c

      Hmm.. sounds like more than I would want to take on, but I can understand its appeal.
      I don’t think I would want to live in the country and have to drive everywhere, though. I like the walkability of my neighborhood. You have to drive everywhere in a suburban tract community too, however. And you still have to live in crummy suburban tract home, so you have the better deal!

  6. Caitlin Kelly

    I love these stories. Jake, I want to come and play in your yard. It sounds great: relaxed, fun, not fussy.

    larryb, I am so into antiques and re-using: I still use a sofa that was my very first post-college purchase (well-made) and had it slip-covered in a gorgeous washed olive cotton when I had a staff salary and could afford it. I made two huge upgrades to our tiny dining room that have transformed it: a low-hanging (billiard-light-ish but silver metal) lamp and a glass terrace door. Whenever and wherever we travel, I pick up fun stuff, often vintage fabrics, so our summer cushions for the terrace are made from 1930s French checks and florals from flea market fabric I brought home. I love re-purposing good, old stuff and do it all the time.

    A good friend lives in an amazing house in CT from about 1760. I love its history but I see what it costs in upkeep as well. I would kill for a really old house. Maybe I’ll buy some old pile in France.

    Jake, I agree that there is something really lovely about feeling connected to a house and land and some history. My Dad owned a house for a while from 1789 in Ireland and it was transporting for me to look out through those early, wavy blown-glass Georgian windows. I love old/fine things and often think I was born a few centuries too late.

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