Tuesday, April 26, 2005

House-Hunting Horrors

Boston.com / News / Boston Globe / Magazine / By David Valdes Greenwood : "It strikes me as a singular irony of home buying that by the time you and your mate have suffered through the hell of finding a place, you may no longer be interested in actually living in it together. That may be an overstatement, but as someone enduring the stressful process of buying a house for the second time, I'll admit that there are moments when I would be just as happy with separate vacations as with a shared house.

Living in one of the most expensive housing markets in the nation, it's all too easy to get swept away by the undercurrent of imagined homelessness, the deeply unsettling prospect of losing one place before finding the next. The resulting anxiety somehow obscures the truth of our situation: We're gainfully employed and have friends with spare bedrooms, so we're not in imminent danger of ending up on the streets like the protagonists of a made-for-TV movie.

Nonetheless, we both devolve into nervous, illogical ninnies. For my hubby, this means spinning himself into a complete buy-now-or-beg-later panic. After a recent day of touring open houses, in which every hot prospect revealed flaws (too small, too costly, or – worse – too carpeted), he soldiered on in an optimistic frenzy, championing the virtues of a minuscule three-room condo. In such moments, he's a realtor's dream, able to argue that a butcher block makes a fab dining room table and the utensil drawer is a lovely bassinet for a future child.

Meanwhile, I obsessively research and compare all listed properties within miles, then absolutely refuse to commit to any. The first time we bought, our lease was running out and we'd spent every weekend in July and August at open houses. My husband's entire summer vacation was devoured by this process, largely because we couldn't find a place that met all my requirements. An enduring obstructionist, I convinced myself at every house that the next one would be better.

On the last day of vacation, my hubby desperately wanted a day of sun and sand and peace. But I goaded him into spending only two morning hours at the nearest beach, so we could engage in another property-search marathon spanning five towns. The last place we saw that day wasn't perfectly located but otherwise was clearly the best thing we'd seen within our budget: a sunny town house on a tree-lined street, with parking, a pool, and a backyard. Obviously, then, I said no.

That night, our apartment was strangely quiet. I found my husband sitting in the bathtub, glaring into space. "What are you doing?" I asked cautiously. "Pretending I am at the beach," he replied. It was not the high point of our union.

The only comfort I can take in all of this is that we're not alone. Several years ago, our friends Ben and Abby got married and, in short order, bought their first house. "Buying a house was like another wedding. The buildup was just so intense," says Ben, 36. "It felt like it was an even bigger commitment. In addition to testifying to our love and honor in front of everyone we know, the two of us were going to have to care for this bank note for the next 30 years!"

Abby, 32, made it her task to remain cool and collected. "I felt the calm that must be akin to the concentration a pitcher needs to have in a World Series game," she recalls. But despite her best attempts at Zen mastery, "the spell did break one night. At one point, it just felt like we were making a tragic mistake." She describes the ensuing debates as similar to having their "childhood traumas going head-to-head."

My husband and I know just what she means. As a product of the welfare system, I find home prices – so huge as to be abstract – simply paralyzing, while my spouse (a classic child of divorce) craves stability above all and is determined to achieve it. He sees a condo and thinks, "How much should we bid?" while I think, "How soon can I nap?"

So we go on, intractably opposed and inextricably united, aware that if we succeed in our costly quest, we won't have the requisite funds to jet off to Reno for a quickie divorce. We'll just have to offer amnesty for our worst behaviors and start packing. By then, we won't just have made our bed, we'll have bought it.

David Valdes Greenwood, 38, is a playwright who lives in Malden – for now. "

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