Help! I'm a prisoner in a big suburban house!

Please, somebody, get me out of this fancy enclave of McMansions and SUVs!

By Cary Tennis
Published February 14, 2008 11:40AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I have a problem that I can't get perspective on, because it's got so many issues rolled up into one: finances, lifestyle, career, stress and economic uncertainty. Here is the situation: My wife and I have been married for two years; we are in our early 30s and do not have kids yet. She has a good job in academia, and two years ago, after finishing my Ph.D., I got a lucrative job at a hedge fund. Late last year we sold our cheap, tiny condo and bought a big house in a fancy suburb with not a lot of money down.

The problem is that, ever since we moved in, I've been having a visceral feeling that this move was a terrible, terrible mistake -- I hate the feeling of slowly falling asleep in suburbia and never waking up. And I hate the commute. And I hate not being able to walk anywhere. And the lack of character. And the McMansions. And the SUVs. I want out and I want out now.

My wife likes the physical house itself very much (as do I), but she does not like the isolation of a bedroom community ... and she hates driving. But she does not like the idea of moving again after putting lots of time and money into this house. She says that I can be impulsive and rash, and I'm giving up too quickly without giving the town a chance. For her the commute is perfect.

An added wrinkle in this: Maybe this is just a "geographic" (a word you just taught me) and I've probably got more important issues to think about -- namely, do I like the career path that I am on? Or is the stress and risk inherent in my job not worth it? Should I go try and do something more meaningful? Or am I just freaking out about getting older, etc? But the house is not external to all this: I'm locked into this career with this big mortgage hanging over our heads.

The next wrinkle: the housing market. If there was nothing else going on, I think the solution would be easy: give it some time and see how things go, and if we still don't like the house after a year, sell it. But this issue has arisen at a most stressful time. Not only do we have to decide whether we should bail on this house (and lifestyle) after only a few months, but we have to do some very expensive speculation in real estate. We thought the house was a good value, but it looks like things still have a way to fall. We can (hopefully) sell the house now and take a loss in the tens of thousands of dollars, or we could wait a year, and possibly be stuck in a house that is worth $100,000 to $200,000 less than what we paid for it (and then feel even more trapped in our jobs).

Or things could be fine. But I am pessimistic about the economy and my pessimism seems to be bearing out. Now, our ritzy suburb should be more protected than a cut-rate condo in Florida, but still ... these are such frightening magnitudes that it's hard to have good judgment. My job is good, but it is not like I have this kind of money to throw around. But moving is not a small task either. There is also the fact that this economic turmoil is not doing wonders for my firm.

My gut instinct is: Even $50,000 is worth it to be free of this. We can afford to lose that much (I guess).

If you print this I'm sure there will be a lot of people out there who won't have a lot of sympathy for me; people who would love to have this problem ... but that doesn't make this decision any easier.

What should we do?

Living the American Dream ... I Guess

Dear Living the American Dream ...

The kind of American dream you are living is the kind you wake up from in cold sweats.

There is another American dream.

It is a dream of wholesale revamping of cities, towns, transit and housing. In this dream, you get up in the morning and shower with solar-heated water and walk down a pleasantly crowded pedestrian way to catch some breakfast at a sunny outdoor cafe and then walk to a well-designed mass transit hub where you catch a fast, comfortable and efficient train to work. Or you work at home, using video hookups when necessary for meetings, transferring digital files at high speed, and when you start to feel isolated and restless you step out of your house to mingle on the street or jog or cycle on a nature path. And maybe you pick some wild watercress on the way and when you get back you make a salad for your wife, who is conducting a seminar on Chaucer in the living room.

So if I were you I would invest, emotionally and financially, in new urbanism, or in some kind of sustainable community. It will be a good long-term investment because people are going to want to live in these kinds of places. They will appear increasingly practical. Resource shortages will push us there. So you might as well go there now and beat the rush. That's what I would do, if I could -- and come to think of it, maybe I will! (Want to buy a house in San Francisco?) I would look for a group of designers who are doing new urbanism and I would find a place where you can live in a livable situation.

As to the short term, maybe you hang on to your big pretty house in the suburbs until housing prices go back up. Or maybe you unload it before they go any lower. I don't know. You're the financial guy. I'm the big-picture guy. I'm saying think long-term and invest in places that people can live in happily without using much gasoline.

There are lots of reasons to do this. Here is another reason: The good guys need people like you, who can manage capital flows. They need you to manage some capital in such a way that it flows in their direction. That sounds like the kind of thing you could do. I don't know much about hedge funds but basically it's about money, right? So make some money go some places where it can do some good.

As to the look of certain new-urban communities, well, I know some of these places look a little Disney, and there's this whole sort of subterranean strata of Puritan villager in the American psyche that makes people fall for that.

But they don't have to look like that.

I also have some thoughts on how we get into situations like this. Basically, we can be really smart people but we don't get educated about how urban planning and housing affects us psychologically and spiritually.

While you were studying, you just lived places. The places were probably fairly urban and fairly dense. There were drawbacks aesthetically and perhaps economically and safety-wise. But you ran into people on the street sometimes, and there were buses and trains.

You didn't walk around going, Wow, this is like a little village almost! Serendipitous encounters would occur that would enrich your life, but you didn't say to yourself, Wow, look at how this little urban center is deliberately planned to allow for pedestrian serendipity! It was just normal grad-student living.

But then, after all your hard work and some measure of feeling deprived of the good things in life, you get a job with a big salary and someone who sells real estate puts you in her car and drives you around and some person inside you -- not the careful-planning you but this other more spontaneous and sensuous you, a you who always wanted to live in a big house with a yard -- sees a big, pretty house with a lawn and goes, "Wow!" And you buy it.

And as soon as you move in you feel a profound sense of loss. You can't put your finger on it but the place you are in does not make you happy. The place you are in is big and pretty. So that makes it hard to explain. Why does big and pretty not make you happy?

It doesn't make you happy because it's not made for humans. It's made for cars. These suburban houses are basically huge garages with attached living quarters for servants -- meaning us. We are the servants. We work for the cars who live there. The cars have a very good life. We make sure of that. But our lives are not so good there.

I do believe that suburban living is a form of torture. If you made suspected terrorists live in big suburban houses, they would talk eventually.

But they'd probably only say things like, "Have you seen my keys?"

Where to live? See pages 196 and 276

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