Chasing down a dream house

I'm addicted to real estate. Not buying it, but imagining what my life would be like somewhere else

Published May 8, 2010 12:20AM (EDT)


For weeks now, I've been staring at photographs of my dream house. In these photos, which are available for round-the-clock clicking and friend forwarding on the Internet as well as in the form of a glossy brochure I can actually touch, the rooms are spacious and the ceilings are high. The furniture (sparse, tasteful, solid) is devoid of clutter, the floors newly stained and polished, the windows washed inside and out by someone who knew what he was doing. The place is small -- just 890 square feet and there's no garage -- but the yard is large and lush and the view over the fence is almost Mediterranean: terraced streets lined with red tile roofed houses and cloudbursts of bougainvillea. Under any other circumstances I'd call my real estate agent and demand to see it immediately. But as it so happens, this is my own house.

I'm selling it, and as one often does when selling one's house -- particularly in "challenging" markets like this -- I've primped and pimped the place beyond recognition. There is, at my  agent's suggestion, a flower arrangement on the bathtub ledge in the shower. I've never in my life had a flower arrangement in the shower. But looking at the photos, I'm beginning to realize what's been missing from my life.

Don't get me wrong; I don't want to live here anymore. These 890 square feet often feel more like 700 square feet. Since my then-boyfriend (now husband) moved in two and a half years ago I have been unable to walk into any of this house's five rooms without tripping over one or more (usually many more) objects that bear no logical relationship to the area surrounding them. There are bicycle wheels and tools in the living room, laundry hanging near my desk, a giant Pilates ball lumbering indecisively from the bedroom to the kitchen to the minuscule storage area/guest room/clothes repository we have, for house-selling purposes, begun calling an "office." The living room is too small to properly contain a sofa long enough for my 6-foot-3  husband, so we now watch television sitting in a wooden rocking chair and a stiff leather club chair with broken springs in the seat.

I need to move on. We need to move on. I need to stop seeing myself purely in the first-person singular and join hands and bank accounts with my husband and find a threshold we can cross together. And even though I have no desire to go back to the days when I believed -- and sometimes, perversely, even hoped -- that I would die a spinster in the Spanish bungalow in northeast Los Angeles on which I spent most of my life savings, I still sometimes catch myself thinking the way I thought back then. That my house is not just an extension of myself but an actual appendage.

I'm not a lachrymose person (the only things that really get to me are certain Bach masses and the end of "Terms of Endearment"), but this is still saying a lot. In the last six months, I've gotten engaged, gotten married, and watched my mother die of cancer (in that order). I would have sold my house last fall, but instead I spent most of the latter part of the year in New York City at the bedside of the woman who got me into this mess. I don't mean the mess of my life (though isn't this the crime of all mothers?) but, rather, the emotional morass that has always been my living accommodations. My mother hated to travel, but she loved to move. She went to open houses as a form of recreation. She took walks around the neighborhood after dark so she could see into people's windows. Despite our lack of much disposable income, she "shopped for" and fantasized about houses as though they were ships that would carry us -- or maybe even just her -- away to a better life. She once wrote letters to the residents of every house on a street she particularly liked telling them that if they had any interest in selling she hoped they'd let her know. None of them wrote back, though that hasn't stopped me from coming very close to writing the same letter to the owners of a few houses in my neighborhood. It's all but impossible for me to admire a house without then wanting desperately to live in it.

These days, I think I can safely say that I'm psychologically, if not physically, dependent on real estate. Case in point: my periodic vow (white-knuckled, not believing it even as I say it) that I will no longer look at photographs of real estate online, that I will not search Redfin or six times a day, that I will drive past an open house without stopping the car and going inside. In the months leading up to the purchase of my house, I was the equivalent of a full-on drunk. For hours a day, for weeks on end, I clicked through thousands of photos of properties for sale. Some were in the L.A. neighborhoods I was targeting and some were in entirely different cities and states. I looked at rickety farmhouses in Iowa, sprawling ranches in Wyoming, crumbling historic townhouses in Baltimore, and seaside cabins in Maine. I looked at places I could have bought for nearly all cash and places I will never be able to afford in this or any other lifetime.

Finally I settled on my current house, a boxy stucco affair with fruit trees in the yard, but I had hardly finished the remodeling before I was back on the real estate sites again. I imagined the houses I would live in after this one. I imagined renting my house out for the winter and driving back east where I'd find some converted barn on the north fork of Long Island and hole up there writing a novel and romancing some fisherman/sculptor/amateur lute player I'd met at the general store. I imagined living anywhere other than where I was living, staring at any walls other than my own.

Some readers probably expect me to end that last sentence with a sentiment along the lines of "being anything other than who I was." As rhythmically satisfying as that might have been, it wouldn't be entirely true. My capriciousness, flakey as it might be, is entirely genuine. The person I am is a person obsessed with domestic spaces. Since I was a little girl I've been mesmerized with the endogenous world, with hallways and staircases and fireplace mantels, with the inside of things. Panoramic eggs, with their tiny, sugary scenes inside the peephole, were pure magic. I loved dollhouses (not the dolls, though) and at 5 and 6 built my own mini architecturals out of Saran wrap and record jackets. Any excuse to make a diorama, to turn a shoebox into a miniature re-creation of Valley Forge or grassy mastodon habitat, was seized with the enthusiasm of someone who would grow up to be a set designer, or at least a professional decorator. But I grew up to be neither of these. Instead, the salient feeling of my adult life is that of being pulled in opposite directions by two warring sides of myself: the nester and the transient. I want to settle down, sure, but I want to settle down everywhere.

In the five years preceding the purchase of this house I had managed to move more than a dozen times. I'd lived in farmhouses on the prairie and modernist apartments in the Santa Monica Mountains. I'd packed my stuff up and driven my large woolly dog and myself from Nebraska to Los Angeles, then back to Nebraska and back to Los Angeles again. I'd house-sat and sublet. I'd broken leases and even pulled out of an escrow. Before that, I'd moved apartments several times in New York City and, before that, I'd changed dorm rooms nearly every semester in college. I'm not proud of this, particularly not the college part, but I can say that this restlessness wasn't entirely for lack of a focus in life. If anything, I had too much focus. My focus was finding the perfect place to live. My focus was squeezing the round hole of my fantasy home into the square peg of what I could actually afford and maintain. And no amount of inconvenience, no racking up of miles on the car or money wasted buying the same shower curtain and bathmat at Target every time I set up housekeeping somewhere new could deter me.

When I think about it, I'm kind of amazed I managed to buy a house and stay for six years. Though many of my neighbors have been here for decades, I have graduated out of newcomer status. People move in and I give them the street gossip, refer them to my plumber, tell them which dogs are friendly and which aren't. When I was new here, I was a single woman (and in a poetic touch, the escrow papers had me sign my name as "Meghan Daum, a single woman" again and again). But even that didn't really cover it. I was an adamantly single woman with hair a bit too short and a dog that slept not only on but often in the bed, sometimes with his head on the pillow. For reasons I will perhaps never fully understand, I'd wanted a house more than I'd wanted a partner. More precisely, I'd wanted a house, then a partner. It was as if doing things the other way around would have denied me the only platform on which I could assemble myself into a worthy, attractive person. It was as if doing things the other way around would have made me null and void. At least this is what I believed when I signed my life over to Bank of America, picked the keys up from the escrow office and stepped into the house I believed would root me to the earth.

Now that I'm leaving, I am no longer a single woman. I'm married to a man who's more right for me than anyone I could ever have imagined. My hair is a little longer, the dog sleeps on the foot of the bed rather than next to me, and I am 40. It is time to go. We deserve a living room that fits a sofa. We deserve a home that is ours and not mine. Still, the glam photos are a menace. So beautiful and deceptive, so intoxicating, so exactly my style (funny, that). The house has never looked anything like this, not for a moment. Even during the shoot, my real estate agent and I moved a mound of clutter from room to room -- think of the Mobro 4000 garbage barge --to keep it out of view. Even during showings, I had to put pillows and blankets and coats in the car because they were literally bursting out of our closets. But in looking at those images, my throat catches and I feel a twinge of what I'm going to feel when I walk out of here for the last time. The house may have rooted me to the earth, but I suspect that, in leaving it, I'm going to feel the equal and opposite sensation of what I felt when I walked in for the first time, the sensation of stepping off that platform I built to show everyone who I was and, instead, walking around on the hard, uneven ground.

Meghan Daum writes a weekly opinion column for the Los Angeles Times and is the author of "Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House," just out from Knopf. She is also the author of the essay collection, "My Misspent Youth," as well as a novel.


By Meghan Daum

Meghan Daum is a Los Angeles Times columnist and the author of “The Unspeakable.” She appears Friday, December 5 with Emily Nussbaum at Housing Works Bookstore Café in New York and Thursday, December 11 with Sandra Tsing Loh at Live Talks Los Angeles.

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