Apr 16, 2014, 09:16AM

Unfinished Houses and Imagined Futures

The impossible Bay Area real estate market.

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In the last two weeks, I’ve learned several things.

I know very little about how a house is built and maintained. Reading 150 pages of PDF-scanned inspection documents in handwritten script is all of the following: educational, confusing, terrifying, and anxiety-inducing. There are cracks in foundations and there are electrical issues with houses that were built in 1952 and not updated to provide proper outlets for modern appliances. When people do their own work on their house, things are not always what they seem. Beautiful, sloping backyards that feel like sanctuaries are not always ideal. Also, pine needles clog drainpipes. I might have known that before, but it was certainly reinforced in the last two weeks.

I’ve learned that the idea of putting in an offer on a house is daunting. Buying a house means taking on imagined future issues with that house. When you’re very intelligent and organized wife is traveling, this is a bad time to receive 150 pages of inspection documents and to have to mutually decide what kind of an offer to make. I have friends who are helpful in times of stress, who are good listeners. There are very good reasons that people in their 60s and 70s choose to downsize and move into condominiums and easily maintained living spaces.

I’ve learned quite a bit. I’m sure in the future months I will learn much more. I will learn I know even less about houses than I thought I knew.

I’ve also learned how much my four year-old dog becomes unbalanced when his mama is away. He probably fed off my stress as well. Boumie was so scattered he couldn’t even keep enough concentration to chase after his orange rubber ball for more than a few minutes. All bets were off as he began sniffing at grasses and wandering in circles. I kept thinking, “I know how you feel, Boumie. But let’s get this craziness out!”

When I step back from the chaos of this process, I think about when I sat at a front desk of an office building in the Presidio of San Francisco in 2007. The sub-prime mortgage crisis was in full-swing, and I remember having a brief back-and-forth with a lawyer at the company. He was entirely dismissive of the people who signed the documents. In his view, the predatory lenders were not at fault. Not even partially to blame. The idea of personal responsibility trumps all else with some people. They refuse to recognize their own status within our society. The sense of privilege and entitlement enables the rhetoric of “entitlements” toward anything related to how the other-half (or other 99%) live. I remember feeling frustrated by the idea that the blame was easily laid, or simple enough to boil down to one group or another.

Our country’s housing crisis was as complicated, and as easily camouflaged, as the stock market. There were predatory lenders. There were delusional home-owners, taking out insane loans on houses they couldn’t afford. There were manipulators and there were the easily manipulated. In other words, it was a fucking mess. Blaming the people with the wild dreams of a better life was all too easy. Blaming the bankers and the financial institutions for their practices when the lack of regulation and oversight was so obvious. The truth was, and is, somewhere in the murky middle.

So today I find myself in a position of privilege. In a position to consider buying a home in an impossibly difficult market for home buyers. The tech-crazed Bay Area. Mike Judge’s new HBO satire Silicon Valley offers a glimpse into the insanity that is today’s atmosphere of new wealth, the start-up Wild West of Northern California. It’s still a beautiful, mostly progressive place to live. It’s just more complicated than it used to be.

Buying a home feels like a union of practical reality and imagined possibility. Half real, half reality show. Staged homes with beautiful views that hide very real structural issues. You see what you want to see. And if you don’t read the fine print, nobody else will.

—Find Jonah Hall at www.darkoindex.com and on Twitter: @darkoindex


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