A Newsweek correspondent wonders so many people are dissatisfied with their homes
House Lust: America’s Obsession With Our Homes. By Daniel McGinn. Doubleday, 272 pp., $24.95.
By Janice Harayda
In California a licensed marriage and family therapist specializes in treating “renovation anxiety and distress,” the trauma of giving a house a face-lift. On the evidence of the lively House Lust, it will take more than counseling – or the Great Recession – to cure Americans of their tendency to covet better homes.
Why do so many people lust after mud rooms, brushed-nickel toilet-paper holders, or countertops made from Giallo Ornamental Granite, imported from Brazil? The forebears of today’s house-hunters may have wanted simply to keep up with the Joneses and their carport or Danish modern sofa.
But Newsweek correspondent Daniel McGinn argues that the psychology of homeownership has become more complex. Drawing on the theories of Cornell economist Robert Frank and others, he suggests that residential upgrades often involve what he calls the “I’ve earned it” hypothesis: Some people have less desire to impress their neighbors than to impress themselves (or, as McGinn writes diplomatically, to “comfort” or “treat” themselves). Americans are more likely than their grandparents to spend fortunes on spaces few others may ever see:
“Today a top-of-the-line master bath might include a multiple-head steam shower, a $5,000 remote-controlled toilet and a jetted [tub] with nearly as much horsepower as a riding lawnmower,” McGinn writes in House Lust. “Few people in our lives will ever catch a glimpse of these improvements, but we still covet them. Why? Because we’ve earned it.”
An entire book about theories like these might have been as dry as plaster dust. But McGinn enlivens his arguments with colorful and at times witty reporting on an array of related fads: timesharing, “staycations,” television shows like Flip This House, “Do-It-Herself” workshops for women at Home Depot, and the Web site Zilllow that lets you look up the value of homes owned by friends and relatives. McGinn also visits Braden Keil, who writes the “Gimme Shelter” gossip column for the New York Post, and learns that Keil believes that three things make for great real-estate item: a top-drawer celebrity, a record-breaking price paid for a property, or a home with an interesting history, such an apartment where a spectacular murder occurred. “In this worldview,” McGinn writers, “the perfect ‘Gimme Shelter’ item might carry the headline: ‘Britney Spears Drops $200 Mill on Kennedy Compound.”
Best line: No. 1: “In 1950, the average American home measured just 983 square feet. … But over time, the average has crept steadily upward – and by 2005, according to Census data, the average newly-built U.S. home measured 2,434 square feet. … When it comes to American homes, the only thing that’s decreased in recent years is the size of the plot of land on which they’re built and the size of the families who live inside.” No. 2 (quoted in the post that preceded this one): Some new homes are so big that “visitors might require MapQuest to navigate their way from room to room.”
Worst line: “When historians look back on the first years of 21st century American life, the housing boom will be a secondary story, a distant background note to 9/11 and the War on Terror.” Or so it appeared in the pre-crash summer of 2007, when McGinn finished writing House Lust.
Recommendation? The provocative questions and engaging writing style of House Lust might appeal to many book clubs, but the reading group guide on the author’s site is one of the worst I’ve seen. Only three out of its 21 questions mention House Lust. And most are pointless: They in no way enrich your understanding of the book and might have occurred to you whether or not you’d read it. Sample: “If you had a chance to pitch a new show idea to HGTV, what would it be?” How does this help you understand the book? What’s odd is that irrelevant questions like these are usually intended to distract you from the poor quality of a book, but House Lust is good, so they’re self-defeating.
Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s copy. Some material in the finished book may differ.
Published: January 2008
About the author: McGinn is a national correspondent for Newsweek who lives near Boston.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.