Friday, April 25, 2008

Down on the Farm

I spend a lot of time thinking about real estate (among other things, of course: I also spend a lot of time wondering whether it's time to fully embrace misanthropy). Home ownership has long been considered the core of the American dream. We can argue another time about what it means that what we aspire to is wealth and security: wealth seems an awfully pedestrian and uninspiring goal, and security is something that -- in a less horribly flawed world -- we should be able to take for granted. The fact remains that, for many of us, there exists an unreasonable but inescapable sense of inadequacy and insecurity associated with not owning a domicile.

I used to be a homeowner (I never found it particularly burdensome, by the way.), but my ex got the townhouse in the divorce, and I have since rented. B&c owns the house I live in now, and I pay him an especially paltry rent. I also pay for the house cleaners, but even when you toss that in, I pay a small amount to live in a very large house. Financially, this arrangement works out very well for me: I'm able to make significant 401(k) contributions, contribute towards EFU's tuition, afford nice vacations, put a little extra away in savings, and purchase pretty much anything I want. It helps that I don't want things that are terribly expensive (I would get no feeling of luxury from owning an expensive car, but the act of putting an especially nice piece of cookware in my shopping cart made me so happy that I didn't even have to buy it), but there is no reasonable measure by which I am not wealthy. Still, I think I would feel a lot more wealthy if I earned 10% less but owned a home.

The housing bubble is a big part of why I'm thinking about all this. Maybe two years ago, I did a local real estate search to see whether there was anything in my price range. Ever since then, I have gotten daily results for all new listings within my search parameters. My parameters were fairly conservative. In past decades, home buyers could reasonably expect to find a decent home for between 2.5 and 3 times their annual incomes. Of late, the multiple has been closer to 4, which I deem ridiculous and untenable. The multiplier is somewhat influenced by interest rates, and a better way to look at affordability is to look at monthly home-related as a percentage of monthly income, but any way you look at it, homes have become much less affordable in recent years. There's a good and interesting discussion of this phenomenon in one market here.

Over the last year, what's available within my search criteria has gotten better and better, going from 2br/1ba condos farther out to 3br/2ba condos or even townhouses and single family homes significantly farther in. I'm highly unlikely to purchase any of these places, but knowing that I could makes me feel better and more secure.

A big part of the reason I'm unlikely to purchase any of these places is b&c, of course. (Lately, though, he's been traveling so much that I'm not sure he'd really notice if I were living in a separate house. That's not a complaint: it's merely an acknowledgment of the situation, and it seems to be a situation that suits both of us.) But beyond that, while I would really like to own a home, I don't so much want to own a home in the suburbs. What I want more than a house is land.

Home ownership and land ownership are, of course, related phenomena, but while McMansions sitting on half-acre or one-third-acre lots fill me with bile, small houses (with ample kitchens) on large tracts of land are the things that keep me hitting the snooze button, so that maybe I can get back to that dream for another nine minutes.

There is, clearly, a security factor in owning land. Especially now, with climbing grain prices and food shortages, the belief that you could, if you had to, hunker down on your piece of land and raise your own crops and gather eggs from your chickens and milk from your goats is a balm. I'm not one for believing that we live in the end times or that societal collapse is inevitable, but the current situation is not good (Except, apparently, in Kansas, where increasing grain and oil prices are creating a whole class of nouveau riche farmers. Explain to me again why we had to spend so much money on the farm bill.), and the potential certainly exists for things to get a lot worse.

But there's a lot more to it than security. I concede that it's a marvelous thing to look to the heavens and ponder the infinite, but my spirituality is much more grounded and corporeal. I feel the most connected to the divine when my hands are in the soil. (Or my body is on some guy. Sex is as sure a path to the holy, and it's often a lot more fun, but with soil you get fresh tomatoes, so it's kind of a toss up. And why not have both?) The feeling I get from working the earth or sitting under a tree is something that I can tell you is holy to me, but it's ineffable, and I won't try to describe it.

I might have a shot at the land thing. My parents' summer place is about an acre with a smallish (though not truly small) house on a mountain in Southwestern Pennsylvania. It's a little farther (2.5 hours) from where I live than I'd like, and the altitude makes the growing season a little shorter than I'd like, but global warming and some gardening ingenuity can likely ameliorate that problem. I expect that within a year or two, my folks will decide to stay in Florida throughout the year, and I've told my father that I might be interested in buying it. (My mother cannot fathom why I'd be interested, but she is pretty much a McMansion kind of person.) It's a beautiful spot, and it would be a great place to retire to. I could walk in the mountains, cultivate my gardens, and alternately indulge my social and hermitic tendencies.

In any case, thinking about it gives me a sense of peace that's very much like post-coital contentment, so I'll likely continue to put money by against the day when it's time to buy that property or one like it.

1 comment:

Lewis said...

I must admit, that I'm not all about home ownership. I'd rather be renting. Easier, cheaper, simpler times. I'm all about not having a huge mortgage and yardwork. god, i hate yardwork.