Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House

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Overview

In this laugh-out-loud personal journey, acclaimed author Meghan Daum explores the perils and pleasures of believing that only a house can make you whole. From her teenage apartment fantasies and her mother’s decorating manias to her own “hidden room” dreams and the bungalow she eventually buys on her own, Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House is the true story of one woman’s quest for the four perfect walls to call home.

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Overview

In this laugh-out-loud personal journey, acclaimed author Meghan Daum explores the perils and pleasures of believing that only a house can make you whole. From her teenage apartment fantasies and her mother’s decorating manias to her own “hidden room” dreams and the bungalow she eventually buys on her own, Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House is the true story of one woman’s quest for the four perfect walls to call home.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Meghan Daum's website describes her as "equal parts reporter, storyteller, and satirist." All three talents beam brightly in this memoir about her lifelong quest to find and furnish the perfect house. Her search for the ideal living place takes her deep into Craigslist and far afield on open houses, but instinctively, she knows that the it will always remain ongoing: "I love this house, a 100-year-old bungalow on a small farm in southeastern Nebraska, the future houses are what I see when I close my eyes. They are fantasies that consume me, dwelling so real that I can actually spend hours solving hypothetical problems—What if the house couldn't sustain additional phone lines? What if the bed can't fit through the door?" Fortunately, we can rest comfortably reading this delightful house-hunt.

Publishers Weekly
By turns disarming and tedious, Daum's (The Quality of Life Report) cautionary tale about “house lust” tracks her dizzying succession of moves from New York City to Lincoln, Neb., to Los Angeles. Place becomes inextricably linked with being, and fashioning an impressive shelter creates a whole life, from choosing college at Vassar because it could ultimately secure her “a shabby yet elegant prewar apartment in Manhattan” to a self-empowering, self-confessed hare-brained relocation at age 29—single, and now an established journalist and author—to the plains of Nebraska to achieve the perpetually elusive “domestic integrity.” Desiring to be that person who “deserved” to have the perfect living situation, Daum is seized by full-blown real-estate addiction, despite her inability to afford anything like her dream place, and she eventually migrates from the modest charms of a Lincoln farmhouse to the “parched crevices” of L.A., where she aims to write a screenplay. Here the locus of her memoir fixes on the purchase of a dilapidated bungalow in Echo Park in 2004: becoming a homeowner translates into being an “evolved human.” Alas, the outcome is sadly predictable, even the finding-the-man-to-fill-the-house with, but Daum's treading in the wake of the burst housing bubble is sweet and timely. (May)
Dominique Browning
Anyone over the age of 30 who lived, worked or breathed in any proximity to the real estate market in the last decade will immediately recognize the signs of house lust…I spent years as the editor of House & Garden, and I don't think I ever encountered a case like Meghan Daum's. Cue up Nina Simone. Daum's got it bad, and that ain't good—for her. Readers of Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House, though, are in for a memoir that adroitly manages to be funny, charming and shocking in its brutal frankness about an obsession that threatens to upend sanity and bank accounts.
—The New York Times
From the Publisher

“Funny, charming and shocking. . . . [Chronicles] an obsession that threatens to upend sanity and bank accounts. . . . Daum has a rare gift in her ability to keep readers laughing through her own tears. . . . Her spirit is generous, her writing is buoyant, and her heart is open to all the ways in which a house holds the key to happiness. Perfection has nothing to do with it.”
The New York Times Book Review

“Wonderful. . . . Like having a long, glorious, no-holds-barred conversation with your smartest, funniest friend about all the juicy topics: real estate, class envy, bad dates, family identity, and the discrepancies between the lives we aspire to and the lives we lead. I’m awed by Daum’s honesty and talent.”
—Curtis Sittenfeld

“A delightful dissection of the real estate obsession that’s a hallmark of our age, recession or no.”
O, The Oprah Magazine
 
“Self-deprecatingly funny. . . . Daum uses her lifelong obsession with finding the ideal living space to probe domestic desire, a deeper restlessness than the search for quick profits.”
The Wall Street Journal

“Honest and endearing . . . richly drawn. . . . Daum captures the now-gone moment when real estate became a national obsession, chronicling the shared madness of those who could only take breaks from watching HGTV to discuss closing costs. . . . As she moves from coast to coast and in between, Daum is consistently relatable.”
Los Angeles Times Book Review
 
“Suffused with humor and desire. . . . Alternately whimsical, philosophical and psychologically probing. . . . [An] enchanting, compelling memoir on the impossibility of resisting an irresistible object of desire.”
The Miami Herald
 
“Daum tackles real estate—or, more pointedly, the fixation, anxiety and magical thinking that often accompany it—with wit and a gift for self-parody. . . . Her prose has smarts, style and personality, but never turns pretentious. . . . It’s a pleasure to read this author as she revisits comic misadventures and wrangles with a hot-button topic.”
Time Out New York
 
“Vividly described. . . . Daum exposes the modern real-estate-mad female underground, where open houses (visited in rabid two-women teams) are a seasonal blood sport, Zillow is a verb, and where remodeling a collapsing farmhouse into a writer’s retreat could instantly, we imagine, transform us into the George Plimpton of the prairie.”
The Atlantic Monthly
 
“Entertaining. . . . Like a romantic comedy in which Daum always seems to rent Mr. Wrong. . . . Don’t be surprised if you race through Life Would Be Perfect in a single night.”
Richmond Times-Dispatch
 
“Daum is the essential Generation X-er. . . . She radiates the eternal youthfulness and the fear of commitment that define her cohort. . . . Life Would Be Perfect is the memoir of how the wandering Ms. Daum finally put down some roots. . . . A great book.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer
 
“Timely. . . . Daum [is] a fine writer—candid, reflective, stylish, fun and a bit prickly. Throughout the book, she offers an unflinching portrayal of her anxieties and her aspirations. . . . When she finally realizes that a house is not what will make her whole, you can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief.”
—Associated Press
 
“In this funny, horrifying (she came this close to buying a place near a roaring interstate because she was smitten with a landing), achingly honest memoir, Daum explores the way we wrap our identities in our surroundings, at one point wondering, ‘Did the house look sexy on me?’ Home truths, indeed.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307270665
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/4/2010
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Meghan Daum is the author of the essay collection My Misspent Youth and the novel The Quality of Life Report, a New York Times Notable Book. Her column on political, cultural, and social affairs appears weekly in the Los Angeles Times and is distributed nationally through the McClatchy news service. She has contributed to public radio’s Morning Edition, Marketplace, and This American Life, and has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, GQ, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and The New York Times Book Review. She lives in Los Angeles.

Visit the author's official website: www.meghandaum.com

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Read an Excerpt

Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House


By Meghan Daum

Knopf

Copyright © 2010 Meghan Daum
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780307270665

PROLOGUE

Yesterday, a piece of my house came off in my hands. I don’t mean that metaphorically. I banged the garbage can against an outside wall, and a piece of stucco about the size of a sheet of paper came ever so slightly loose. When I touched it, it fell gently into my palm. It was as if the house were giving me a lock of its hair, or perhaps coughing up phlegm. I was concerned, but it also happened that I was really busy that day. I just couldn’t get into it with the stucco, not right then anyway. Also, I was coming up on my five-year anniversary of owning the house, and if there’s anything I’ve learned in five years, it’s this: if a piece of your house falls off and you don’t know what to do with it, throwing it in the trash and forgetting about it is a perfectly viable option. And it so happened that the trash can was right there. Once upon a time I would have made a beeline to the yellow pages to look up “stucco replacement,” but I’ve come a long way since then.

So has the house. I bought it in 2004, and as I write this, it’s supposedly worth $100,000 less than what I paid for it. By the time you read this, it will probably be worth even less than that. I try not to care because if I cared too much, or even thought about it too much, I’d go insane. I’ve spent enough time here being insane, believe me. I was insane when I bought the place, and I went even more insane afterward. Then again, the whole world was high a few years ago. The whole world, or at least the whole country, was buying real estate and melting it down to liquid form and then injecting it into veins. For my part, it’s tempting to say I succumbed to peer pressure, but it was really much more complicated than that. There is no object of desire quite like a house. Few things in this world are capable of eliciting such urgent, even painful, yearning. Few sentiments are at once as honest and as absurd as the one that moves us to declare: “Life would be perfect if I lived in that house.”

I’m writing this book in homage to that sentiment, which is to say I’m telling the story of a very imperfect life lived among very imperfect houses.

A large part of that story, of course, involves the house that is now falling apart in my hands, the gist of which is basically this: In 2004, I was among the nearly six million Americans who purchased real estate. Like roughly a quarter of them, I was a single woman (single men don’t buy houses nearly as often), and I was making the leap for the first time. Again, this was a time when the real estate market had reached a frenzy that surpassed even the tech boom of the mid-1990s. It was scarcely possible back then to attend a party or even get your teeth cleaned without falling into a conversation about real estate: its significance, its desirability, its increasing aura of unattainability. My dental hygienist, for example, had robust opinions about reverse mortgages.

Like many of my friends and neighbors, I attended so many open houses and made such a complete study of the Multiple Listing Service that the homes on the market seemed like human beings. We discussed the quirks and prices of these properties as though we were gossiping about our neighbors. At the risk of making a perverse and offensive comparison, I truly don’t think I’d observed so much absorption with one topic since the attacks of September 11, 2001. As in those chilling days, we could literally speak of nothing else. People who had never put a thought toward home ownership were being seduced by record-low interest rates and “creative” financing plans. People who’d happily owned their homes for years were doubling and tripling their equity and suddenly realizing they could cash out or trade up. If the jolt of the fall of 2001 had rocked our sense of safety to the nub, the real estate craze that followed a few years later gave us a reason to wager that the very notion of security, at least the kind made of four walls and a roof, was something that could be purchased, often without good credit or a down payment.

As caught up in all this static as I was, none of these factors had much to do with the reason I depleted most of my savings to buy a nine-hundred-square-foot bungalow for more than four times the money my parents had paid for the two-story, four-bedroom house I grew up in. At the time, I might have said otherwise. I probably insisted (I say “probably” since, as with all major life decisions, the relevant details tend to get lost in the mix; I do, however, remember the outfit I was wearing—a tank top with a strange and rather awful floralpatterned skirt—when I signed the escrow papers) that I was making an investment, that I was “putting my money in the safest place,” that I was tired of dealing with landlords. All of that was true, but it was only years later that I could see there was something else going on entirely. I bought the house because I was thirty-four years old, had been self-employed most of my adult life, had never been married, was childless, had no boyfriend nor any appealing prospects in that department, and was hungry to the point of weakness for something that would root me to the earth.

Of course, that’s as good a list as any of reasons not to buy a house. Freelance writers haven’t historically been the best risks for mortgage lenders, and the absence of a romantic life, be it by choice, circumstance, or a narcissistic refusal to participate in Internet dating (which I suppose counted as a choice), doesn’t on the surface seem relevant to the acquisition of property. But most people have a hard time separating the self from the home, and I was no exception. More than just shelter for ourselves and for our loved ones, more than just “the biggest purchase you’ll ever make,” a house is a repository for every piece of baggage we’ve ever carried. Our homes protect us from the outside world, show off our taste, and accommodate our stuff. Perhaps above all, they prove to ourselves and to the world that we’ve really and truly moved out of our childhood bedrooms.

But what do we do when a house makes life impossible? What if it threatens to destroy us? What do we do when the market tanks, the hillside collapses, the sub-prime mortgage comes home to roost, or we’re just too tired to keep working the extra jobs and overtime now required to afford what used to be a staple of middle-class life? Do we stick it out? Do we cash out? Do we return to the life of a renter, with its aura of tapestry-covered, grad-student-style impermanence? Does selling your house mean losing your independence or gaining it? Does giving it up mean giving up on yourself?

Mercifully, I’m not losing my house to the bank. I have an old-fashioned thirty-year mortgage, and I make my payment every month. And despite the stucco incident, the property has hardly fallen into disrepair. It’s true that at times home ownership has felt like a bigger burden than I imagined even in my most nail-biting pre-purchase moments. It’s true that the money I’ve spent on plumbers and electricians and roofers and tree trimmers might ultimately have been put to better use on Hawaiian vacations while I remained an innocent renter. But the truth is that it wouldn’t have really mattered. The cash would have slipped through my fingers anyway. Over the years, I’ve put preposterous amounts of energy and money into the places I’ve lived, even rentals. I’ve also put preposterous amounts into moving, storage, lost security deposits, and gas money for drives halfway across the country and back as I tried to figure out exactly where and how I wanted to live and whether my fitful bursts of house lust would ever translate into something approximating “settling down.”

But this book is not just the story of the house I bought. It’s also not just the story of other houses I tried to buy or of the disorienting yet sometimes hilarious effects of having a mother who seemed to rearrange the furniture more often than she
changed her clothes. And while I could easily embark on a blow-by-blow of repairs and improvements and zombielike trips to Home Depot, while I could rehash every detail of faulty wiring or of ornery workmen or rats that feasted on the orange tree in the backyard, I’m going to try to keep a lid on that particular pot. That’s the standard stuff of home-buying stories, and having now devoured more home repair manuals and sybaritic shelter magazines than the sum total of my college reading, I’ve come to think it’s about as interesting as people recounting their dreams over the breakfast table.

Instead, this is the story of what happens when, for whatever reason, your identity becomes almost totally wrapped up not in who you are or how you live but in where you live. It’s than committing to a partner or doing my job or even the ostensibly obvious fact that the sun would rise and set regardless of whether my name was on a mortgage. And though I can’t presume to be able to shed new light on what, in precredit-crunch days, possessed vast numbers of Americans to ignore all logic and purchase houses they couldn’t begin to afford, I do think we were all touched by the same strain of crazy. I may make my payments, but I suspect there isn’t a terribly wide gulf between people whose houses have been repossessed and people who, like me, simply seem possessed by whatever version of grown-up life we were hoping to play out by playing house. This is the story of my lifelong game of house.


ONE

The first house I ever had fantasies about was a wood-and-glass octagon occupied by an imaginary person whose name I’d decided was Malcolm Apricot Dingo. The way I remember it, the house (which was real) looked more like a giant lemonade pitcher than a place where people might actually live. It sat on a weedy plot of land on a winding street, a tall, barrel-like structure that at certain times of day and given a certain arrangement of the window shades provided a view all the way through to the backyard. I was six years old, and this was a source of unending delight; the house made me feel as if I had X-ray vision, as if I were bionic.

Twice a day, my mother drove me past this house on our twenty-minute drive to and from my school. The commute had been made necessary by our recent move to a new neighborhood and my mother’s last-minute decision, amid my begging and tears, to allow me to attend first grade at the same school where I’d attended kindergarten. The summer before, my parents had bought their first house, a yellow brick bungalow in a state of nearly unfathomable decay, and for all of my mother’s enthusiasm about the new neighborhood she hadn’t taken the final step of forcing me to attend school in the proper district. In retrospect, this deferment of the inevitable seems by turns tender and useless. I’d transfer to my zone-appropriate school the following year. The year after that, we’d pack our belongings in a rented Ryder truck and move seventeen hundred miles to yet another town and another school, where I’d stay for three years before another local move necessitated another clumsy navigation through a brine of strangers.

But in the year of the octagonal house, in those ten months when I passed it twice daily, each time announcing to my mother (I have an explicit memory of this, though she only vaguely recalls it) that Malcolm Apricot Dingo was watching us from behind the glass of what I was sure was his second-floor study, that having glanced up momentarily from his very important work he was waving to us, and that it was only polite that we wave back, I knew nothing of the gut-rattling chaos of being the new kid in school. I knew nothing of eating lunch alone while gamely pretending to read a book, of the indelibly bad impression that can be made from wearing the wrong clothes on the first day of school, of trying to forge friendships with people who’ve had the same best friend since before even the last time you were the new kid.

I also had little territorial frame of reference other than the lush, heat-stroked hill country of Austin, Texas, where we’d moved when I was three and where we’d stay until I was nearly nine. Though I was born in Palo Alto, California, and had trace memories of suburban Chicago, where my family had done a six-month stint when I was a toddler, the bulk of my early childhood was pure Texan. I had a drawl; I said “y’all” and “ahs cream” and assumed that everyone else in the world did, too. I also assumed that every summer day everywhere topped out at 108 degrees and that all cockroaches were the size of turtles and that armadillos were a common form of roadkill. My brother, who was four years younger than I, had been born in Austin in 1974, making him a native Texan. The retired couple who lived next door and whose college-aged children I worshipped were like surrogate grandparents. The city was also home to my friends, my babysitters, my school, my cat—in other words, everything that mattered. I was blond and perpetually tanned and pocked with bites from Texas mosquitoes.

I also happened to have an almost alarming fixation on Little House on the Prairie (first the TV show and, as soon as I could read, the books). I wore a sunbonnet passed down from my maternal great-grandmother, kept my hair in braids like Laura Ingalls, and occasionally called my parents Ma and Pa. When the bonnet wore down to a rag, my mother got out her sewing machine, which she often used to make our clothes, and whipped up a new one. At my request, she also helped me put my mattress on top of two box springs and leaned a stepladder against it, thereby mimicking the loft-bed setup of the Ingalls girls. In the yellow brick bungalow, where my mother built an elevated wooden play structure among the pecan trees in the backyard, I wore my bonnet along with an odd, scratchy calico skirt (a garment that could only have existed in the mid-1970s) and reenacted all manner of scenes from the books and TV episodes: the barn burning down, the dog getting lost, the whole family nearly dying from scarlet fever.

One day, my mother came to me and said that we would be moving away to New Jersey. I remember sobbing in her arms but also taking comfort in her promise that there would be snow in the new place. Since there was snow in the Little House on the Prairie books, I figured we were moving closer to the frontier. When she told me there’d be a real wood-burning fireplace in the new house, I imagined us using it for cooking corn bread.

Ridgewood, New Jersey, was no frontier, just a leafy village of perfectly clipped lawns abutting perfectly maintained houses. Mothers there did not sew clothes, much less build backyard play structures. In fact, they appeared not to do much of anything except play tennis, a discovery that seemed to turn my mother, who’d spent her Austin days attending Equal Rights Amendment rallies in peasant skirts, into an unhappy person almost overnight. Ironically, it was she who’d spearheaded the plan to move to Ridgewood. When my father, who’d been teaching music at the University of Texas, decided he wanted to live the life not of an academic but, rather, of a freelance composer (for commercial jingles, then hopefully for film and television) in New York, my mother had repeated the thing she’d apparently said shortly before they wed: “This marriage is about your career.” She then sought relocation advice from our neighbors/surrogate grandparents, who, as it happened, had lived much of their lives in Ridgewood, New ?Jersey.

“It’s a little pricier,” they’d said. “But it’s the best.”

“I like it here,” I said.

“Of course you do,” my mother told me. “But if we stayed here, we wouldn’t get to live in a new house!”

Continues...

Excerpted from Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House by Meghan Daum Copyright © 2010 by Meghan Daum. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Interviews & Essays

Q+A with Meghan Daum, author of LIFE WOULD BE PERFECT IF I LIVED IN THAT HOUSE

Q: In LIFE WOULD BE PERFECT IF I LIVED IN THAT HOUSE, you detail your lifelong obsession with real estate and your quest for a place to call home. What does "home" mean to you? How has that meaning evolved over the years?
A: Asking what "home" means is like asking what "love" means. And, as I say in the book I have a pet peeve about people referring to houses as homes, especially if they're talking in terms of real estate or about properties as physical, purchasable entities. "I just bought a new home," someone will say. Really? What does that mean? You bought a feeling, a mélange of smells, a history? No, you bought a house! In my mind, you buy a house but you make a home.

So I guess for me the best way to talk about "home" is to talk about the elements of your surroundings that you make-your friends, your choices, your plans, and, yes, decisions about cities and neighborhoods and floors and furniture and window treatments. In terms of how this has evolved for me over the years, I think it correlated pretty closely with my sense of myself as an adult versus a non-adult. Like most children (most lucky children anyway) my earliest definition of home was, of course, the place where my parents were and my room was and where I ate dinner most nights. Later, when I left for college, I entered a pretty aimless period where I was obsessed with "having my own place" but wasn't quite at a stage where that could happen in any kind of authentic way (a fancy way of saying I moved dorm rooms constantly and eventually rigged things up so I was basically living in New York City and going to college (in upstate New York) at the same time; I thought I was super cool and artsy and "having it all." In fact, I was a bit of a caricature of the brooding co-ed with bohemian ambitions and suburban roots, plus I was squandering my education, but that's another matter. In my 20s, I genuinely did live full-time in New York City, where, like many people, I soaked up the various ecstasies and discontents of the place so fully that it almost becomes part of your blood type. In my 30s, I'm embarrassed to say, I was extremely attached to certain pieces of antique furniture that I dragged from place to place and to certain interior decorating concepts that I tried to implement wherever I went. But I did live in some fantastic, beautiful places in my 30s. I lived on the Nebraska prairie and in the Santa Monica Mountains. I lived near the beach, near the Hollywood sign, and near a truck stop. And several beaux-arts lamps came with me every step of the way-not to mention my 85-pound sheepdog.

Over a six-month period from late last year to early this year, I got married, lost my mother, turned 40, and decided to sell the house I bought (to great personal fanfare) six years ago. As a result I'm thinking a lot about ways to redefine "home." I'd like to reach a point where "home" will simply be the place that my husband and I (and the dog, of course) happen to be at any given time. I'd like to become evolved enough where the thought of living without hardwood floors doesn't make me want to jump out of my skin. But that might represent an unattainable level of enlightenment.

Q: In your book you say, "I wanted to live on another block, in another part of town, in New York, in Paris, on the moon." Why the constant desire to move around?
A: The open houses my parents took me to as a child probably were a factor. We didn't do sports or play games or relax much on weekends, but my mother was always up for open houses and, moreover, the idea of moving to a new house. I definitely inherited my restlessness from her. I've also found that moving functions as something of a stimulant for me. During the process of moving out of an old place and getting settled in a new place I find I become more energetic, more excited about my surroundings and more motivated about my life trajectory. And being in a new place just naturally makes you more observant. It's like I can feel a set of antennas rising from my skull as I pull into a new town or neighborhood. And that's a rush; I can't deny it.

This book is dedicated to my mother, who died shortly after I finished it and who is without a doubt the biggest influence in my life in terms of houses. We weren't exactly close in a conventional motherdaughter way, but we had a very deep bond when it came to our love of real estate. The first chapter, which talks about the houses of my early life, is very much about the way she channeled so much of her creativity and ambitions and even frustrations through the houses we lived in. She had a remarkable ability to create a beautiful interior world on little or no money (this is something I aspire to but haven't yet mastered.) When my mother finally emancipated herself from a particularly unworkable set of family dynamics (which is a fancy way of saying "when she left my father") she did so not by divorcing him or cutting off much contact but by simply renting her own house. And then there was a house after that and a house after that and a Manhattan apartment after that. And they were all pretty magnificent.

Q: After several years in New York, you moved to Lincoln, Nebraska. What attracted you to such a different place? How much of a factor was the high price of real estate in New York in your decision to relocate?
A: The reason I give most often for moving to Nebraska is, yes, the less expensive cost of living (it's the most easily explained.) I rented a large apartment with beautiful woodwork in Lincoln for about a sixth of what it would have cost me in Manhattan. I was in a lot of debt from student loans and various other things, so I framed my decision around my financial picture. But that belied a deeper, less tangible and infinitely more pressing reason that I went to Nebraska, which is that I felt an almost chemical urge to radically change my surroundings. As enamored as I'd been in my teens and 20s of New York City, I always nursed a constant, low-grade crush on the idea of rural life and, specifically, the aesthetics of the prairie. Some of that, I'll admit, came from having watched the Little House on the Prairie series on television and reading the books as a kid. I was consumed with the idea of homesteading, so much so that I made my mother sew me a sunbonnet so I could run around like Laura Ingalls. She also put an extra box spring under my bed and leaned a step ladder against it so I could climb up to it as though it were Laura and her sister's loft bed. Even as I grew older and outgrew Laura Ingalls I remained enthralled with the aura surrounding the high plains. I loved-and still love-the starkness of that geography, the huge sky, the scarcity of the trees, the drama of the weather. But because it's easier to tell yourself and others that you're uprooting your life and moving to the central plains in order to save money rather than to watch a hail storm through the window of a rattling farmhouse, I basically went with that story. Not that the money part isn't true; I desperately needed to get out of debt. But there are ways to do that that don't involve hailstorms, so clearly something else was at work.

Q: When you eventually moved to LA, you had a hard time letting go of life in Nebraska, and nearly bought a farmhouse there as a vacation home. Why do you think you had such a hard time leaving Lincoln for good? Does the allure of a farmhouse still call to you?
A: The farmhouse definitely still calls to me! When I moved to L.A. I missed Nebraska terribly, not just for the obvious reason of missing the friends I'd made there but also for (again this is intangible and a bit tricky to explain) the entire mood of the place. I could describe that mood as "laid back" but that doesn't quite get to it. It's more like I detected in Nebraska a sort of peaceful coexistence with reality. That sounds kind of sophomoric and pretentious, I know, but I guess what I'm saying is that I noticed a greater acceptance there of the messiness and absurdity of life. That acceptance can be difficult to find in places where the financial stakes are higher and people tend to be harder driving in the conventional sense and more invested in achieving some notion of perfection. As a former New Yorker, that kind of mentality was, alas, quite a novelty to me. And after soaking it up for nearly four years I landed in a canyon north of Los Angeles surrounded by a lot of wealthy people who wore their "laid backness" like designer jeans while they were in fact so anxious that their pets were on Xanax (true.) So in the midst of that I found myself craving that stark geography again. And every time I go back to Nebraska, which is at least once a year, I feel just so exhilarated when that plane touches down.

Q: Your current home in Los Angeles is also the first home you've actually purchased. What prompted you to buy it? At times you questioned your decision to do so - now, six years later, do you have any lingering doubts?
A: What prompted me to buy the house was some kind of inexplicable chemical urge. I realize that's the second time I've said "chemical urge" in these answers but, here again, I don't quite know how else to explain it. Definitely I was caught up in the frenzy of the real estate bubble. At that time-2004-everyone was talking about mortgages and interest rates and adjustable rate loans and termite inspections and anything at all related to housing. But I think what was also going on with me was that, for whatever reason, my sense of who I was had become almost pathologically tied to where I was. In other words, I felt like if I didn't own property I didn't own myself. If I didn't have a mortgage I might as well not exist. I was also-thanks partly to my itinerancy and partly to my own personality, which can be rather solitary-in a state of fairly significant aloneness. I was not dating and didn't really want to, at least not until I had a house of my own. I also thought owning a house would literally make me more attractive. This is weird, not to mention pretty counterintuitive (as one man told me, "girls who rent are so much less threatening") but that's the logic I was operating under at the time. On some level I wanted to be threatening. I wanted my house as a shield.

As for lingering doubts, now that I'm getting ready to sell my house I can't believe some of the stuff I apparently didn't care about when I was in escrow to buy it. We're talking broken beams in the foundation, plumbing that, as I've joked (though sadly I don't think it's a joke) dates back to the Coolidge administration, kitchen cabinets that were so shoddy they literally collapsed when we pulled the countertops off. But we're also talking a purchase year of 2004, when people were paying a million dollars for glorified tool sheds, so I try not to be too hard on myself. That said, if you're the person who winds up buying my house and you're somehow reading this: I've fixed these problems. All of them!

Q: After taking the big real-estate plunge, you met, dated, and eventually married your now husband. Do you think there's any sort of karmic connection between the two?
A: I'd like to say yes but I'd probably be lying. I was in that house for two years before I met or even really tried to meet someone (because in my mind it wasn't enough to own a house; it had to be totally fixed up.) And I wasn't even finished when I met my now-husband, since I made him shop for antique kitchen drawer pulls on our first date. I think it was mostly luck-and the fact that he called me for a second date even after I dragged him to an architectural salvage yard.

Q: What have been some of your favorite repairs/renovations at your current home?
A: I painted the living room mint green and the bedroom bright blue. Then after a few months I painted the living room terracotta and the bedroom mint green. I got really inspired by a backdrop in a clothing catalog (Soft Surroundings, which makes flowy, oversized things in Asian prints for women of a certain age) and hired a guy to make my kitchen cabinets look like weathered barn wood. All of these things have been undone and made generic and normal now that I'm getting ready to sell the house, so I'm not sure I'd call these renovations "favorites." It's more that they stick in my mind because of how fundamentally ridiculous and money wasting they were (though they looked nice for a time.)

I guess my most "transcendent" renovation was the one in which I stayed up all night scraping linoleum tile off the bathroom floor with a butter knife. One of the many drawbacks the house had when I bought was ugly blue tile in the bathroom. And one night I spotted, as if glimpsing a tiny ray of light penetrating a dark room, a fragment of the original porcelain hexagonal tile from when the house was built in 1928. This was thrilling beyond description. Porcelain hexagonal tile, you see, has been a running theme in my life. They're what, in some ways, separated a desirable Manhattan apartment from a less desirable one. They're what, even when broken or chipped or downright crumbling, always signified the kind of house or apartment I wanted to be living in-a place with history and integrity, a place that felt solid and real and a little dingy rather than flimsy and pre-fab and totally clean. So that night I started scraping off the linoleum and the next thing I knew it was 3:00 in the morning and my hands were bleeding and my I was covered with tile glue and I had a whole new bathroom floor. That's to say I'd unearthed the old floor. And if I may be hyperbolic (because when it comes to porcelain hexagonal tile the only thing I can be is hyperbolic) discovering this floor was like discovering my house's very soul. Perhaps that was the moment when my house became my home.

Q: From A (Architectural Digest) to Z (Zillow.com) there's a ton of fodder out there for those with an addiction to what you term "house porn." What are some of your favorite television shows, magazines, websites, and stores that scratch your itch? Any secret sources you want to share with the world?
A: Truth is, most of it doesn't excite me that much. I feel like most of the television shows seem to be concerned with how to do unimaginative renovations in a cheap way. I love interior design, but since I tend to get my ideas from places like the Soft Surroundings catalog and televisions shows that aren't directly about real estate (the Fisher family's kitchen on Six Feet Under is still my dream kitchen, even though I think they may not even have had a dishwasher) I tend to me more interested in the buying and selling side of things. The fact that when we talk about buying real estate we're talking about enormous amounts of money-your life savings or huge loans or both-makes it a subject that is incredibly loaded on so many different levels. When I was shopping for my first house, the numbers were so huge as to feel almost unreal. The result was that I'd sit up at night doing endless calculations (and I'm truly terrible at math; in any other circumstance this would not have been an activity I elected to do on my own) trying to figure out how much house I could afford and how much money I'd need to earn in order to afford a better house and what would happen if I took on more than I could afford. In other words, as interested as I was in finding the perfect light fixture, I was often even more interested in thinking about ways in which I might pay for that light fixture (because, you see, going without it was not on option.)

Personally, I tended to do my calculations in a frantic, 3am, listening to late night call-in shows on the radio kind of way. But I think everyone who's ever made a major purchase has his own version of this and no matter how cool a customer you try to be you always feel like you're in over your head. To that end, I do find myself watching "House Hunters", despite not relating to it much because the buyers are never in a competing bid situation and they never dissolve into screaming, crying fights in the car the way real couples do when they're house hunting. I look at the Multiple Listing Service online constantly, even when I'm not actively shopping for a house. I read the Curbed blogs, like Curbed L.A. and Curbed New York. I don't read a lot of the magazines, though Dwell can be interesting and World of Interiors is just gorgeous. However, given my predilections for old, falling-down houses, the concerns of those magazines are often out of my league. Sometimes, just typing something into Google like "how to open a window that's been painted shut" provides me with hours of invaluable information.

Q: What is it about real estate that draws such a following? Why are so many Americans so obsessed with the size, location, and style of their home? Do you think there's a deeper meaning to this fixation?
A: The essence of this book is really an examination of the emotions that inform these obsessions. Yes, it's a book about houses. But it's also about how we see ourselves in the world vis-à-vis our family, our social class, our aspirations, and our fears. The way I've always thought of it, a house is ultimate metaphor. It's more than just shelter for ourselves and for our loved ones, more than just "the biggest purchase you'll ever make." It's like a really expensive, high-maintenance, inanimate version of ourselves. It's a repository for every piece of baggage we've ever carried. Our homes protect us from the outside world, show our off taste, and accommodate our stuff. Perhaps above all, they prove to ourselves and to the world that we've truly moved out of our childhood bedrooms. You don't have to be a real estate junkie, I think, to feel this way.

Q: You've lived in Austin, TX, New Jersey, New York City, Lincoln, NE, and are now based in Los Angeles. Where do you feel most at home? Do you have aspirations of life in another city (or town)?
A: I'm not sure I could tell you where I feel most at home. Part of the reason I wrote this book was because I wanted to explore the concept of home and think about why my identity (and, indeed, many people's identities) has long been so tied up in where I live, and the vagaries of what it looks and feels like-the colors of the walls, the contours of the woodwork, whether the kitchen and bathroom is old or new and whether the doorknobs stay in place or come off in your hand when your turn them (as has been the case in many places I've lived.) I feel relatively at home in Los Angeles, not least of all because I've been here for seven years and I'm a columnist at the L.A. Times and I'm active in a certain subset of L.A. life (i.e. the infinitesimally small set comprised of people who write primarily for the page and not the screen and therefore become crippled with envy when they attend parties at the multi-million dollar houses of people who've written a couple episodes of "The King of Queens", but I digress . . .) Like I said, I feel a visceral connection to Nebraska when I am there. As for New York, I spent much of last fall there and I often found myself forgetting entirely that I no longer lived on the upper west side of Manhattan. But New York tends to have that effect on anyone who lived there for any length of time and, moreover, humans are very adaptable creatures so despite how traumatic change can be I think we adjust-which is to say we arrive at some version of "feeling at home"-faster than we often think we will.

Q: At this point, you're an expert house hunter. If you were to imagine your ideal home, what would it look like?
A: My concept of the ideal house changes on a daily-sometimes hourly-basis. Some days I'll feel modernist while other days I'm solidly in my pre-war, wood-framed, wraparound front porch, built-in pantry and linen closet mode. Of course I'd also like a farmhouse in Nebraska, an apartment in New York or a villa in Tuscany. So I'm flexible, at least in the macro. In the micro, I can be absurdly inflexible. My aversion to wall-to-wall carpet is well-documented (by me, at least.) I also have beefs with certain kinds of tile and countertops, including granite which, for reasons I cannot fathom, is beloved by realtors and continues to be associated with "fine living" (at least the kind hinted at in magazine ads for Soft Scrub, not to mention property descriptions written by said realtors-"crown molding, granite countertops; hurry won't last!") For my part, my dream property would come with a carriage house that could be used as an office and guest quarters. I must admit, just thinking about all those things makes me simultaneously depressed and excited. It's such a base reaction. I'm depressed because I don't have this kind of house but also excited at the thought of having it one day. That's kind of a sad state of affairs, isn't it?

Maybe what it comes down to is the simple conundrum of wanting the thing that isn't available. I see my ideal house all the time; it's just rarely available to me in any way. Again, this is something I inherited from my mother. When I was a kid, there was a particular street whose houses she admired and she wrote letters to the occupants of every house-she literally wrote "Dear Owner"-telling them that if they ever wanted to sell she hoped they'd let her know. It's such a desperate act in some ways but also such a hopeful one. And maybe lusting after real estate essentially boils down to some kind of intersection between desperation and hope-the feeing of being convinced that your life just can't go on if don't find that house but also hopeful that it will happen.

Q: You note that by the time the market was peaking, the only thing anyone in LA could talk about was real estate. How have the massive changes in that market affected cocktail party chatter?
A: It's definitely opened up the discussion topics. The shift away from full tilt real estate mania means that you'll hear an occasional conversation about health care, the environment, the public school system, the television show "Mad Men" . . . whatever. But the topic is still palpably there. Not necessarily out of some hangover effect from the housing bubble but because, let's face it, people have always been obsessed with where they live. The frenzy that we saw a few years ago with low interest rates and inflated property values and hundreds of home and garden shows on cable and anyone with a pulse being able to take a $700,000 mortgage certainly ratcheted things up. But when we talk about "real estate mania"-at least the way I talk about it in the book-we're talking about a psychology that's always been around. We're talking about human nature. I have no doubt that people in ancient Rome or the Middle Ages and or the early native peoples of the Americas were heavily invested in where they lived. There was probably even house envy going on in the Paleolithic era; "life would be perfect if I lived in that cave."

Q: You're planning to sell your house and upgrade to a bigger place. How do you think the time you spent reflecting on your passion for real estate and all its attendant details will affect your next purchase?
A: It's different because I'm conducting the search with another person, so I can't just walk into a place and say "eew, I hate these tiles and wouldn't even consider living here even though the rest of the place is great" or "ooh, this is a dilapidated heap with fire damage and mold but it has the original woodwork so let's make an offer." I mean, I can say these things (I do on a regular basis) but I'm now accountable to someone who will tell me "you're impulsive and insane." I'm accountable to someone who's is less obsessed with the process than I am.

Ultimately I think there's a maturing process with all this, which comes with recognizing that "ideal houses," like ideal romantic partners, don't actually exist. It's all too easy to look for houses the way we look for partners. We want them to fill every need, cover every base, bring out our own best qualities and literally erase the bad qualities. We want to feel about a house the way we felt about our first love; that this is the one and only house for us and we couldn't possibly be happy anywhere else. But as we get older we realize that there are lots of "ones" and, moreover, you can't have everything so you have to decide what's most important to you and focus on finding that. There's a passage in the book where I talk about a dream I had in my 20s in which the "perfect" house was available for a ridiculously low rent. The house was both a craftsman and a Japanese pagoda. It was in the middle of the city but it was in a huge park so it was also effectively in the country. Clearly, it was a manifestation of my unwillingness to compromise or choose, of my desire to live every place at once. So I think when you can get to that place where you say, "this is my house; it's not everything I might but I'm as happy here as I'd be anywhere" then you're in a mature relationship. In other words, you're home.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Meghan Daum details her lifelong obsession with real estate and her quest for a place to call home. What does “home” mean to you? How has that meaning evolved over the years? Do you agree with Daum’s assertion that “a house is not the same as a home . . . You do not shop for a ‘home’ any more than you’d shop for a life” (pages 12–13)?

2. Daum writes, “I wanted to live on another block, in another part of town, in New York, in Paris, on the moon” (page 224). Why does Daum constantly desire to move around? How does Daum’s concept of a dream home change as she moves from New York City to Lincoln, Nebraska, and on to Los Angeles?

3. After taking the big real-estate plunge, Meghan Daum met, dated, and eventually married her now husband. Do you think there’s any sort of connection or similarity between finding a house and finding love?

4. What is it about real estate that draws such a following? Why are so many Americans so obsessed with the size, location, and style of their home? Do you think there’s a deeper meaning to this fixation?

5. Meghan Daum writes about the trappings of class and her mother’s transformation from a childhood in a nondescript house with no art on the walls and no books on the shelves to a Tudor-style, House & Garden–worthy duplex with Sondheim music streaming through the Bose stereo. How does class manifest itself in Daum’s real estate aspirations?

6. What draws you in to Daum’s search for a house? Do any of the details about her search resonate with your own experiences?

7. Daum dreams of New York city penthouses, sun-drenched “classic sixes,” and cavernous brownstones. How are dream homes defined in your community? What is your dream home?

8. How does this memoir change the way you think about house-hunting?

9. How do you think Meghan Daum was changed by the experience of writing about her search for a home?

10. Do you think the surge in decorating shows (like those on HGTV), magazines, and blogs is a sign of a larger cultural movement? Do you think the real estate market crash will have any impact on the drive to own bigger, grander homes?

(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit: www.readinggroupcenter.com.)

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Sort by: Showing all of 13 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 21, 2011

    I live vicariously through this author.

    I read about this book on a home design blog. I ordered it because it seemed that the author and I were exactly alike. She really did think that the secret to a good life could be found in a perfect house. Unlike me, though, instead of just browsing the listings (DAILY), she actually rented, then moved somewhere else; rented again, then again, then bought something, then sold it, then bought something else. It was almost exhausting to read of her shennanigans, but I'm sure reading it was much easier than living it. Once again I am reminded that you bloom where you are planted. The next time I covet someone else's house, I will remind myself to buy some paint and tape a design on the wall and be grateful for what I have. Home is what you make it, wherever you find it, and the people in it are really all that counts. Good read, though.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 29, 2012

    Witty read. Reminds me of my own thought processes when it comes

    Witty read. Reminds me of my own thought processes when it comes to houses & decorating & a final realization of how frivolous material things are.

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