Friday, July 25, 2008

House-hunting season

I'm exhausted from a week of fun, frolicking, and not sleeping in my own bed (yes, this could be a rather risque list, but I'm a mom, so you know what it really means--borderline insomnia, tossing, turning, etc.). Instead of a witty and insightful post, here, instead, is a gratuitous photo of a Lake Tahoe beach where we whiled away a few hours and also another few paragraphs from my thesis project. This is the opening section of Chapter One: A Piece of the Rock:

When we headed out in the evenings after work or first thing on weekend mornings that spring, we assumed classic drive-by positions: Alex behind the wheel and I riding shotgun, in charge of holding coffee cups and half-eaten jelly donuts. With the Thomas Guide open on my lap, I navigated us through the more affordable sections of Portland and kept my eyes peeled for “For sale” signs dangling from hangman-style posts. At promising houses, we pulled over and I jumped out to grab flyers from their flimsy plastic holders. On each I wrote the date and quick notes—“busy st.” “cute!” “backs up to parking lot”—then organized them in an expanding folder so we could pore over them at home like trading cards.

We knew exactly what we wanted—a pre–World War II house with at least two bedrooms, hardwood floors, original fixtures—but what we didn’t know, what we never asked each other, was why. Neither of us had lived in an early-1900 house, though we somehow had a shared longing for one. Alex grew up in a ranch house in a suburb of Denver. I grew up in a series of rentals—none of them architecturally distinctive—in Hawaii. And the house we’d owned together in Eugene—the first for both of us—was a simple ranch with wood floors and a yard that went on and on.

Where did this love of nine-foot ceilings and crown moldings came from? This need for period light fixtures and glass doorknobs, honey-colored wood floors and leaded glass windows? We wanted all of this on decent-sized lot on a quiet, treed street in a good neighborhood near parks and shops and restaurants, all for well under $200,000. And a fireplace and porch would be swell. Our realtor, Brad, stifled a yawn when we gave him the list. We were, after all, describing 90 percent of the housing stock on Portland’s inner eastside, which was steadily and efficiently developed, borough by borough, over the late 1800s and early 1900s. Bungalows and Craftsman houses line up, one after another on every street on the grid, with handfuls of Colonials, Tudors, and Victorians thrown in for good measure. Brad tried to talk us into looking at a “tricked out” ranch he’d seen up in Cully, complete with finished basement, hot tub and a wet bar, but our minds were made up. We should have felt more at home in such a house, but instead, we spent weeks looking for those telltale period details that comprised what we imagined as the perfect house.

Seattle architect Grant Hildebrand says that Americans are innately attracted to these homes built before World War II when development was small scale and craftsmanship was inexpensive. What this means is that though many of these houses look alike and have many of the same characteristics, they were, for the most part, designed and built individually, unlike the rapid-rise of suburban homes, described by singer Malvina Reynolds: “Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky, little boxes on the hillside, little boxes all the same.” Reynolds’s song critiques not only the architecture of these houses, but also the lives of the people who choose to live them, as homogenous and uninspired.

The early 1900s American bungalow has come to represent a strange combination of individuality and mass-market appeal. Diane Maddex, author of Bungalow Nation, says that bungalows allowed middle class Americans to have “an affordable paradise of their own,” and between the early 1900s and 1930s, bungalows became the most popular house style in America, exceeding the number of other types of cottages built in 125 years. She explains that the form was a kind of rejection of and response to Victorians, which were seen as ostentatious. Bungalows, on the other hand, were simple, artistic, and democratic—altogether more reflective of middle class values. She writes, “The lowly bungalow in fact became America’s first national house type. Inexpensive, simple to build, modern, and sited on a private plot of land, it was architecture for a democracy as envisioned by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1910: ‘America, more than any other nation, presents a new architectural proposition, her ideal is democracy.’”

The suburban ranch house developments that followed at mid-century were created in a similar spirit of democracy but more so in appreciating the needs of the American family to be away from the “ills” of the city in a home that came complete with a two-car garage and fenced back yard. But the bungalow and its craftsmanship, no matter how simple and inexpensive, still evokes a deeper and more respectable history to middle-class Portlanders, who, compared to their counterparts in other urban areas across the country, are more inclined to buy old houses within miles of downtown.

Knowing Portland had entered the new millennium at the peak of a booming sellers’ market, where the best of these period houses were selling within days at tens of thousands of dollars above listing prices, I asked Brad, “Are we completely crazy? Do we even have a chance?”

“Oh sure,” he said, doing his best to sound sincere. “But you’d better be ready to jump.”

We were ready. We’d been warming up for weeks. By May, we knew the neighborhoods as if we’d platted the eastside ourselves: Humboldt, Boise-Eliot, Kenton. King, Concordia, Beaumont. Richmond, Sunnyside, Buckman. We knew where to look. We knew what we wanted. But what we didn’t really know was why, not only “Why a period house?” but “Why now?” Why jump into fray when one of us was newly out of grad school and in the first years of a new job and other was working part-time and cobbling together freelance work on the side?

After all, most of the economic news in 2002 was bad: Interest rates were dropping but housing prices were creeping up. Oregon boasted the highest unemployment rate in the country as well as having some of the highest home prices. Nationally, the recent period of record home sales was the same period of record mortgage foreclosures. But there we were, caught up in the frenzied spring ritual of open houses and drive bys, ready to jump into the offers-clauses-counteroffers-exclusions-inspections-exceptions fray. On TV, Fannie Mae’s commercials reminded us that they were “in the American Dream business.” Neal Conan on Talk of the Nation discussed the rising costs of houses and asked listeners, “What are you willing to give up to afford your piece of the American Dream?” Newspapers reported that home ownership was at an all-time high—68 percent of Americans had their piece of the rock. We didn’t want another day to go by without having ours.


melissa s. said...

ack! you left us hanging! do A & K finally find their dream bungalow? or do they buckle and buy into a beaverton subdivision? do tell!!! ;-)

DomaMama said...

Never fear, readers. There's a happy, albeit labor-intensive, ending to this story--it's the American Dream, after all.

Caroline said...

unlike you and your hubby, me and my hubby actually did grow up in old houses. not the beautifully kept-up houses displayed in magazines, but houses that were very well-built 100 years ago and, by the time we were living in them a few generations later, were showing their age. we're used to crumbling plaster and creaky doors, and we kind of like them. it took us three days this past weekend to take apart our 90-year-old front door (no glue, kiddos!) and replace some broken window panes. yeah, it was a drag. but dang, they sure used to know how to put wooden doors together with, well, wood and nails.

DomaMama said...

Yeah, we like the old houses, too. Alex and I looked at several houses that had already been remodeled, but we fell for this drafty, vinyl-covered beast with its lopsided arches, crumbling plaster, and thickly painted walls. Guess we're suckers for a project!