They'd caught it last year: the sort of buying panic usually seen in bargain basements and one-day sales. It was Margaret who called it a "panic." David, her husband prefered to describe the feeling to me as anxiety.

But suddenly this couple in their 30s were gripped with the notion that "the last boat to the middle class was leaving and we'd better get on it." The last boat was, of course, a house boat.

The couple, decent people who worry about their family and their town, read all the housing figures. In fact, like many of their friends, they memorized them.

The price of a new home in 1972 was $22,000, and now in 1978 it was $53,700. Older homes were only $6,000 less on the average. They knew that people like their parents once spent 25 percent of their income on housing; now they were told that people spent 44 percent. But the fact that impressed them the most was the news that the average cost was expected to rise by another $25,000 before 1981.

At that point, Margaret and David realized that saving had become too expensive. Housing costs in their northeastern city were rising faster than their average saving account. And so, they borrowed and collected all the financial scraps they could find into a bank book. Then they leapt off the dock and grabbed for the side of the boat.

If some historian in the future wants to know why anyone bought a home during the late 1970s when the market went as wild as Wall Street in the 1920s, they could do worse than if they looked up Margaret and David. This couple could tell them a lot about the self-fulfilling prophecy of the market place: Buy Now or Never. They could tell them a lot about the time when people congratulated themselves on their past housing investments with the line: "We could never afford our house if we went to buy it now."

And if those historians wanted to know why some people who once cared and petitioned about social causes began to care and petition about property taxes, perhaps they should research the depressing effect of the inflated housing market.

I don't know exactly why the notion of home ownership has such a grasp on the American imagination. Perhaps as descendants of landless immigrants we turn our plots into symbols of stability.

But we are told that "ownership" is the American dream, and we believe it. Today the would-be-middle-class children of middle-class parents almost unanimously regard rent as money thrown away, and houses as investments. A house is the middle-class retirement plan, its equity, its legacy, its tax hedge. Its "real" estate.

And yet, more and more often, it's an albatross. David and Margaret have spent six months in their own six rooms. He isn't the only 33-year-old homeowner who refers to himself half-jokingly as "the first generation in my family to be downwardly mobile."

This leap onto the edge of their own property has been almost as stressful as their fear of being left behind. They will tell you that they have traded one anxiety for another. They are today what is called "house poor."

House-poor people, they say, spend nearly 50 percent of their after-tax income on their homes. House-poor people become permanent members of the two-worker family. House-poor people work for their land as much as any farmer. Never mind all that talk about the Now Generation; they have mortgaged the present for the future.

But equally important, David says without pride, "Our house has become our politics." House-poor people, he says, make hard choices. Just last week, they voted for "the roof over our heads" against costly improvements for their children's schools.

But if they start to worry about it - worry about the sort of national stinginess cycle that comes out of this housing inflation, worry about voting against the money to keep their towns as well-trimmed as their hedges - they feel somewhat impotent. They can't vote against interest rates and purchase prices and bank loans.

Margaret and David still feel lucky just to have made the leap. Every Sunday they look at the real-estate page, as if it were the stock market. Then they tell each other reassuringly that they were "right."

The market is still going up. And they are still holding on.