When, precisely, did real estate replace sex as the object of America's basest, guiltiest, most voyeuristic impulses? When did it come to enjoy dominion over our days and our dreams? When did a house or an apartment become not just a place of shelter or an emblem of status or even a considered investment but an obsession that haunts us no less intensely than Vladimir Nabokov's nymphet Lolita tortured the imagination of poor, sick Humbert?
Come on, don't be coy, you know you want it. You want it bad. You clipped the ad out of the back of the newspaper with shaking, sweaty hands. It went something like this: "Close-in location, 4 br, 3 full ba plus 1/2, fam rm w/cath clng, hdwd flrs thruout, nu kitchen w/Sub-Zero and Vkng, granite tops, full bsmt f/ home thtr, deck, 1/2 acre lot, good schools, curb appeal, must see to believe!"
But even without seeing, you believed, you fool. And later you believed with all your heart and soul as you drove past the house five times while leaving a half-dozen voice mails for the seller's agent. You believed even when she told you the price -- a king's ransom. You believed at the Sunday open house, which was such a crush of yearning humanity that when you went to look inside one of the bathrooms you had to fight your way back out. You believed when you wrote the contract for more than the asking price, figuring it was the only way to be sure of getting the house.
And then your belief system crumbled when you lost out to, say, a lawyer who matched your bid and threw in a new Porsche for the sellers, an elderly couple now pricing villas on St. Barth and wondering how best to ship their new ride to fantasy island.
Yes, okay, I've been reading the papers and listening to the news. I know that, according to the conventional wisdom, the hot housing markets may be ripe for a thorough hosing down; that the run-up in prices in and around some cities -- including Washington -- is unprecedented and looks, to some economists, unsustainable. I've also read the counterarguments that factor in baby boomers' retiring to Florida, boomer-echo kids entering the market, regional disparities and other variables to prove that as far as housing prices are concerned, the sky isn't really the limit at all. If I knew for sure what would happen, I'd make lots of money and follow that couple to St. Barth.
But at the moment, I'm more fascinated with the psychology and sociology of the housing boom. In Chicago, where housing prices are up by 6.9 percent over last year, it's not such a big deal. In Fort Lauderdale, where they climbed by 31.8 percent, or Sacramento (26.9 percent), or here in the nation's capital (22.7 percent), people are being driven mad.
Take the case of a friend and colleague who just returned from years overseas as a foreign correspondent. He covered revolution in Indonesia, anarchy in Somalia, war in Afghanistan and Iraq and a half-dozen other combat zones with a kind of devil-may-care insouciance that became the stuff of legend. But condo prices in attractive neighborhoods in Washington, which run north of half a million, have left him with a glassy-eyed, thousand-yard stare. "And they're so small," he keeps saying. "So small."
The horror, the horror.
Those who bought in hot neighborhoods before the boom walk with the swagger of newly minted millionaires. They can't cash out, though, unless they're ready to retire, because where would they go? To a bigger house that costs $2 million? Among neighbors, there is no other topic of conversation: That dump down the street sold for how much? When the figure is announced, there's a moment of silence as everyone calculates how much his or her own lovingly renovated Cape Cod has instantly grown in value -- or, in the case of those on a fixed income, how much more they'll be paying in property taxes next year.
Developers around here are buying cottages and bungalows to tear down and build McMansions, big, tall, baronial things, estate-worthy dwellings lacking only the estate. They look ridiculous standing cheek by jowl, just a few feet apart. For the baron and baroness to survey their grounds will take all of a minute and a half.
New Yorkers are used to this madness; Angelenos, too, but the rest of us are taking some time to get adjusted. It seems almost Freudian. Square footage, appreciation potential, built-up equity -- it's as if we're all playing a game of mine's bigger than yours.