4.19.2007

A House as A Lifestyle


Last weekend, we got together with friends to play games, and got to discussing housebuying. Our friends have already bought their first house, and we're looking to move into one between six months and a year from now. When talking about what we would want in a house, the statement was made, "You're not just buying a house, you're buying a lifestyle." That's stuck with me this week, and I've thought a lot about it. Another thing that spurred this thinking was the Slate article series this week about houses, Why do We Live in Houses, Anyway and The Ranch House Anomaly.

It's true, really. A certain house implies, and, in some cases, requires, a certain lifestyle. An apartment or townhouse frees up time that would be spent taking care of a yard or cleaning a larger house, implying more time and freedom for the residents. My pastor often compares garage doors to the suburban drawbridge, allowing us complete privacy, allowing us to avoid relating to our neighbors by not ever having to be outside our house, even to walk from the car to the house. The typical 'starter home' neighborhoods are full of young families, and will often have playgroups or stay-at-home mom get-togethers. The neighborhood my parents are moving into has an 'empty-nester' demographic, and includes a driving range as one of the amenities. A house implies a lifestyle.

So, this brings more important questions than "what house do we want to live in?" The question "Do we want a big yard?" turns into "Are we OK with being outside and meeting the neighbors? And taking time on the yard that could be put toward other pursuits?" The question "How much room do we want?" turns into "How much space do we want to fill with stuff? How will a larger house contribute to a consumer lifestyle?" The question "How old of a house do we want?" turns into "Are we willing to give up the time to fix an old house? Will a new house turn into a status symbol rather than just shelter for us? Will we feel the need to fill a new house with new things unnecessarily?" Looking beyond the house, to the community, we can ask, "Do we want to live in a neighborhood?", but the implications are "Do we want to live around a lot of like-minded people in our same stage in life? Will we feel pressure to 'keep up with the Joneses' next door? Will it be expected that we live a certain way or become involved in certain activities because of the neighborhood we live in?" The location of the house in relation to the city also can bring up lifestyle questions. "How much time and gas will we spend to shop? To go to work? To go to church? Is it a responsible amount? How much time are we willing to spend in traffic?" Lots of questions that are harder than face value. There's more questions about what lifestyle comes with a house than I've listed here; these are just off the top of my head.

Something I've started writing about but not ever posted on is the Diderot Effect, which I want to be aware of when buying a house. I came across the term first on a blog (which I can't find right now) which had this story:
In an essay titled “On Parting with My Old Dressing Gown,” French philosopher Denis Diderot described receiving a fancy velvet robe as a gift. He quickly got rid of his old dressing gown. He loved his new robe, but noticed its magnificence made his study look threadbare. His desk, rug and chairs looked shabby by comparison. So, one by one, he replaced his furnishings with new ones that matched the robe’s richness. Later, surrounded by bright and modern furnishings, he regretted giving up the old robe. He felt uncomfortable in his new beautiful surroundings. He resented the new one for "forcing everything else to conform with its own elegant tone."

The Diderot Effect is the title that researchers give to the consumerism effect of striving for lifestyle conformity. One purchase leads to another and another. This happens a lot in our lives: we paint a room and realize that the other rooms in the house pale in conformity or that the furniture now needs upgrading. We purchase a new shirt and need a new jacket or skirt to go with it. We move into a new neighborhood and feel that we need a new car for our new house. We feel a need to conform to our own items or those items of others.
From Simple Living: Simplify and Reduce

From another blog:
"I was absolute master of my old dressing gown," Diderot writes, "but I have become a slave to my new one … Beware of the contamination of sudden wealth. The poor man may take his ease without thinking of appearances, but the rich man is always under a strain."
...
Diderot is a classic Enlightenment figure: the optimistic skeptic. He doubted pretty much all the received wisdom of his own time but, like Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield, he was sure that something better would turn up thanks to human inventiveness and ingenuity. ... Mr. Micawber’s equation for financial happiness, for example, really can’t be rivalled:
Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.

I want to go into house-buying thinking of all these things. I don't want to live beyond our means. I don't want to even live AT our means- I am enjoying the margin, flexibility and freedom we have right now living under our means, and I would love to keep it that way. I want to keep in mind the Diderot effect when it comes to the style of the house, and want to find a house that will not require us to get all new things and redecorate in an uncomfortable way. I want to live in a location that fits our lifestyle- that doesn't have Joneses that we feel pressure to keep up with, or require such a commute that the gas (and money spent on gas) is irresponsible. Balancing these two things in the suburbs will be interesting.

For those of you who already have houses (or have, like us, looked into it), what are questions you've asked? What lifestyle aspects came along with your house?

3 comments:

Ashley said...

Paul and I have thought some about this. His most important requirement is an ethnically diverse neighborhood. He doesn't want our kids growing up surrounded by all one race or demographic. There is a neighborhood that is near us that is slightly run down, but decent and fairly safe. The people are from all backgrounds: white, black, hispanic. We have looked seriously into living there (when we can afford it... we're thinking about a year and a half). I mentioned it to one of the ladies in my church, and she was like "Oh you don't want to live there." I don't want my kids thinking they're "too good" to live somewhere. (Now, if safety is a concern, then I totally understand that. And I understand with wanting a house that's going to keep its value. It's a fine line.)

Another thing is we're really averse to subdivisions. More and more often, the homeowners' association rules with an iron fist: you have to paint your house this color, you can't have sheds in the yard, you can't have window air conditioning units. Often this forces the resident to spend more money (especially if they do something and then have to change it). I know subdivisions have their positive points, but I would rather find a neighborhood.

Oh and I want a yard my kids can play in without having to go into the street. :-) And trees. And I would LOVE a front porch, where we can sit with our sweet tea in the evenings and greet those who walk by. Yes, a lifestyle!

Brett said...

Oh man. Where to start? My wife and I have done the starter house, the "step up" house, and we've since moved into an apartment. It's been an interesting experience. Personally, we like the house over the apartment and we continue to search for a house but I don't know that this is really the forum for listing the pros and cons of each.

Anyway, there certainly is a lifestyle that comes with not only having a house but also with having a given type of house. Ultimately, the key is deciding on the lifestyle you want and fitting your living conditions to that lifestyle. That means taking a realistic look at your wants and needs rather than simply pursuing the lifestyle of your family, friends, or even the one you wish others to think you live. We failed to do that when we purchased our last house. We fell in love with the place and tried to fit our lifestyle and budget into the house rather than the other way around. Or, at the very least, we failed to take all things into consideration. For instance, we knew we wanted a place with enough room to raise our family but we didn't recognize that the house had space that we simply wouldn't use. Why buy space you're not going to use? Furthermore, why heat, cool, decorate, maintain, and clean space you don't need or even want. There are other examples but that's a good start.

This time around, we have a set list of requirements. These aren't necessarily the kind of requirements like we know the house needs x number of bedrooms, a total square footage of y, or z garage spaces. Rather, we have a list of things that we need the house to do. For instance:

1. Save us money relative to our previous house (and even our current apartment). We have a single income and we want it to stay that way. In fact, the more we can decrease our dependence on the number that is my income, the better.
2. Provide shelter for my wife, my son, myself and any future kids we may have.
3. Keep us close to work and church.
4. Supply space for creative endeavors like my wife's quilting and my own writing/drawing.
5. Provide room for play...the house I grew up in had a basement and it was terrific to be able to set up the slot car track or the ping pong table and not worry about putting it all away in an hour.
6. Give us room to play and garden outside. Maybe a nearby park?
7. Secret passage.
7. Offer space for entertaining family and friends.
8. Room for dirty hobbies. I'd love to restore an old car with my son.
9. Reflect our personal style. Much of this can be done with decorating but you simply can't discount a conversation pit (see #7).

Joanna, I applaud you for so much wiser than we were with our house purchases. I wish we'd been smarter.

Matt said...

I've put off responding to this, because it's not easy to answer. But I'm presently supposed to be doing laundry, so now is the perfect time to preoccupy myself with blogging instead. I'll start with this little nugget from 1 Timothy 3:

If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task. 2Now the overseer ... must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. 5(If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God's church?) ... 12A deacon ... must manage his children and his household well. 13Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus.

Now, obviously this is in the context of requirements for becoming a church deacon, which is tangential to your post. But it does give some insight into the place of the home in a godly household. We are currently moving, and here's what we are specifically looking for:

1. A home that can be orderly. For us, that means a house that isn't overrun by toys (ours or our children's). We have been making this happen over the past couple of years by designating places for things (a toy room, a hobby room, etc.), and then reducing our toy volume to fit within that space.
2. A home that promotes attention to and respect for family. For us, this means a home that has open, shared living space. We don't have a TV in our living room; our furniture faces into the center of the room, and encourages us to give attention to each other when we're home. Implied in this is that the home is not so big that each person retires to a different corner to play with their stuff in isolation. Bigger is not better for families.
3. A home that doesn't cost too much (financially or in time & energy). Going along with the above, we want to be free to invest in each other and people around us, not in our lawn.

There are tons of perks we'd like (master bath, fireplace, walk-in closet, blah blah blah), but really when we look at a potential house, I just try to imagine living in it - playing with my children, reading a book with my wife, entertaining friends... can I love and care for people in this house?

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