Rewind Week: House as a Lifestyle

First published 4.19.2007

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?

1 comment:

The Porters said...

When we looked at purchasing we thought primarily of 3 things.
1) Family type neighborhood that our kids would feel comfortable in.
2) Short commute.
3) Coolness factor and square footage for 'stuff'

The interesting thing is over the next 12 years how much our lives changed. Our kids never made friends with neighbors, they became library and church kids. Our jobs changed within a few years resulting in very long commutes. The coolness factor, while still cool, our tastes have changed, what we consider important now wasn't thought of as an issue then.
So my suggestion on what to think about when purchasing a new house is to think about what is the most important thing to your family. Knowing you personally, I get a feeling it may be your family. The next thing I would think about is how could you be the most flexible as your family evolves? Is that staying in a more modest home so you could move easier? Or in a different layout / size / style that could be modified easier?
And one last thing to remember when buying, never forget the impact of the homeowners association. Many have very strict regulations on what you can and can't do including: number of vehicles at any one time (what about gatherings?), use of the house (home business?), outside modifications (size/type/color of even fences?), are pools allowed or what type of pools?, sheds (allowed/color/size/type), swingsets (allowed/colocr/size/type?) Garbage cans allowed outside or do they have to stay in your garage or behind your house in a closed area? Not that we've had any isses with our homeowners association! ;)


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