The Rise of the Market-Reflected Gaze
I’m a Black woman, and studies have shown that just my ownership of my home decreases its value. This is freeing in some ways - I can do what I want to my home, because *I’m* the biggest factor in its depreciation. If I ever decide to sell my home, I’ll hire a stager to eliminate all traces of me in the decor, to make it blander and more palatable to potential buyers. (There’s a lot to be said about how the “market-reflected gaze” is an extension of the white gaze, but that’s an essay for someone other than me to write.)
i’m about to wallpaper one of my bathroom walls with a wallpaper called “coven” by maison c, which features naked women looking like they’re doing some witchy stuff (and the background color i chose is pink). it’s expensive wallpaper so i can only afford to do one wall, and lately i’ve been having doubts about putting it up, but now i can’t freaking wait. it’s so beautiful and slightly irreverent and i can’t wait to be naked in my bathroom with these naked ladies lol
What you wrote here made me drop my laptop and run around the room in circles, because I'm just finishing an essay about how AirBnB turns houses that should be homes into hotels/museums while pushing regular buyers out of the market.
I bought a house when I started graduate school in 2003 (an 800 square foot 1959 2 bedroom), and proceeded to do light upgrades that I loved - a checkerboard tile floor in the kitchen paired with bright teal paint, retro-inspired tiling in the bathroom with lavender walls, a bright yellow bedroom with black furniture and colorful homemade curtains. When I put that house on the market 10 years later, some fellow graduates of my program were also selling their house, a very neutral newer build house. Not realizing that the listing they were sharing was my house (we weren’t friends, they weren’t invited to my parties), they broadly mocked my house for how colorful and unappealing to buyers it was, how the seller of my house must be stupid not to have painted the rooms white to appeal to buyers, how they were smart and kept their house nice and neutral. Basically Zillow Gone Wild-ing me before Zillow really hit the midwest.
I found it DEEPLY satisfying when they happened to do this in a room I was in, and I was able to say “well, I had 6 offers above asking price within 72 hours of the listing going live, so it must be okay. How long has your house been on the market again? 6 weeks? Hmm”
They eventually sold below asking 3 months later.
I feel all this! To recenter I like to pull out one of my kids’ favorite old picture books, The Big Orange Splot. When Mr Plumbean’s house has a can of orange paint fall on the roof, all his neighbors complain; theirs is a “neat street.” But instead of painting over it, Mr Plumbean adds to it, until his house looks like all his dreams. One by one, his neighbors are won over, and they, too, let their houses be as deeply weird as they are :-)
I am an award-winning commercial design director at a prestigious architecture and design firm - that expectant gaze is even more intense when cast upon me LOL.
We bought our house in 2000, and it had just been renovated, not atrocious, but certainly not to my taste. We were too poor to change anything then, other than a lick of paint, and a backyard deck. Now that we could afford it, I no longer care. It’s the cozy home where my sons grew up, has no major damage to the finishes, and we’d rather do other things with our time instead of renovations. We’ve properly maintained it to keep the structure sound, and don’t give much thought to the next owners.
People always tell us how cosy our home feels; many of my designer friends do live in perfect homes, but I see the effort required, and have no intention of trying to live up to those impossible standards...
I do admit that because of what I do for a living, construction, design, and beauty is a daily part of my life, so that itch gets scratched plenty! Perhaps I am that shoeless cobbler...
As a new, first-time homeowner, I feel this hard. I’m also single and it stresses me out to think how expensive it will be to optimize the space for the resale value on one income. I’m trying to get out of that mindset and just enjoy my sturdy pre-war home with its old-ass windows, giant box of a fridge, and crooked toilet.
I got really into Zillow for a while... in an anthropological way. I was fascinated by the largest, most garish offerings. I wondered what people who have movie theaters and bowling alleys and swimming pools do to see other people. “Bowling Alone” but in your basement. It seems to me the optimization of the home is also very much to blame for the corrosion of the public square--and for our sense of connectedness and the “villaging” we evolved to need (and enjoy). Even those of us who can’t afford massive subterranean entertainment centers may feel lulled into staying home simply because we’ve invested so much in it. Why go the movies when you can watch a giant TV on your sectional?
as a poc female millennial who spent years paying off student loan debt, car debt, being underpaid and paying city rent prices, i'm nowhere near the ability to buy a home. the act of this and having a child, two things my husband and i have decided not to do, are out of both reach financially and not desirable for us (probably related). that said, from young adulthood, i bucked at the expectation from my parents and society that I "had" to buy a house because it's a "good asset" when it often seemed more like a outsized stressor (cue memories of waking up at dawn to beat the summer heat and pull weeds for my parents in high school) and huge anchor to a place i wasn't sure how long i wanted to be rooted to.
there are pros and cons to renting and owning, but as a renter, i appreciate that I have the flexibility to make our place homey without the pressure of improving the house structurally, keeping up with its market value, and fashioning it into the fullest expression of my status and identity. as i get older, i'm seeing through the veil of making anything my whole personality whether it's my job, house, clothes, travels, etc., and how expensive it all gets, which has been a journey as someone who deeply appreciates art, design, and architecture.
for bipoc folks and others who still feel the ripples of colonization, slavery, and oppression, i see and don't underestimate the value and security of home and property ownership. i just wonder about how obsession as a whole with 'owning' instead of 'being with for a time' and how it feels like capitalism, consumption, and colonization drives everything. we're like hungry hungry hippos that hope to stand out and win by all that we eat, so to speak.
p.s. is there an essay somewhere here about the market-reflected gaze of raising a child? how do you cultivate individuality/sense of self outside of unhealthy socio-cultural norms while knowing that a child has to get a job and needs quality relationships? clearly i don't know but this seems like an incredibly difficult balance to strike. curious how others feel about this.
We have one of those weird, garish houses that would get roasted on Zillow (and I have plans to make it even more colorful!) We have one room where the top is painted like clouds (sponge-painting ftw!), bottom is green grass, and there is a tulip/white picket fence chair border wallpaper. People assumed it would be the first thing we changed when we bought it, and I said you can tear that out over my dead body. I am a big believer that a home should be what makes you happy since you have to see it everyday. I hate the grey/navy/white everything trend - if that sparks joy, cool! But so many people just do it because that's what your house is *supposed* to look like right now. I would live inside of a rainbow if that was physically possible and my house reflects that.
We get two kinds of comments, often from the same people:
- It's too much, you'll never resell it, you need to repaint everything, if you just threw in $50k (!!) you could make it look really classy
- This is the coziest home I've ever been in, it's so you and we can tell that real people live here.
And our dogwalker gave us my favorite compliment of all time - it's like a hobbit house, like I step inside and I'm instantly cozy and safe and know there are good snacks.
Oh gosh, I could write an essay about home ownership. So, I will..........
My husband and I got married 18 years ago when we were in our early 30s. We lived in an apartment for the first 2 years of our marriage. I loved it mostly because everything was someone else's problem and it was really the first time I'd ever lived on my own. Yes, I lived with my parents until I got married because I couldn't afford to live on my own; I was working 3 jobs and trying to pay off a ton of medical debt. My husband hated the apartment. He had lived with roommates in apartments since he was 18 and was tired of it and wanted to buy a home. I didn't want the responsibility. But marriage is about compromise and so I lost that argument and we bought our first home in 2009 when the market was really super low and great for buyer's not sellers. The 2 of us moved from a 1200 sq ft urban apartment to a 3600 sq ft 3 stories suburban single family home on a .75 acre. It was too big for 2 people who were never going to have kids but it was a great deal at the time and it was near my mother who loved having us close by as she grieved the loss of my father and needed help.
Fast forward 12 years. We hated that home. We learned not long after purchasing the home that the seller ran a home inspection business on the side and knew how to hide all kinds of problems so they wouldn't get noticed in a home inspection. It was a money pit. And for 2 people living paycheck to paycheck and who were now house poor it meant that every time we built up our savings we had to use it all to fix something. No money for vacations or anything fun. It made us miserable. I won't even go into all the ways we were scammed on this house by the sellers. My husband is the least handy person on the planet and so that meant we had to pay people to fix things rather than do it ourselves. We couldn't wait to get out of that house and not be homeowners again. We thought if we could just sell it and get what we owed left on the mortgage and walk away we'd be happy. We knew we were never going to get back what we put into it.
Well, little did we know what the market was going to do during COVID. We were both working from home due to COVID and we saw what dumpy houses in our neighborhood were going for and were astounded. Our house was WAY better than these we thought even if it was a bit dated. It was clean and had so much mechanical items replaced, new paint, new gutters, etc. So, we talked to a real estate agent on a Wednesday and she told us what we could sell our house for and our jaws hit the floor. We listed 2 days later on Friday and sold the house 2 days later on Sunday. In the matter of 5 days we were free. We had no idea where we'd go or what we'd do but it was crazy what the house sold for. We knew we'd never see that kind of money again. I'm sure it wasn't a lot of money to some people but it was to us.
We ended up getting rid of almost everything we own, paid off the mortgage, paid off all our debt, and still put 6 figures in the bank. We moved in with my mother for 6 weeks and then decided to move to the beach. We now rent a lovely renovated 1800 sq ft home on a lake. We are so glad we downsized home and material possessions and we are so happy to be renters and everything be someone else's problem. We have good landlords that live down the street. We actually have a life now and spend time doing fun things. We have been able to put away money for retirement which is important in our 50s. We live simply. We drive 2 cars with over 100K miles (one is 24 years old). We never would have been able to do what we do now had we not sold the house. I don't know what the future lies for us. I don't know if we'll risk buying another home again. I just know we love not being responsible for all the crap that home ownership doles out. It was NOT a fun experience for us. We weren't living. We were existing.
I realize there are pros and cons of both renting and buying. I realize there are good landlords and bad landlords. I realize that home ownership means the rent is never going up. But, it's such a gamble if you ever even make money on it when you sell it. Yes, it worked for us the one and only time we owned a home but I think that was an unusual circumstance during COVID. I'm not sure that we could have sold it and made money under normal circumstances. For our emotional and mental well being the constant fear of no savings and what was gonna break next and how many thousands of dollars would it need almost broke us. What this also means is that I'm now super-hesitant to take all that money out of savings that I made on the house to put as a down payment on another home. Then I won't have money in savings and I hate that feeling. That's scary getting as close to retirement as we are within the next 15 years hopefully. I also hate the feeling that if my landlord decided to sell the home then I've got to to find a new place. But for now this is what we're doing and it feels right.
For anyone who wants to read Grant and Handelman's full article at no cost, I'd like to recommend checking with your public library to see if they participate in Inter library loan (ILL) - if not, many larger public library systems allow in-state residents to sign up for a card online to access eresources. You can place a request for the article through ILL, and your library will send it to a library that subscribes to the journal. That library will make a pdf and email to you for free. (Also super helpful if you need to access medical articles or other pay-walled content)
I bought my house in a small mountain town somewhat reluctantly after my landlords sold my delightful rental. The housing stock in our town is limited, and I felt lucky to find a house with "good bones" (i.e., it's built on a foundation, the floors are level, and it's been re-insulated within the last century--none of which are guarantees here) that only needed "cosmetic upgrades." I was sure that once I moved in, I would repaint the blood red accent wall in the living room, redo the kitchen, upgrade the bathrooms, etc.
Lo and behold, turns out that becoming a homeowner didn't magickly imbue me with the time, energy, and desire to become a part-time home renovator. I live in the mountains because I love to spend as much time as possible playing outside, and I like spending my disposable income on skis, bikes, and adventures with my friends. This house lets me live affordably in a place I love and host the people I love in order to share it with them, too. And let me tell you, the old, weird Noah's Ark mural in the basement is a real talking point--no plans to paint over it anytime soon!
For me (40 year old renter in a nasty and getting nastier all the time urban housing market) this piece could have used a paragraph about the immense privilege of being able to own a home, of being able to *not* have a landlord. My rage and bitterness about landlords and passive income streams and constant endless rent raises that come with negligible improvements / upgrades *at best*, cannot possibly be contained or expressed here. But the idea of yearning for a landlord feels a lot like telling somebody who doesn't have legs that sometimes you really wish you didn't have to go jogging every day. And you know frankly I am way more interested in digging into the question of home ownership at all (#landback) than whether somebody regrets painting their cabinets.
I just felt really alienated by this one. I'm not commenting here to start shit. Your newsletter is one of my favorites, I really appreciate your work, and in that context I want to share that this one was rough to me.
Welp, this just helped me pull the trigger on getting tile that I love, instead of some boring pattern, so thank you!
I'm a single, child-free woman that rents a small condo outside of Seattle. This article hits. I love my career, earn an excellent salary, save and invest appropriately to fund my retirement, and regularly pursue my hobbies - yet, I still find myself battling against every societal norm that tells me I'm doing this life ALL wrong. I don't understand how homeowners can comment to me "you're throwing money away by renting!" while investing so many dollars and free weekends into home improvement projects. I'm happy to let my landlord assume responsibility for my physical residence as I pursue more meaningful opportunities in my life.