Last week the roof project finally concluded with a little mop-up: A guy came out to rehang the back-side gutters and install a couple more downspouts. Now our brand-new roof will shed water efficiently. I pause to stick my finger in my cheek for a weak pop, and then I wave it in the air and say woo. Big effin’ deal.
This is new for me. In the past, I had pride of ownership in almost every repair we made, to this house and to our last house. There’s something about caring well for one’s house that’s always resonated with me, but not so much anymore. It’s true that a new roof doesn’t satisfy like a new kitchen, but it still felt virtuous, because you were adding to your home’s resale value and maintaining the property, which reflected on the neighborhood and made everyone rest a little easier at night.
But our real estate market can be explained in a headline which I swear I’ve read 400 times in the last five years in the local weekly: Has the market hit bottom? The answer is always the same: Maybe. The answer is always wrong, because the correct answer is: No. So putting a roof on my house, which used to feel like forgoing a new dress to put the money in the bank, now feels more like tearing up hundred-dollar bills and throwing them into a flushing toilet. And as long as we’re reading the Obvious News, it seems I have lots of company.
When this recession is over — if it ever is — and the historians start to sort it out, I don’t think anything will be as important, in the long run, as what it did to real estate. It’s still my main disappointment with Barack Obama, that he didn’t launch a big show trial on Jan. 21, 2009 that would have marched the Wall Street shitheads who wrecked the housing market before a tribunal of foreclosed and washed-out homeowners and a judge that was a combination of, ohhhh, Al Sharpton and Judge Judy, say. His gavel would be oversized, and he’d be welcome to use it on both his bench and the defendants’ heads. A guillotine would be right outside the courtroom, and we’d use it until the rope broke and the blade dulled.
That, at least, would show we take the damage these people did seriously. People who don’t own houses or apartments get a little impatient with this, and I guess I don’t blame them, but trust me: This crash hurts everyone, owner or not. For those of us who don’t live in the places where the middle class are shut out of owning real estate — which is to say, most of the country outside of New York City, San Francisco and much (but not all) of Los Angeles — our houses are the most expensive thing we own, and are far more than a place to lay our weary heads and store our record collections. The sale of my parents’ house provided half their retirement stake. They were of the generation that saved up for a down payment, shopped carefully, bought and stayed put. No flipping or trading up for them. Three bedrooms, 1.5 baths, bought in 1962 and sold in 1995, paid off and worth seven times what they paid for it.
My generation was different, but not Alan and me, so much. This is our second house, in our second city. I pay extra principal on our house every month, although God knows why. Optimistically, it’s worth half what we paid for it. Recovery of our purchase price might be 20 years off. The Detroit Metro has special problems, to be sure, but the whole country is sweeping up this wreckage, and I will never forget who caused it. (Hint: It wasn’t Barney Frank.)
For years, for practically ever, real estate was the safest investment you could make. My mom started bugging me to buy a condo as soon as I had a full-time job. You couldn’t lose. Everybody pays something for housing, after all, and you might as well pay yourself, plus the mortgage interest is tax-deductible. And housing always went up. It didn’t rise at the redonkulous rates of recent years, but a steady 1 to 3 percent was a given.
And while I may be overstating the virtues of ownership, I still firmly believe that a neighborhood of owners is, in the broadest terms, better than one of renters. When you have a financial stake in something, you pay more attention to it. You care if the local schools are good, even if you don’t have children in them. You don’t like it when your neighbors let their lawn go to prairie (unless everyone else’s is prairie, too). You keep the walks swept. It’s the broken-window theory on a less dramatic scale, and for generations, it worked.
But that’s only part of it. Local governments rely on property-tax revenues to provide services. When property values slide, so do tax receipts. We’re only beginning to see these problems, cities letting streets go or not replacing lighting or laying off firefighters. And how long did I say it might be before recovery?
When you think about it, pretty much everything in our economy is predicated on the idea that we’ll always be growing. (Certainly our health-care costs have done that.) A few flat years we can handle. But a full-on retreat, a crash? This is new for me. Last week our boring old city council got a little testy over some penny-ante travel for the city clerk, nothing big, but one of the members grumped that they were looking at another enormous shortfall the following year, and nickels and dimes add up. I can’t imagine what they’ll be fighting over in three years. Probably which one gets to quit first.
My house, my millstone. But with a nice new roof.
So, a little bloggage? Sure. Scott Rosenberg at Salon looks at a phenomenon I’ve been seeing in my news searching for a while now: The content farms have gamed Google. Don’t be evil!
“I think his dad’s bought them off, sometimes. He’s practically selling dope out of the trunk of his car. I have to give him one thing, though. Watching his personality disintegrate made me give up pot for good. Well, that and the fact the shit makes you so fucking retarded these days. The last time I smoked was spring last year. I was so paranoid I walked out of the house and hid in that big wall of shrubs by the sorority house. And the girls started that goddamn singing. ‘Together forever. Together forever.’ Do you have any idea how much that sounds like you’re eavesdropping on some kind of blood sacrifice?” — why I added Coozledad’s blog to my RSS feed. I was missing too many of these, or discovering them days later.
Another great Tom-and-Lorenzo Mad Style entry, this one on Francine Hanson, played by the sublime Anne Dudek.
I’ve taken a casual interest in Stephanie Seymour ever since Alan and I discovered the “November Rain” video on MTV. One of us would always say to the other, “She dies in the end.” Today, the NYT did a silly-season Sunday Styles front on the disintegration of her marriage to Peter Brant, described as “a taller, more dashing version of Buddy Hackett.” Her “November Rain” role was described thusly: “she portrayed a bride who dies.” Everyone remembers her!
So have a great Monday, all. Mine will, as usual, be busy.