Half of the anxiety involved in buying a home is the not knowing whether the twists, turns and dramas of your personal home-buying odyssey are normal or cause for alarm. Equal parts inspiration, commiseration and manual of how-to and what not to do, "Gimme Shelter" by Mary Elizabeth Williams relates the author’s own three-year house (and mortgage) hunt. And we’re talking about a house hunt that was as complicated, drawn out and exasperating as the subtitle suggests: Ugly houses, cruddy neighborhoods, fast-talking brokers, and toxic mortgages: My three years searching for the American dream.

Williams, a mom, writer and cultural critic, manages to bring hindsight humor to a home-buying process that was likely very unfunny when it was taking place. She intertwines her smartly sarcastic retelling of the trials of locating a suitable New York City-area home in her family’s price range with the stories of relatives and friends who were also trying to break into the pre-crash real estate market — with varying degrees of ease and success — in other cities around the country. Sprinkled in chronologically are bits of data indicating the early appearance of clouds on the nation’s real estate horizon, and topped off with a brief, but relevant, account of the market tanking within a year after her 2006 close of escrow (in an epilogue that appropriately begins, "Then it all hit the fan.")

Williams excels at narrating the most relatable of home-buying emotions: panic, desperation, exhaustion and overwhelm when life doesn’t pause for her house hunt. Whether she’s negotiating with her kindergarten-aged daughter about the child’s pre-conditions for moving, or detailing her battles with real estate agents (yes, her agents — plural), Williams’ episodes tend toward the snarky (in a good way), yet manage to sneak a fair amount of usable information in, too, like tips for impressing a co-op board.

Unlike the dime-a-dozen, numbers-heavy, human-light Monday morning quarterback-style economic post-mortems of how the real estate bubble deflated and burst, "Gimme Shelter" provides a first-person account of what took place inside the mind of one American-dream besotted homebuyer who went to bizarre extremes (though more logistical than financial) to buy a home. Williams entertains and educates as she explores these internal workings of the minds of bubble-market homebuyers, a topic uber-worthy of exploration, as it may hold the true key to understanding our nation’s current housing debacle and preventing a recurrence.

"Gimme Shelter," by Mary Elizabeth Williams, Simon & Schuster, 2009, comprises 336 pages.

Tara-Nicholle Nelson is author of "The Savvy Woman’s Homebuying Handbook" and "Trillion Dollar Women: Use Your Power to Make Buying and Remodeling Decisions." Ask her a real estate question online or visit her Web site, www.rethinkrealestate.com.


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