It is said that marriage is a public statement of two individuals’ commitment to each other. (This supposedly explains the need for witnesses — though in my crowd, nuptial attendees view their job description as limited to eating, drinking and merrily gifting Crate & Barrel place settings.) In terms of life steps and commitments, a close second to getting hitched is getting housed — buying and owning a home.
This begs the question: What does your house say about you? More importantly, how do buyers and homeowners consider the "public statement" factor, if at all, when they are choosing and customizing their homes?
In my experience, some buyers do and some don’t take what their circle will think into account during the house hunt and inevitable post-closing remodeling process. An evolutionary economics book I read recently posited most modern buying behavior in terms of status-seeking, and this certainly comes up occasionally with homebuyers.
In my area, though, almost as often I seem to run into folks who care only that their circle knows how little they care about widely accepted indicia of residential status, to the point that they are still status-seeking. The only difference is that the status they are seeking is that of an anti-materialist non-status-seeker.
So what is this residence bling that buyers want to flash — or flout?
Location, location, location.
I live — and sell real estate — in a city of neighborhoods. At last count, there were well over 30 distinct, named neighborhoods within my city’s limits. Recently, while working with a newly relocating buyer, I found myself playing what I call "Neighborhood Flavor" word association with them as they read various neighborhoods they’d heard of from this city neighborhood map I’d (very thoughtfully, I might add) sent to them.
Them: "Rockridge." Me: "Pricey, upscale, walkable. Mostly single-family off the surface streets. Big bucks per square feet. Streets filled with expensive strollers, $20/class yoga studios and great restaurants. Frites, not fries."
Them: "Grand Lake." Me: "Huge organic farmer’s market, vintage movie theater with political marquee rants. Lots of babies, but cool to live off-the-grid. Homeless people and apartments and million-dollar homes really close together. Diversity chic."
It’s one thing for you to want to live in a particular sort of neighborhood because you like it, irrespective of what others think of the neighborhood, good or bad. And I suppose it’s sensible to want your neighborhood to align with the flavor of person you see yourself as.
I’m working with buyers as we speak who prefer to live in areas that feel less slickly upscale, more human and otherwise are more comfortable — both for them and for the friends and family they entertain.
I’ve had buyers who prefer gated living for quiet and security, but I’ve had more comment that to live in any sort of gated community would feel like making the public statement that they were exclusive and isolating — the opposite of their self-perceived persona. Both of these seem reasonable ways to navigate the house hunt toward a location that fits. …CONTINUED
But some buyers and owners are strongly influenced or even fixated on how others will perceive their neighborhood. Neighborhood is a big status symbol, almost everywhere. I mean, have you watched the "Real Housewives" reality shows? These women drop the names of 5-year-old subdivisions like they were entries on the Social Register, and throw the phrase "behind the gates" around like there’s simply nowhere else any human in their right minds would rather be.
This — the way homeowners describe their neighborhood, even to people with no knowledge of their area — is a telltale sign of potentially excessive emphasis on neighborhood status. I once had a buyer who had a whole plan for giving her visitors driving directions through only the toniest streets to get to her home, even though it was a roundabout route.
"What happens if they MapQuest it?" I asked. Her brow crumpled, then smoothed with her mental eureka: "I’ll tell them they have to use my directions because MapQuest is WRONG!"
Location is the big one, but there are certainly other home characteristics a homeowner might see as making a public statement about who they are and how they live.
The type of home you own makes a statement. Just think of what living in a downtown loft says about your lifestyle versus living in a three-bedroom, two-bath single-family home with a big backyard and a basketball hoop over the garage. It says something about who you are and how you live.
The amenities you have or install or crave to have in your home make a statement. You might be the type for whom a built-in dishwasher and working fireplace represent the pinnacle of comfort. Or you might need a dog shower, custom closets, a bidet, an over-the-fireplace flat-screen TV and an over-the-stove pot filler faucet — your amenity choices say something about who you are and how you live.
Clearly, people use their homes to make both private and public statements of their priorities, their wealth and their personality characteristics. The evolutionary economics book said that most of us make consumer purchases driven by a deep-seated, subconscious motivation to show off our fitness — not the cardio type, rather the Darwinian sort of fitness. Fitness to survive, that is, as demonstrated in no small part by your priorities, wealth and personality.
I have a slightly different take, though, having closely observed the role "public statement" and status-seeking has played in the decision-making process of many, many homebuyers. It’s a fine line that demarcates what home characteristics you choose for you/lifestyle and which you choose for status, especially unconscious status-seeking behaviors.
Where you wouldn’t be caught dead living for the sake of appearances vs. where you wouldn’t live for fear of being caught, I mean shot dead for the sake of your car or your wallet. And vice versa — I’ve had clients go to the opposite extreme and almost tempt fate with their choice of a marginal neighborhood in an unconscious effort to make clear to the world that they’re not afraid and don’t care about "status-schmatus."
Of course, as with marriages, like attracts like. So I’ve also had clients who, like yours truly, wouldn’t even think of keeping their motivations secret — even from themselves. One such client recently plotted an elaborate scheme to keep her party guests from discovering the "wrong" side of her up-and-coming neighborhood’s border.
But, unlike the client who fabricated a MapQuest error, this client was totally transparent about her intentions. "It’s borderline ‘hood,’ " she proclaimed, "so just don’t go on the other side!" How’s that for a public statement?
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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