Last week, we completed a deep dive into what real estate consumers — a term I use to include everyone who pays for housing, whether they rent or own their homes, whether they are contemplating buying or selling or walking away — really want, inspired by author Meir Statman’s recent parallel exploration into "What Investors Really Want."
The parallels between the desires of human beings who invest in traded assets, fine wines and films as compared with those people who "invest" money in real estate are innumerable.
But there is one area in which our cravings as housing consumers have no parallel in the other investment asset classes, arising from the fact that our homes are not just investments — they are the places in which we live. (I don’t, for example, know anyone who lives inside their stock portfolio.)
Have you ever had that experience where you hear yourself say a word, then repeat it aloud or in your head, then type it and read it and say it again, maybe even spell-checking it to make sure you do have it right, marveling the whole while at how strange, as a matter of actual fact, the word "that" or "detergent" really is?
The real estate recession has caused many to do a similar rethink with the largely American concept of home as both habitat and investment.
When you take a step back, it can seem a bit strange that our homes, the places we live, double as our biggest financial asset (or liability, as the case may be), especially when you take a world tour and realize that in many other places the investment and home aspects of real estate ownership are nowhere near so intertwined.
For better or for worse, in America we do see homes as investments. But a home is also the place where we report at the end of the day, the place where we curl up and hibernate when we’re sick, the place that serves as our headquarters for family life, and the hub for our non-work-related interpersonal relationships and recreational pursuits.
(In fact, for a growing chunk of the population, home also serves as the workplace, some or all of the time.) The places we live can boost — or batter — both our health and our happiness, not just our financial net worth.
So, the question we’ve left unanswered in our largely investment-oriented exploration of what real estate consumers really want is a profound one: What do we want from our homes — not financially, but as the environment, the habitat, the locale, the stage for and actor in our daily lives?
Some have devoted their entire lives and careers to answering just this question.
Swiss architect and lifestyle designer Le Corbusier answered it simply and profoundly (as was his style): "Space and light and order. Those are the things that men need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep."
Modern British philosopher Alain de Botton, in his book, "The Architecture of Happiness" (Vintage International, 2006), approaches the question over and over, describing homes as providing "not only physical but also psychological sanctuary," and serving the role in their occupants’ lives as, among other things, "a guardian of identity."
I suspect, from years of selling and writing about real estate, thousands of in-the-car sessions with homebuyers anticipating what’s inside the listing they saw online and post-viewing downloads of their delight or disappointment at what they found, that the answer to the question is actually a pretty short bullet list comprised of a mixture of elements as simple as Corbusier’s ingredients for a good home and as abstract or emotional as de Botton’s:
Space and light: Most people know they want or need a certain amount of space, and increasingly, buyers seek out homes with the "right" directional exposure and amount of windows for optimal natural light. But this craving for space and light is just as frequently subconscious, and is often wrapped up in the package of a desire for a "floor plan with good flow."
In fact, many buyers don’t know this is their hot button until they fall instantly in love with a home that has it, without knowing exactly why, or they walk into a home that meets their requirements on paper but is so chopped up and dark that it causes them to spontaneously yelp, as a client of mine once did: "I would cry!" (i.e., if she lived in this particular place). Wall height and color can also contribute to the emotional impact of a home, on this score.
Lifestyle-easing and -enhancing features and amenities: This is where Le Corbusier’s "order" comes in. Housing consumers crave for their homes to fit and improve and make easier their lives, and this is increasingly so as the technology and design solutions to the challenges of daily life evolve. Clutter is a lifestyle problem that causes people to be less effective at doing the things they want to do, and can even cause relationship discord and psychological depression.
So, people want their homes to have a place for everything and help them keep everything in its place. They also want gadgets and custom spaces and conveniences that fit well with the things they (and their family members) have to or want to do with their lives.
Outdoor kitchens, spa bathrooms, heated driveways, and even office nooks and closet systems all fall within this realm. And so does location — real estate consumers want their home’s location to either make their life better (e.g., good schools, desirable neighborhood hot spots, beautiful natural surroundings, quiet neighbors) or easier (e.g., close to work or public transportation) or both.
Style and beauty: Generally speaking, housing consumers want their homes to help them live more beautiful lives. We seek out homes — or we seek to add to our homes — with a style that reflects who we think we are (or, more often, who we want to be).
This is aligned with de Botton’s reference to homes as guardians of our identity. We want our home’s aesthetics to either reflect or effect our own personal sense of what is beautiful, whether that be the wrought-iron curlicues and pink stucco or stark, modern minimalist concrete and wood, and to saturate our lives more deeply with that beauty, by living there.
To be clear, these are broad categories that contain our human, even American, wants in terms of the physical aspect of our homes for ourselves — above and beyond the real estate characteristics we believe will create status or engender the envy of our friends. You know, the things every self-respecting celebrity real estate reporter relates by rote — e.g., Cher’s 9,000-square-foot Hawaiian hacienda.
The more you read Architectural Digest, the more obvious it will be to you that the higher end you go, things like architect, designer and extreme gadgetry also earn status and swanky real estate street "cred."
But while there may be a status element that factors into what we normal folk want from our homes, this is less and less important in the minds of today’s homebuyers and even renters who — if anything — want to flaunt their frugality and the sustainability of their real estate decisions.
What do real estate consumers really want from their homes, outside of financial perks? They want their logistical problems solved and their lives made easier, more convenient and more beautiful. And that’s a good standard for what makes a good home.