I wanted to buy the house for its description alone: “3Br Victorian W/Sympathetic Modern Influences of Fancy Charm.” It was, like the best real-estate ads, a dating profile couched in the language of home ownership. Fall in love with my original mouldings; stay, when the passion ends, for my brushed-steel appliances.
It was unclear whether the urinal in the red bathroom represented a sympathetic modern influence or fancy charm. Both, possibly. Urinals seem to be a thing these days in chic urban spaces. But I didn’t have time to ponder. Behind me, people were craning their necks to see into the bathroom, so I ducked out to join the crowd oohing over the custom walk-in closet.
The house at the end of my block had just gone on the market. I went to check it out almost as soon as the open house began, and yet 20 people were already through the door ahead of me, whispering and pointing and climbing to the renovated loft in their stocking feet.
This story is about my street, but it could be everyone’s street, especially if you live where house prices are climbing out of sight of the naked eye. It also will be familiar to anyone who has lived in a neighbourhood that was once a bit sketchy, a home to people of quite different ways and means, but now as aspirational as an Edith Wharton heroine.
Housing stock is ridiculously tight in downtown Toronto. The open house had the air of a ball held after a terrible war in which all the young men had been killed. Here, at last, was an eligible bachelor, and potential partners were lined up out the door. All were waiting to feel Cupid’s arrow, or at least their accountant’s sanctioning nod: It’s a good investment.
Because it is a good investment. I need to believe that, since the pretty Victorian is only a few doors from my house and, according to the addictive, maddening algebra that haunts our dreams and infects every social gathering: If that house is worth more, then mine must be too (even if I can never afford to leave it).
Even the innumerate become Stephen Hawking when thoughts turn to real estate. Which they do, inevitably, if you’re within sight of middle age. The corners of the mind once given over to daydreams of sex are now filled with high-efficiency furnaces and creeping rootballs and double-, no, triple-glazed windows.
I apologize for how relentlessly middle-class this preoccupation seems. But I didn’t make the demented real-estate market; I just live in it. Margaret Schlegel, the main character in Howards End, perhaps the great novel about real estate, asks at one point: “Aren’t you ever amused at the solemnity with which we middle classes approach the subject of houses?”
E.M. Forster wrote the book more than a century ago, but it could have been yesterday. The schism at the heart of the story is as fresh as a new coat of paint: For Margaret and her free-thinking family, home is an extension of identity. Their house is almost another sibling, a source of comfort and a bridge to the past. When they lose it, they’re adrift.
However, the mercantile Wilcoxes, whose fate is linked so inextricably to that of the Schlegels, view Howards End (their house) as little more than an asset, a source of revenue, a bridge to a richer future. It is Forster’s genius to show that the house is both head and heart, investment and beloved, burdened with more expectations than any four walls could ever fulfill.
If this tandem sounds familiar, you may be one of the hundreds of thousands of Canadians who don flame-retardant gear, brave the fires of bidding wars, borrow so much that you wake in the middle of the night in a clammy-pitted panic, all so you can buy a house. About 70 per cent of Canadians own their homes, whether a condo, a castle or something in between, compared with only 41 per cent of Germans.
This may be because, in Germany, it’s easier to rent than to own. Or it may be that Canadians have both economic reasons for owning (24 per cent of us say our home is our prime retirement investment) and psychological and emotional ones. We are Schlegels, and Wilcoxes, too.