This I Believe

Danny - Baton Rouge, Maryland
Entered on February 12, 2008
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: community, place

When my wife and I sought a loan to renovate our Baton Rouge home two years ago, an appraiser offered us some sobering advice.

Even with the improvements, he said, our dwelling’s modest 1950s floor plan would never command top dollar if we ever decided to sell it.

“This nice, big lot is the most valuable thing you have,” he added. “To maximize your re-turn, I’d tear this old place down and build a new house on the same spot.”

In other words, he wanted us to borrow even more money than we had planned on the prospect of a bigger payoff down the line. I ushered the appraiser to the door, thanked him for his suggestion, and promptly disregarded everything he said. We got the financing for our original home improvement plans, did the work, and are happy with our decision.

Our home’s intimate scale, while out of step with the prevailing fashion for faux cha-teaus and McMansions, struck us a strength rather than a weakness. Built by a long-ago contractor whose passion for durability is a neighborhood legend, our thick walls and sturdy rafters also seemed worthy of respect rather than the wrecking ball.

This is the house we plan to keep until we die, so perhaps we’ll never know if the ap-praiser was right in predicting that we could fatten our profit by replacing, not refurbish-ing, the place we call home.

But the appraiser’s attention to the bottom line, while understandable, reminded me of a core principle. I believe that a true home is about more than money.

That reality has tended to get lost in the fallout from the nation’s home mortgage crisis, a debacle deepened by an overheated housing market in which many homes were bought and sold as casually as commodities in a trading pit.

I know that the American home has always been an economic asset, and as someone who’s reflexively heartened to hear of property prices rising in my neighborhood, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But I believe that homes can also be not just pieces of real estate, but roots that anchor and nourish neighborhoods and communities. Such an ideal requires long-term relation-ships between people, property and ecology — a kind of geographical connection that, in its patient intimacy, can be very much like a marriage.

Yet it seems that the American vogue in house-flipping, in which property is bought at a bargain and quickly resold at a higher price, has instead given us the real estate equivalent of a one-night stand.

Markets have a way of answering mercenary spirals of speculation, as I and the rest of the country have seen in the recent, dramatic cooling of the housing sector. And with that downturn has come severe economic pain.

But with any luck, like a patient waking from a fever, short-term housing investors may come to see more clearly what the heat of impulse once obscured — that a home’s lasting value is built over generations, not business quarters.