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Sex and Real Estate (Marjorie Garber)


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House love can be addictive, producing sensations that might lead some to want to join a kind of Buyers Anonymous. One buyer told a broker that he wanted a New York apartment so lavish that when people walked into it they would gasp. She found the perfect place, with floor-to-ceiling windows and panoramic views. The problem was, someone else had just bought it a month ago. The enterprising broker invited the owner to name an impossible selling price, and they settled on $6 million, a markup of $2 million over the previous price. ("Don't tell my wife," he implored. "We've already called in a decorator.") When the broker took the buyer there, he gasped. And bought.

But it's not only the very rich who fall prey to galloping house desire.

At the beginning of the 1990s the National Association of Home Builders met in Atlanta to chart strategies for the new decade. "The children of the sexual revolution are looking to put romance back in their lives and return to traditional lifestyles," said a Chicago-based designer. "We're trying to reflect that nostalgia in the area of design. People seem to be looking for touches they would have remembered from visiting their grandparents." The word "romantic" was on everyone's lips. Buyers were seeking "the romantic touches that give a classical feeling, such as fireplaces (especially in the master bedroom and master bath)," she said. "The children's bedroom is another place to really tug at the heart. It all moves back to the issue of hitting the romantic soft spot."

"You've got to push their romantic buttons," added a designer from New York. "People aren't finding romance outside the home any more--they're going out less and staying home more. What we're looking to do is to add charm, and that's not costly. We're not trying to build the Taj Mahal every time." In fact the Taj Mahal, built by a Mogul emperor after the death of his wife and widely regarded as perhaps the greatest architectural love token in history, is one of the phantasmic ideals, the dream houses of culture. Only we want it built and furnished for us now, while we are alive to enjoy it.

Seductive galleries of homes to browse through on television or the Internet are ready to accommodate our fantasies. The virtual-reality "walk-through" has become a feature of the high-end market, whether in New York or in Hong Kong. Taken with a fish-eye lens, and allowing a 180-degree view, "left to right, floor to ceiling," such tours are not only a convenience for the busy tycoon, but also the ultimate in voyeurism. You peek, you peer, you pry--and no one but your accommodating broker knows you're there. The very word "broker," while it has always meant agent or intermediary in a general sense (insurance broker, pawnbroker, stockbroker), used also to be a synonym for a pander, procurer, pimp, matchmaker, marriage agent, or go-between in love affairs.

Emotion is in high supply in such transactions, and it's often sexualized. The hard-to-satisfy clients in Richard Ford's Independence Day are desperate to find a nice house they can "both afford and fall in love with." At one promising showing the realtor-narrator observes that the wife had "the look of 'this is the one, this is the place' written all over her flushed, puffy face."

But when her interest wanes he doesn't know how to restimulate it, how to "bring the hormonal roller coaster into the station." That telltale symptom, the inadvertent flush, is a sign--in literature as well as life--of the erotics of real estate. In a recent New Yorker short story a philandering husband is temporarily distracted by a passion for his new"dream house." "The simplest discussion--of doorjambs or gutters--made his blood move around his face and neck like a lava lamp. Roof-shingle samples--rough, grainy squares of sepia, rose, and gray--lit his eyes up like love. He brought home doorknob catalogues and phoned a plasterer or two. After a while, however, she could see him tire and retreat, recoil even--another fling flung."

"Hit the prospect at every emotional level," counsels a decorating consultant who advises home builders. Some decorators fantasize fictional characters to give a house "a lived-in look with plenty of personality"--where "personality," a term of art in the interior design business, is a deliberate contradiction in terms, the illusion of a person in residence in an empty dwelling. "We write a script just like for a movie," says a representative of a California decorating firm hired to glamorize a development in Lakewood, New Jersey. Decorating fees for model houses may approach 20 to 30 percent of the house's selling price.

Professional "stagers" now advise sellers in cities like Washington, Los Angeles, Miami, and some of the New York City suburbs on how to make their houses more appealing to upscale buyers--whisking away family photos (too distracting and personal), replacing dark bedspreads with light ones, locating potted plants in front of cracked or peeling walls, even renting furniture that looks better than the owner's own. Staging is analogous to the much-disputed practice of"propping" in shelter magazine layouts, a practice that has been called the home-design magazines' "dirty little secret": bringing in museum-quality furniture, chenille throws, borrowed art, and masses of flowers to produce the illusion of a beautifully arranged "home." As one freelance stylist commented, "Interiors used to be so much more theatrical. Everyone wants it clean and natural now. But let me tell you: The authentic look is even more expensive to do." The stager, whose job title proudly displays the elements of theatricality and performance essential to a successful home sale, is something between a personal trainer for your house and an old-fashioned society chaperone (the kind that makes the most of her charge's looks rather than policing her behavior). The cost for such a makeover? Sometimes as high as $50,000, if the stager remodels the rooms and overhauls the furniture. "I think it is the best money a seller can spend," says a San Francisco broker. "If a homeowner is going to retire and this is their last big sale, then I make a very strong presentation for them to use a stager.''

Designers of new homes sometimes spray them with scent, aromatherapy for the buyer. One sprays Joy cologne all over his most expensive units. Others use cinnamon or other "homey" scents. Realtors often urge sellers to bake bread or roast a chicken so that the smell wafts through the house. (After a while, when we were house-hunting, we got used to seeing these accoutrements to a meal set out on the kitchen counter, and we ourselves kept a special section in the freezer for "exhibition breads" that could be reheated for showing after showing.) The scent of a wood fire is another olfactory come-on, subliminally whispering"home" into the ears--or, more accurately, the nasal passages--of browsing potential buyers. "Say the Smiths are looking for a new home," said an interior designer. "When they enter a model, they should see the logs burning in the fireplace, maybe smell a pie in the oven. It makes them comfortable and that's what leads to sales." It's all a matter, apparently, of emotional rapport: the "need to arouse a feeling of kinship with the house." Such tactics can backfire, too. A couple I know who have been looking for a suitable New York apartment for quite a while now viscerally recoil at the smell of bread baking when they're shown a property; to them it says "real estate hype," not "this is home."

Real estate today is theater, show business, seduction--and fashion. Like clothing lines, new houses are sold through the seductive power of "models"--or, in the case of the luxury home market, supermodels, tricked out in fashionable and flattering outfits. The average U.S. home buyer sees up to a dozen houses before making an offer to buy (desperate city apartment seekers may see twice or three times as many), so "a well-executed model makes its subject stand out from the competition." Furnishings "can add a touch of glamour," and--as with tall, striking runway supermodels from Naomi Campbell to Linda Evangelista-- "furnished models also look larger."

Older houses and apartments, showing the signs of their years, are sometimes prepped by brokers for a cosmetic makeover. It's no accident that the term "face-lift" has migrated into the sphere of property. The famous "white paint and ficus number" is always popular: paint the house or apartment white, camouflage flaws with a ficus tree. But so too are tricks with mirrors and lighting, old standbys in the world of human cosmetology. Where aging humans seek the flattery of dim, atmospheric lighting, though, and glance only warily at mirrors, sellers of older homes are urged to increase the wattage of their light bulbs and install mirrors everywhere to create the illusion of spaciousness. ("Place a vertical strip of mirror beside windows that have limited views, for the same optical delusion.")

As for the middle-aged owners of these "older homes," many find themselves strongly attracted to new construction after a lifetime of restoration, remodeling, and repair. Older buyers are lured by "pastels that flatter older skins and are easier on the eyes." "No one has ever bathed in that tub," I remember thinking, desirously, when I toured an elegantly furnished unit that boasted a pristine marble bath. New houses are like debutantes coming out for the season, whose unspoiled freshness and newness may recommend themselves to the jaded appetite. Is this another version of the fantasy of beginning life over again with a younger, more beautiful partner--or a younger, more beautiful self?

Houses have always occupied a central place in the imaginations of poets, writers, and philosophers, as well as in the minds of architects, real estate agents, and home dwellers. But what is the relationship we imagine with our houses? The chapters that follow will explore the cultural role of the house as lover, mother, body or self, fantasy, trophy, history, and escape. In all of these visions, as we will see, the imagined house is a dream house. Yet, as anyone who has ever bought--or aspired to buy--a house can testify, that has never kept people from trying to bring the dream to material life.
 
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Excerpted from Sex and Real Estate by Marjorie Garber. Copyright © 2000 by Marjorie Garber. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.