We Tend to Buy Houses for Reasons That Have Nothing to Do With Our Everyday Happiness
The coronavirus is forcing us to shelter at home and think of our homes in whole new ways. Traditionally, when buyers look for houses to purchase, they are usually thinking about practical and financial criteria, including square footage, the cost of the investment, how much house can they afford, and the latest and most stylish counter tops and appliances. The style of the house and whether the right public school is nearby are usually major priorities.
But under a virtual house arrest, one thinks about the home in a whole new way. Does it make us happy? Usually, when a family buys a home they are thinking about specific amenities, such as slate floors, a great room and a three-car garage. But they aren’t thinking about whether the home itself will make them happy.
When buyers house-shop, they seldom discuss the fundamental aspects of a home that will make them happy. Few think about whether their families will love living in the homes they tour. Can you see sunlight in three or four directions in the main rooms? If you were living and working in the house for an extended period, would the rooms make you happy?
People choose homes for specific needs, but most do not consider daily needs. Often I see homeowners who live as if they are guests in their own homes. After being away, the homeowner returns to a house prepared by the housekeeper. The home is not inhabited as the ultimate destination, but as a residence to accommodate intermittent needs. It is almost as if people schedule their time in the home. Space is set aside for the occasional family dinner. Even larger space is set aside for the once- or twice-a-year grand entertaining.
In many luxury homes, the kitchen is designed with two or three of every appliance — refrigerators, ovens and dishwashers with ample space for catering and staff to serve large parties. Closets are as large as early Craftsman bungalows. A home might have room for every family member to entertain friends in separate parts of the home. Often backyards are filled with elaborate hardscaping of stone terraces, fountains, kitchens, verandas, pools, gazebos, patios and outdoor kitchens.
How does the equation change when people are forced to live and work and spend all their time in this luxury home? When across the city and country people are self-quarantined, the housekeeper is not there to prepare the home. No one’s entertaining in the massive great rooms because entertaining has been eliminated. Clothes that hang on the closet racks look like they are slowly aging and going out of style, without being worn, because there is no place to go.
The neighboring expensive houses that help make a home look like a solid and desirable investment can start to close in on a family. These three-story houses that replace tall trees only seem to block the sun and blue sky that are so desperately desired by the housebound. Those cold, hard surfaces in the backyard are no longer animated by cavorting, happy guests, and the homeowner longs for nature, to just dig in the garden or watch something grow.
And what is the point of living within walking distance of the closest public school if your children are not even allowed to go to school? Even in normal times, with expanded options like magnet schools, charter schools, homeschooling and online learning, the geographic location of the home is less important.
When people are required to stay at home, it becomes very obvious if the home creates joy or distress. A home that might have seemed perfect when used for a sequence of events, might now seem disjointed when trying to integrate a family’s everyday life. Just trudging great distances across seldom-used empty rooms looking for a family member might become annoying. Having to dust and clean without staff might become dreary. It’s always a joy to work in a home office or study that is the prettiest space in the home with the most gorgeous natural light. But many home offices are relegated to unappealing, leftover space, hardly magnets for productivity.
Being housebound in the right house feels like vacation. In homes that make one happy, design triumphs over style. A well-designed room that relates to the site and the house is an enjoyable space regardless of its use. A dining room with windows looking over a garden is as desirable a space for dinner as it is for children doing their homework, or parents creating spreadsheets for work. Open spaces that still have the intimacy of individual rooms that allow sight lines into several rooms and the ability to see sunlight in three or four different directions offer a serenity that does not come from empty, cavernous spaces.
Eventually, life will return to more familiar patterns. Some people will love their homes more than ever after this crisis. Others will wonder why in the world they chose amenities with only transient and occasional benefits over a home with the characteristics that would make them happy every day.
I have helped people find homes they have lived in for 20 or 30 years, that they enjoyed living in before, during and after they had children living at home. I have seen other homeowners (not my clients) churn homes every few years, not because of geographic changes or material changes in their life, but just trying to find a home they would enjoy living in more.
This is a good time to reflect on what you love about your home and how it makes you happy living and working and sharing it with your family every day.
Douglas Newby is a Realtor in Dallas and the owner of Architecturally Significant Homes. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.