Monday, March 21, 2011

Want: A Rental House

I purchased my first home about two years ago, drunk on HGTV’s House Hunters and giddy with visions of the $8,000 tax credit available at the time. I have to say it’s a good thing I like the condo where I ended up, because my nerves are shot when it comes to house hunting: the only way I’m moving out is in a pine box.

It’s no wonder I feel this way. I had four different addresses in 2008, including my mother's house, where I spent a month living out of boxes and sharing a bed with a blanket-hogging basset hound. And then there was finding a place I could afford on the salary of a single, liberal-arts-degree-holding employee of a nonprofit organization, followed by the delights of convincing a banker to lend me a boatload of money to actually buy it. It’s a miracle I lived to tell the tale, quite frankly.

According to the Dictionary of Every-day Wants, housing stress is nothing new. “The choice of a house is in importance second only to the selection of a friend,” Youman wrote with his characteristic authority. And as is so often the case, much of his advice on the topic is just as practical today as was in 1872.

Pick a house in a nice neighborhood, but not one that’s trendy and expensive. Make sure everything works. Avoid lawsuit-happy slumlords. Really, what more information do we need than that?

Although the past few years may have been less fraught if we’d followed more of Youman’s advice, a few key issues have changed since his day. For example, Youman says that inclusive housing costs shouldn’t be higher than one-sixth of your total income, or about 17 percent; today’s personal-finance rule of thumb is that it’s okay to pay 30 percent of your income (or even more!) for housing.

There’s a good reason for this change in proportions: the extra money we spend on housing was already spoken for in our great-grandparents’ budgets. In the nineteenth century, it’s estimated that people spent up to 75 percent of their income just to eat. On the other hand, about 12 percent of the average American’s salary was spent on food in 1998, thanks to modern farming practices and transportation.

Having seen The Silence of the Lambs at an impressionable age, I can’t argue with Youman’s preference for living far away from a slaughterhouse or tannery. His advice wasn’t solely rooted in the ick factor, though: he clearly considered the right location a matter of good health. No matter what era you live in, there are certainly lots of reasons not to live near polluters like mills and chemical works. But Youman’s real concern is something even more fundamental.

The theory of germ-borne illness was just coming onto the world stage when the Dictionary was probably being written. Before it was universally accepted, sickness was blamed on miasma—foul smells and stagnant air, just the things you would find in mosquito-breeding mill dams and near overcrowded burial grounds, some of the very places this entry warns renters against. (For more on the changing understanding of illness, read Steven Johnson’s Ghost Map, a fascinating detective story about an 1854 cholera outbreak in London and the search for its cause.)

It turns out that the more things change, the more they really do stay the same. Fellow watchers of Selling New York, my second favorite real estate show, will realize that a close cousin of the miasma theory lives on even today in the form feng shui. On the show, a real estate agent frustrated by a property’s nasty reputation brought in a feng shui practitioner to spiff up the place before a potential showing.