The “American Dream” may be on sale, but l’m still struggling to afford it.
From the moment I discovered I was pregnant, I became completely obsessed with buying a house in the suburbs. (The nesting instinct makes you do very strange things.) With visions of white-picket fences dancing in my head, I set off on my quest throughout the North Shore for that perfect, charming little ‘starter-home’ under the delusion that I would happily be able to take advantage of a *'buyer’s market.'
One year later, after increasing my housing budget and reducing my expectations, my search continues. Hell, it was easier to produce a human being than it is has been to find a single family house in good condition, that doesn’t have a train running through the back yard, or a toilet in the laundry room to serve as the second bath, in my price range. (Imagine the efficiency: fold your laundry while going to the bathroom!)
Granted, my price range is laughable compared to the average cost of homes in the area, but at twice the national average cost of a home, I’d hardly consider my budget unreasonable. Rather, I’ve come to the difficult conclusion that perhaps the problem is my expectations.
When I began searching for a home, I envisioned the average-American middle-class family home that I grew up in. But each time I walked into a home that was probably the same size, with the same amenities, I found myself contemplating how I could rehab or add onto the home, to make it “normal” according to—what I think are--today’s standards.
It’s not the price of houses that are the problem. It’s my perspective of what is “normal.”
The room I spent my childhood in is the size of my walk-in-closet now. My family shared the one full bathroom upstairs, a thought that is unthinkable now. Blame HGTV or TLC, but the fact is that many Americans have bought into the idea that we must have a room just for our TV, a separate playroom for our children. Even those of us who don’t have this—or know anyone who does—are led to believe by what we see on TV that most people do.
The “bigger, better and more expensive” attitude has appeared in virtually every materialistic aspect of our society. When did jeans start costing $300? Sneakers $200? And who the hell needs a desert-army vehicle to take little Timmy to and from soccer practice?
When did our wants become our needs?
Every generation wants to be able to achieve more than the one before it, but who dictates that this achievement is to be measured by materialistic acquisitions? At what point do we measure our standard of living by what we do, not by what we have?
This is not to downplay the real problems and concerns that so many people have in today’s economy. I should be ashamed at complaining that I’m having a hard time finding a home, and I am immensely grateful for all that I have.
Nor do I mean to diminish the immense frustration that my generation feels just trying to attain the same quality of life that our parents have. From education to housing, to the amount of taxes taken out of our paychecks, it seems that the cost of everything has gone up. And factor in things that we have to pay for that our parents didn’t—cable, cell phones, Internet service. Granted, none of us would die without these, but we’ve become so dependent on them that we no longer know how to live without them. (Imagine how many crackberry addicts would need rehab.)
But when do we say no? That even though whatever new product or technology is available, we don’t need it? When do we stop one-upping ourselves?
My frustrating housing search has made me step back and take a look at my priorities and what is really essential in my life. I will never again buy a handbag that costs more than what I have given all year to charities. I have vowed to set a positive example for my daughter, and for my non-Jewish family who already mistakenly thinks that most Jews are rich.
In short, I’m changing my view of the “American Dream”. While I still won’t buy that “cozy, great opportunity starter home”—real estate jargon for a really small, overpriced shithole—I’ve come to grips that my life will not be diminished in any way because my kitchen doesn’t have an island. I don’t cook anyway.
*Author’s disclaimer: I realize the North Shore isn’t exactly middle-class, believe me, if it wasn’t because my husband’s job demands that we live in the area, we wouldn’t be looking to buy a house there at all. I’m not crazy, just screwed.