3 bdrm hovel View of Route 80 Mutant maple trees $295,000. This is an urban house-hunting saga -- part gothic tale, part survival manual -- from a prisoner determined to flee the big city.

MY wife and I just bought a beautiful old house in Stuyvesant, N.Y., a river town 128 miles north of Manhattan (or 53 miles beyond the socially acceptable territorial limit). We'll ultimately live there full-time, but not yet. For now, we're stuck in New York City. To understand our predicament, you have to take a brief and possibly unpleasant course in big city economics, which will lead to a primer on real estate as it affects most of urban America.

Dollars in most big cities are a lot like diet food. You can have many portions and hardly feel the effects at all. I think the only reason New Yorkers don't put their nearly worthless currency in wheelbarrows when they go shopping is that even in New York this might attract attention -- rarely a wise policy in urban America.

The real killer in the big city money game is real estate.

There are $1,000-a-month apartments near me that rats have vacated because they didn't like the conditions. Our own two-bedroom Upper West Side apartment -- minuscule by suburban standards -- rents for $1,209 a month and has been officially designated a steal.

It's such a steal, in fact, that we can't possible leave it. That is because it will undoubtedly go co-op someday, most likely late in President Reagan's third term or early in his fourth.

When the blessed event occurs, we'll be able to realize an overnight profit of about $125,000. Mentioning this makes me feel slimy, but my wife and I are merely middle class and not accustomed to turning our backs on a windfall.

Nonetheless, last year we began thinking of either selling the lease or just leaving altogether.

Why such a drastic step?

For all the usual urban reasons. Our first child, Caroline, was born in November. We wanted her to grow up playing on grass instead of concrete. We also considered the typical modern-day life of a city kid (complete with private schools and bodyguards) both too expensive and too unsavory for our taste.

So we looked at suburbia.

If you want to feel poor and humble, shop for homes in a respectable New York suburb.

Answer the ads offering such wonders as a ``Three bedroom New Jersey hovel, with large yard and breathtaking view of Route 80. Indoor plumbing can be added -- no problem. Nearby toxic waste dump artfully screened by dozens of beautiful mutant maple trees. $295,000.''

Interested in the income tax-free haven of Connecticut? We were, until we saw a ``Three bedroom shackette, all walls totally covered by dark, woodlike paneling. Ideal for those who are sensitive to light or who simply don't care anymore. Musty smell encourages outdoor activity, making it ideal for children. For you, $340,000.''

Distraught, we began looking at the ``exurbs.'' (My wife and I work at home, so this posed no immediate commuting problem.)

We investigated small blue-collar and farming towns in places so distant your friends cry when you tell them you're moving. Wherever I went, I asked all the obvious questions. How is the school system? Do you have electricity? How about phone service? Are there any strange looking maple trees around here I should know about?

So we bought our new house, which was a strange experience in many ways.

The locals, for instance, told us that it was perfectly OK to swim in the river up there. For a city dweller, that was like finding out that it is OK to start each day by sprinkling a little plutonium on your Wheaties. For years I grew up thinking rivers were too grimy for boats. (``Toto,'' I said to myself, ``I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.'')

If I was astonished about the change, so were our Manhattan friends, only in a different way. They repeatedly requested assurances that it was just a summer house.

``For now,'' we said. One of our friends replied, ``But if you move there full-time, we'll never see you anymore. Frankly, if you move there, we won't want to see you anymore.''

The people who do want to see us now are desperate, would-be home buyers. Through our realtor, we've already had several offers for a house we've only owned a month. I think one couple was willing to purchase the house with us still in it, but I might have misunderstood. I always did find real estate confusing.

What I do know, however, is that public desperation seems to be good for business. People are now eagerly waiting for us to leave our exurban home as assuredly as we are waiting for our urban sardine can to go co-op.

I wish I could tell you that the move to exurbia has been relaxing, that the hinterland and I have become good friends. Such joys will come in time.

As for now, I'm having strange dreams, involving old house ghosts, otherworldly noises, and pieces of furniture that glide around the house like a punch-drunk Fred Astaire.

The dreams are ridiculous; we don't have any furniture. After buying the house, you didn't really think we could afford any, did you?

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