'Affordable' housing - real estate gets unreal

All spring and summer, For Sale signs have sprouted in profusion on lawns in our middle-class suburb. Despite soaring prices, each new sign brings a procession of possible buyers parading through the house. Within hours or days, a triumphant SOLD sign appears, and another wave of incredulity sweeps through the neighborhood: "Four hundred thousand for a 60-year-old three-bedroom Colonial on a quarter-acre lot? You've got to be kidding."

But nobody is kidding in cities and suburbs across the country as a runaway real estate market turns modest homes into mega-mortgages. Prices that represent a bonanza for real estate brokers and longtime owners require a leap of faith for buyers. It may not be the house of their dreams. It most certainly may not be the house within their means. But in such a frenzied climate, the luxury of deliberation and dickering over price remains only a dream.

"Affordable housing" is a phrase that typically conjures images of federal subsidies for low-income renters. But increasingly, affordable housing is becoming a critical middle-class issue too. Even two-income families find themselves priced out of many markets. At the same time, some owners who have lived at the same address for 10 or 20 years do the math and discover that they couldn't afford their own home if they were buying today.

At a block party, when the topic turns to real estate, empty-nesters joke about cleaning out the attic and putting their houses on the market at an inflated price. But then the sober realization dawns: Where would they go? Peoria? While new buyers may be locked out of many neighborhoods, current owners may find themselves locked in.

A few hopeful residents resort to creative, even desperate measures. On the window of our neighborhood pharmacy, a flyer reads: "Reward: $100 given to anyone with information leading to the rental of an apartment for a pleasant, professional newlywed couple and their brilliant, obedient, golden retriever Sam. Please call ...."

I call Sam's owners, Danielle and Steve, to ask about their search. Danielle, who sells real estate in Boston, talks about "the crisis of prices being so high." She tells of renters in Boston earning $70,000 who cannot afford an apartment in the Fenway, hardly an upscale neighborhood. She also talks about "the irony of being a broker who can't even find a place to live."

Finding a place to live represents the most basic need. The past decade has brought enormous changes in many towns, including a proliferation of additions and teardowns, in which five-bedroom "executive homes" rise where simple two-bedroom Capes once stood. As a result, middle-class suburbs are turning into gated communities of sorts. The new gates are economic rather than physical. Only the rich or upwardly mobile need apply for mortgages.

These high prices raise serious questions: Where will this stratospheric market end? Where will our children live when it's their turn to become homeowners? And how will anyone with a mortgage based on two incomes ever be able to take a few years off from work to raise children or go back to school?

As hopeful buyers scan real estate ads with tantalizing descriptions - "gleaming hardwood floors," "formal dining room, perfect for entertaining," "lovely fireplaced living room," "well-landscaped lot" - every once-and-future homeowner compiles a different wish list of priorities that, added together, spell home.

One real estate broker explains that people don't buy a house. They buy the nook in the dining room where Grandma's hutch will fit perfectly. They buy the sunlight streaming into a cozy eat-in kitchen, or the small bedroom that will hold their firstborn's crib. They buy the apple tree in the backyard.

The dream of owning your own ivy-covered cottage hasn't changed. But the dimensions have gotten all out of proportion. Just ask Sam and his owners, who, like other would-be buyers and renters everywhere, continue to search for their own little affordable nest.

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