Meghan Daum Q&A: How to Satisfy Your Real Estate Obsession

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Some families spend their weekends playing board games and eating popcorn--but not Meghan Daum's.

The Daum family's game of choice when she was growing up was real estate; their weekend excursions were filled with trips to distant open houses. It would mark the beginning of a lifelong obsession with real estate that would lead Daum to live in more than 30 homes on both coasts and everywhere in between. In Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House, the accomplished writer and columnist for the Los Angeles Times describes her passion for houses as a metaphor for what lies beyond--the bigger and better that every new address promises.

HousingWatch recently had a chance to chat with the roaming writer about her family, her brokers, and the sometimes-odorous subculture of pet-owner subletting.

So where exactly did this obsession with real estate begin?
Probably with my mother. She was the original house nut. She would go to open houses as recreation; she hated to travel but she loved to move. She was always preoccupied with what the next house would be and how she would decorate it. And she was really brilliant at making places look beautiful, even if they weren't intrinsically beautiful.... I think I grew up with a sense of the house as a kind of canvas--and it just snowballed from there.

In all your rambling travels, what's the best home you've ever encountered?
I still have a particular Victorian farmhouse in Nebraska that I think about all the time. It reminded me of the movie "Days of Heaven," the kind of place that Sam Shepherd would have lived, out in the Texas Panhandle – but this house wasn't even for sale [laughs]. That's probably sort of the benchmark. The house I'm living in now I've sold, but because it's too small. It's a one-room house-–actually it's more of a one-elf house, really.

Where's the worst place you've lived?

I don't like living in other people's spaces. I'm not gonna name names, but I've lived in a couple sublets which were so appallingly cluttered and dirty, living among other people's tacky spring break photos-–that can be quite oppressive.
And when you have a dog as a subletter [she owns an 85-pound sheepdog], you can only sublet from other dog owners. You end up getting pulled into this subculture that's not always so pleasant-smelling.

Do you have any advice for homebuyers on dealing with brokers?
Definitely get one with a sense of humor, because it's a terrible job. People jerk them around after wasting their time for months and months. Be clear if they're showing you things that you don't want, but I think most people end up buying something they thought they would never want. It's very much like dating--it's just very emotionally charged. You obviously come into it with expectations, but it often turns out quite the opposite.

Considering that you've been involved with so many, what advice would you give renters about signing leases?
Try not to break them [laughs]. Go into it with the best of intentions. Make sure you actually want to live there. Now that I've written this book, I'm known for breaking leases, so I'm terrified people will know my track record and avoid me like the plague. Perhaps I should plead the fifth. But my official line is 'don't break it!' It's always kind of ugly when you leave a place.

Any tips for decorating once you've settled in, if you settle in?
Don't think you'll do all the decorating before you move in, because you'll inevitably change your mind. It's so tempting to want to have everything perfect before moving in, but you can't know the essence of the house until you live there for at least a few months. I've painted the walls in my home so many times I think I actually have less square footage.

What are some of the less conventional methods of looking for a house that first-timers might not think of doing?
If I see a house I like, I'm not above just asking the person if they would rent or sell it [laughs]. My mom would write letters to every single homeowner on this particular street she loved, asking if they'd ever sell-–I don't think she ever heard back. But, you know, I tried it recently. I noticed a vacant house on my street that I liked. I knew the woman who owned the house because I bought a lamp from her on Craigslist about six years ago. And it's so funny; she said she had just sold the house because someone just wrote her a letter asking if she would sell it. She never put it on the market or anything. It's a very human experience, buying or selling a house. There's something flattering about someone writing you a letter and saying they love your house.

Where do you think people went wrong during the housing bubble?
One of the things that happened with the market, and all the foreclosures and all the vagaries of the bubble bursting, is that people didn't see their houses as personal things. They saw them as ATMs, or just liquid assets, when in fact it's so much more than that. It's a repository for everything about you. So it just makes sense to acknowledge that and treat it accordingly.

Why did you decide to move to Nebraska of all places?
I was totally broke. I had student loan debt, and the expense of living in New York was so prohibitive. I wanted to move somewhere less expensive, and I always had this fixation with the prairie. And beyond that, I thought I was becoming provincial, in only a way that New Yorkers could be. Because, yes, New York is the most provincial city in the world. New Yorkers have no understanding of the outside world, in a lot of ways.

You've lived all over the country and have experienced both extremes that the housing market has to offer. Is this a lifestyle you'd recommend to others?
I think that moving is really healthy--in moderation, of course. Staying in one place your whole life is depressing. People should embrace their interests in seeing other places and their interest in houses. We tend to pathologize the real estate lust phenomenon, and, yes, approached the wrong way it can be destructive and a terrible thing. But if you're not hurting anybody, my gosh, why not obsesses about your house? Why not care deeply about your space? It's much better than drinking excessively or using drugs or other things we can obsess about [laughs]. I think people should embrace it and love their houses as best they can.

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