Mary Elizabeth Williams (marybeth) Fri 6 Mar 09 15:23
It is so amazing and horrifying and validating to realize how many of us have gone through their own versions of this nightmare/comedy. So I'm really grateful to everybody who's here and talking about this stuff. And Jeffrey, dude. DUDE. You have no idea how many times I read that goddamm MS and thought, my god, I AM Basil Exposition. Because I'm totally a path of least resistance type, I did a lot of the work on the narrative first. But! I had already been living this, and accumulating the information about those no docs, no money downs, interests onlies, and subprimes. I was addicted to following the bubble. When I say I had a near psychic relationship with the Fed, I'm not kidding. So it helped that I already had this bank (har har har) of knowledge to oh so gently shoehorn into the story. Even though I'd lived with the story and had been taking notes for a long time, the actual time from signing the book contract to delivering the MS was nine months. (Oh, symbolism.) And everything was changing so so fast just in that time, I really had more than enough to write about. The big challenge was keeping it current. Fun fact: I delivered the epilogue November 3, 2008. There's a fantastic quote from Commerce Bank founder Vernon Hill where he used the word "jihad" to describe the Community Reinvestment Act (which, btw, is how I got MY mortgage) that's in there. It's from November 2. Than heaven for deadlines or I'd still be writing this sucker. And since you mentioned the dream (nightmare?) of doing another book, I want to do a similar book but about public education. Oh the stories there! Artlife, I'd say I'm pretty darn happy. My life and liviing situation aren't a nonstop party, and while buying a home was the end of one kind of struggle, it was the beginning of another. But that's the point of life, I think. I love that line in Happy-Go-Lucky, "It can be tough at times, that's part of it." I live across the street from park, so I took up running when I moved here and have run in two races. I've found a community of friends. And hey, I wrote this book. Life is good.
Michael C. Berch (mcb) Sat 7 Mar 09 00:37
My copy arrived today, and I'm looking forward to digging in. Real estate is a major league contact sport out here in the Bay Area just like it is in New York, and even though I have not bought or sold in, hmmm, 14 years now, I still try to guess the price every time I drive by a house for sale. (It's like riding a bicycle; you never forget how.)
Fawn Fitter (fsquared) Sat 7 Mar 09 10:22
MB, knowing what you now know about real estate, mortgages, etc., what would you do differently if you had to sell your place right now and find another one?
Philippe Habib (phabib) Sat 7 Mar 09 11:35
I finished the book and I can't say how much I admire the endurance to keep slogging through the crap house for 3 years before finding the right place. I also really enjoyed your voice as a storyteller and how a great funny remark would catch me by surprise from time to time. Never having been to NY, the whole location thing was lost on me. As I read about some horrible area being renamed and taken over by a more affluent group I sort of missed knowing the actual locale, but I had no problem putting those same people into neighborhoods I am familiar with. This is where the descriptions of the people and the details really brought it to life and made it possible to do that. Maybe I can lure you to the home conference to hear more of what you have to say.
Jeffrey McManus (jeffreyp) Sat 7 Mar 09 13:18
Doing some reading in SF today: http://blog.jeffreymcmanus.com/1230/reading-marybeths-book-at-the-park-chalet/
Mary Elizabeth Williams (marybeth) Sat 7 Mar 09 13:55
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Mary Elizabeth Williams (marybeth) Sat 7 Mar 09 14:02
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Mary Elizabeth Williams (marybeth) Sat 7 Mar 09 14:05
<scribbled for typo shame> Ahahahaha! I want every family in America to have photo like that! (PS thank you.) Philippe, I would love to come on over to home. And Fawn, if I had to sell my home today, I guess the first thing I'd do would be to friggin' kill myself. I've had two good friends in the neighborhood put their apartments on the market and then take them off again because the market is so soft. Barring suicide, and pain in the butt as it sounds, I'd probably do what my friend Nikki and her family did. They stayed in their co-op until they sold it, then they moved to a rental until they found a house they really wanted to buy. On the downside -- that's TWO moves, with their THREE kids. That's the expense of two moves. That's money going to rent instead of equity, and the terrifying uncertainty of the housing market. On the upside -- it happened to work out well. They were patient and unpanicky about getting the buyer and the deal they were happy with, and they didn't have the horrible stress of simultaneously trying to lock in another arrangement. It took them longer than they'd imagined to find the home they wanted, but they got exactly the home they LOVE. Taking on selling and then buying as sequential rather than simultaneous arrangements made an awful lot of sense for where they were in their lives, and honest to god, I don't know how people do bothat once without flipping the hell out. I'd also suck up the bigger commission fees and go with a big prestige brand realtor. Local brokers know the area, but they have a harder time getting the folks from outside the hood and their almighty dollars.
Betsy Schwartz (betsys) Sat 7 Mar 09 14:50
I watched my parents move twice in two years. They moved from Chicago to Baltimore with a one-year job in Honolulu in between. They packed up almost everything they owned into storage, sent me a truckload of stuff, and moved with just minimal belongings. Since shipping was so expensive, they mostly bought inexpensive things over there, and sold them again when they left. Probably made some incoming grad student very happy. And, coming back, they realized that they'd enjoyed living light and felt burdened by too much stuff. It's an interesting mental exercise - what do we need for a month, three months, six months? I could live without a great deal of the stuff cluttering up this place, myself. So many things we don't want to get rid of but don't USE. I've been thinking about the possibility of moving, just as a mental exercise - I'm actually planning to move in 10 years - and I think most of the work involves stuff that isn't in active use. That stuff is the EASY stuff.
Philippe Habib (phabib) Sat 7 Mar 09 16:17
Sell then buy is a good plan in a stable or dropping market, but in a nutso market you could find yourself priced out pretty quickly. I was wondering, towards the end of the book when you met the person who bought the place from the Craigslist lady, weren't you dying to know what she paid? Three years ago when we were looking for a cheap lot to build on near a ski area we sort of did the same thing as you, only with land. It was crap lots, crap locations, or both. All overpriced since this was before the big crash. We finally saw something at the higher end of what we wanted to spend. A drainage ditch cut through it, the boundaries were not clear, and you could hear the highway. So of course, we made a full price offer on it. Our offer was rejected because the owner had talked to a friend who told her she should have been asking 60% more. I said to the agent that his client needed to put down the crack pipe and we've since reffered to the lot as the crack lady's lot. Its still on the market but now it 45% less than our offer. We feel so lucky our purchase fell through.
Mary Elizabeth Williams (marybeth) Sun 8 Mar 09 05:43
Philippe, I actually do know how much Clare paid for Crazy Craigslist apartment! It went or $399K - exactly her original asking price. It's on the market again now, three years later, and they're asking $470K. Betsy, I totally agree about assessing how much stuff you need. The rest of my family were all major pack rats; I'm the big purger. I hate having more stuff than I can keep track of. We moved from a (for New York) big apartment to a smaller space, and while it's hard it wasn't unsurmountable for me. We had a stoop sale before we moved, and while there was some sadness, mostly I felt really good watching my old stuff going to new homes and knowing it'd be appreciated in new ways. I hope that between the increased need to wake up and take care of the environment and the shitty economy, we're going to become more mindful as a culture of what we really need to be happy. What's that saying? The best things in life aren't things.
Amy Keyishian (superamyk) Sun 8 Mar 09 22:56
I tried to sell my apartment in Park Slope twice, and pulled it off the market twice, because it wasn't fetching what it ought to. It's no skin off my nose; I have great tenants now, and I like the fantasy that I'll go back someday. It's not the most realistic fantasy, nor the most practical, but owning something is so ingrained in me. Like being thin or having a certain education: one "must" do it. Marybeth, I notice that out here in the bay area, it's not a given -- as I felt it was in new york -- that the natural progression is roomates, rental, BUY. People make in the bay area make the conscious decision not to buy, feeling that's the more responsible choice. Can you talk about that cultural difference -- letting go of the need to own? Your writing is so engaging!
Mrs. Bigby Hind (jessica) Mon 9 Mar 09 08:16
I want to know how you remembered all these details about the places you saw. I can remember a lot about my abortive attempt to find the perfect rental in Cobble Hill, but not at your level of detail. Were you taking notes because you had some inkling you'd write about this? Was it your routine to journal things like that? Or are you just deeply sick and remember stuff like that in excruciating detail? Because I tell you, I could feel the rotten boards under my feet, smell the smells, see the peeling linoleum.
Mary Elizabeth Williams (marybeth) Mon 9 Mar 09 08:28
Great, great question and great point, Amy. Look, the impulse to put down roots is natural for a lot of people. And the notion that housing is a smart investment is, traditionally, true. So we can understand that buying a home seems generally a good, desirable thing. BUT... we as a culture got waaaaay ahead of ourselves on this one. Buying a home you can't pay for, on the hope you can flip it? Not such a smart idea? Buying the absolute most home with the least money? Less than genius. Anything is not inherently better than nothing, you know? You know. But that was the idea that pushed on us, conveniently timed to the invasion of Iraq. More more more! Buy buy buy! At the risk of stating the obvious, a rental you can afford is better than a mortgage you can't. I live in a city of renters. We have one of the lowest ownership rates in the nation. And look how we got the fever. I think the bay area is frequently on the leading edge of progressive thinking, and I hope the values you're talking about become more common, Amy. The uncertainty of renting can be scary (I say that as someone who's been kicked out by a landlord) but it beats the crap out of the devastation of foreclosure. We need to get real and responsible. In the words of a very smart man who recently moved with his family into a nice white house, "our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions, that time has surely passed." And Jessica, thanks! I started taking notes very early in the process. That house on Sackett with one working outlet, from the first chapter? I went to two open houses and wrote about it after the second. It was very, very theraputic. I also had almost every email from that period, so the written record was strong. A few months into the search I wrote a story for the New York Observer: http://neptune.observer.com/node/48065 but I couldn't stop writing. I just kept going, kept taking notes, writing scenes. And when I finally sold the damn proposal, my friends were incredibly helpful in filling in the details -- anything I'd glossed over or misremembered they worked with me on. Because you know, I have two kids so my memory is SHOT TO HELL.
reader (artlife) Mon 9 Mar 09 21:31
your writing made everything quite vivid to me - the shock and dismay when you see something so decrepit and it's selling for HALF A MILLION dollars in the bay area, that's pretty much a starter home, and although prices have dropped some in the past 6 months, there is a skewed sense of value for money spent it's location, baby - you could buy a very nice tricked out house in say, texas or indiana, for under 200,000 with acreage
Amy Keyishian (superamyk) Mon 9 Mar 09 22:46
yes but where would you go for lunch? what would you go see on the weekend? believe me i have tried to talk myself into moving to somewhere cheaper. you pay a premium for the bustle that feels so necessary to me. the description of the family in st. louis, i just wanted to know -- so what do you do? where do you go? it's so ironic that i forced myself to leave new york so i would experience something different and picked a place just as expensive. what is WRONG with me. marybeth, how did you go about researching and understanding the mortgage mess? i feel like i am finally understanding what the hell happened only as i read the book. the only person that explained it in an understandable way before you was Seth Meyers on Weekend Update.
Mary Elizabeth Williams (marybeth) Tue 10 Mar 09 04:05
Amy, my SISTAH! Here's the story of my life: New York's so expensive! I know -- I'll move to San Francisco! And Boston! And then... back to New York! Because you know, god forbid I live anywhere affordable ever. For those of you who haven't seen it, btw, here's Seth Meyers boiling it down for ya: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VABzL8acwWM Artlife, I know from whence you speak -- for most of the life of this book, it was called Location, Location, Location. People get very proprietary (oh stop! I slay me!) about where they are -- one of the things that really surprised me in the process was how many people took and continue to take it as a personal affront that we wanted to stay in the city. Why don't you leave? You could get a house! You could buy the whole state of Nebraska for what you'd pay for a condo in New York! And I'm like, I'm sure Nebraska's great, I just don't want it. Living through the recent election made it even clearer to me that we really do live in two Americas, still. If god willing I get to write another book, I want to explore that great divide.
Betsy Schwartz (betsys) Tue 10 Mar 09 06:00
The best explanation of the Mortgage mess I've heard so far is the This American Life episode 355 "The Giant Pool of Money" (can listen or download transcript at) <http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio_episode.aspx?sched=1242> The fellow who wrote Rich Dad, Poor Dad has some good easy-to-understand explanations about why a house is not necessarily a good investment. Bottom line: investments are supposed to make money, houses drain money. I live in a streetcar suburb of Boston, bought this house before the bubble got big, and bought my ex out halfway up the curve, which means that I might be a little bit ahead of where I'd be if I rented, but it's definitely costing me more per year to live here. Meanwhile, I've built up enough equity to buy in the rural parts of Kansas or Oklahoma but not in the nice urban parts. (and really, it'd be a heck of a commute) And that's assuming that global climate change doesn't put my land underwater or something. Fun site for figuring out where the inexpensive houses are: http://www.trulia.com/home_prices/
Philippe Habib (phabib) Tue 10 Mar 09 08:36
I concur with the Giant Pool of Money recomendation. Hearing that made it all make sense to me for the first time.
Mr. Death is coming after you, too (divinea) Tue 10 Mar 09 09:57
Shocking as the concept may be, we actually do find places to eat not-so-horrible food, to socialize, and to go and do things- and we even know interesting people!- in backwaters like the Midwest! Having grown up in NY and lived in the Midwest, I don't really think that there are two Americas. I think, though, that the alleged ignorance of people in the "flyover states" is probably matched by that subset of those on both coasts who simply. cannot. imagine. what. people. DO. in. those. PLACES.
Mrs. Bigby Hind (jessica) Tue 10 Mar 09 10:04
Yeah, as someone who quite happily decamped to the DREAD SUBURBS in order to (a) have a reasonable commute to something resembling my dream job and (b) be able to afford the holy-unto-me trinity of schools-house-yard, there are things I miss very much about living in the city, and things I absolutely adore about the life I'm living and couldn't have if I lived in the city. It's completely a personal choice. Different strokes, etc. No need to assume that if you live somewhere with a lifestyle different from the city lifestyle it means you're doomed to Denny's for the rest of your life.
Mary Elizabeth Williams (marybeth) Tue 10 Mar 09 12:46
Hey, I live within walking distance of an iHop. I do think a lot of people get super defensive about their choices. You live in New York? WHY DO YOU HATE AMERICA? Uhhhhm. I don't remember ever dissing on any other part of the country, or mocking the suburbs, but whoa, the amount of "that's what you get for living in New York!" I get. So I really want to understand that. A big part of what I hope to do with the next book is get out there and see that America I've somehow missed thus far.
Mrs. Bigby Hind (jessica) Tue 10 Mar 09 13:10
I actually thought you did a great job of telling the stories of friends in other parts of the country and the similarities and differences in what they were encountering as they worked through the whole set of issues.
Amy Keyishian (superamyk) Tue 10 Mar 09 23:47
Me too! I just -- divinea's right, I don't know of what I speak. My love for the city is irrational. I have room in my heart for Queens, though. Have you gotten flak from the real people, from the hemp- clad prick to your mom, who appear as characters?
Amy Keyishian (superamyk) Tue 10 Mar 09 23:52
You know, it feels like when people try and try to conceive and someone says "why don't you just adopt?" maybe you will, but to have someone else judge your choice not to, yet... "just move to maplewood" has the same feel, it's the same divide. Maybe.
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