Coming down off a real estate high

THE ANTIDEPRESSANTS said it all. There they were (or, technically, there they weren't): an empty bottle of Lexapro sitting atop a pile of used-up art supplies, dirty clothes, old copies of sporting gear catalogs and an unopened property tax bill. Elsewhere in the mostly empty house, wires hung from ceilings where light fixtures had been ripped out, gaps yawned beneath kitchen counters where appliances had been removed and apparently sold and, most heartbreakingly, paintings done by the owner hung on the walls with price tags by their sides.

This was not a scene from ransacked New Orleans. This was what I saw Sunday in a hilly Los Angeles neighborhood in a house that was facing imminent foreclosure by the bank. The owner had purchased it with a five-year, low-interest loan for more than $100,000 over what the real estate agent was now trying to get. The house, the broker explained to me and my partner in voyeurism (we'd spent the afternoon visiting open houses, but it was chiefly to scrutinize people's bookshelves), was weeks away from being auctioned off by the bank. This was our chance, she implied, to get a great deal by taking advantage of someone else's royal screw-up (call it a schadenfreude sale!). And even if we didn't want the house, she said, we could buy a painting; the prices were negotiable.

So I guess it's official: The real estate market is tanking. On Monday, the National Assn. of Realtors reported that, for the first time in a decade, the average price of a U.S. home actually declined. In California, sales of existing homes in August were down 30.1% from August 2005, which is the steepest year-over-year drop in almost 25 years.

But like children, houses are highly efficient delivery systems for denial. Just as no parent would admit that his or her offspring -- no matter how costly, ill-behaved or intimately acquainted with the juvenile justice system -- is anything other than a source of unmitigated joy, people who own their homes will tell you that the market is just fine. Best to listen to National Assn. of Realtors chief economist David Lereah, who said in a quote in this paper Monday: "This is the price correction we've been expecting -- with sales stabilizing, we should go back to positive price growth early next year."

Hey, great! Problem is, that same article also quoted another economist who said that "the speed of the collapse has been astonishing" and predicted "no chance of any short-term relief." Translation: If you're a renter, you now have permission to be as self-satisfied as the homeowners who once taunted you with their dizzying appreciation rates. As for us owners, we can just cover our ears and sing "Correction! Correction! I can't hear you!" until things start looking up again.

Such was the dynamic Sunday when I, a deluded homeowner, and my co-voyeur, a smug renter, stumbled upon the soon-to-be-foreclosed house. In the time it took to cross the threshold, our ongoing argument about the housing market was rendered irrelevant, replaced by an indescribable hunger.

The house, a lush, breezy villa with enormous windows and a majestic fireplace, suddenly made our own perfectly decent homes seem like airless hovels. Each room we entered was like a drug that made the next room that much better. Never mind that the deal potentially involved assuming a suicidally low- interest loan that would have to be refinanced to astronomical levels in just a few years. Never mind that, as we later discovered, the house had been on the market since April, listing at almost $1.1 million and then $899,000 before dipping to its current price of "just make a reasonable offer." Never mind that we were in no position to buy a house together, separately or with the entire string section of the L.A. Philharmonic (as the payments would likely require). All that mattered was the moment. And in that moment, I, for one, could see nothing but my own desire.

But that's the way real estate works. As much as it's about numbers, the more powerful current running through our national obsession with housing has to do with how it makes us feel. There's no adrenaline rush quite like the one you get from walking into a house that is not only wonderful but also for sale. I imagine that's the rush experienced by the doomed seller of this manse when he first saw it, before his life spun out of control in ways that not even Lexapro could do much about.

It's certainly how I felt in the empty, sun-drenched living room that afternoon. Even as the seller's artwork evoked the final cries of a dying animal, the rooms buzzed with a kind of euphoria that real estate is uniquely qualified to deliver. For a brief moment, we can tell ourselves that a new house will fix everything. At first glance, it can bring a level of happiness that the brain can't seem to manufacture on its own.

The catch is, the Lexapro bottle was empty. Call it a correction or call it a crash. Either way, the party's over.

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