Do most real estate agents suffer from house envy now and then? Or are we immune after a while? We get to see a lot of magnificent homes. Most of the time I feel inspired by a great place. I don't ever recall wanting to live in one of them.
But how about a certain type of house? A certain feel of house? Yes, there has been a longing, and it never left me. Because in the end so much comes down to emotions in real estate, and in the end it's always somehow about our past.
When I went to attend the annual Historic Takoma House and Garden Tour yesterday, it really hit home (no pun intended).
The very first place I had all to myself some twenty-some years ago was a squat in a turn-of-the century apartment building in East Berlin, Germany. The landlord had abandoned it because the communist rent control laws didn't allow private owners to maintain their property adequately. They had two choices: sell out to a government management company, or let the flats and buildings gradually go to pieces.
The third, unofficial option were tenants that took the upkeep in their own hands. That's what I did. After I had more or less broken into the vacant place, I made a deal with the owner: He would sign a lease with me at the official rent (roughly the equivalent of $5/month) and buy me a new water heater (which were hard to come by in the open market). In return, I would take plumbing, electrical updates, painting as well as floor and plaster repairs all in my own hands.
The place was on the top (5th) floor, had 11-foot ceilings, 13-inch walls, wide window sills, big heavy doors with Jugendstil brass ware and a scary balcony from which I could observe the streetcars squeaking down the road far beneath. The floors were laid with 5-inch wide oak planks, and the kitchen had the large walk-in, windowed pantry that was typical for Berlin apartments from that time.
Every inch (or shall I say, centimeter) of the place was breathing history. Who had occupied the flat a hundred years ago? Were they happy? Did they have kids? Did they survive World War I? Who lived there in the 30s? A Nazi who spied on his neighbor? The Jewish owner of the store downstairs who lost all of his family? A bookkeeper whose wife regularly polished the brass on the doors like my grandmother had done with hers?
And after the war? Did Russian soldiers camp out in this building? Did some bureaucrat issue an entitlement to the apartment for his best friend, passing over a line of widowed mothers? Did the Stasi ever arrest someone in this kitchen?
The speculation could entertain me endlessly. Living there made me part of history, part of the universe. It connected me to generations past and future. It gave intensity to my youth, to the place of many late night gatherings, where we suffered, plotted, loved, lived and hated the way only people who live in a dictatorship can.
A few years later, the roof that had been damaged when a bomb hit the house next door during the war, started leaking. The task exceeded the do-it-yourself qualities of my closest friends, so I had to move on.
When my friends bought the amazing Takoma Park Victorian two weeks ago, I didn't understand why I felt so much at home there. Yesterday, at the house tour in their new neighborhood, which featured an amazing set of homes and owners, it began to sink in. It's all about the history, the emotions, the past and the future.
The house that I bought two years ago is twenty years old. It's nice, open, airy, and contemporary, and the neighborhood was a great and convenient choice for my family. But with its hollow walls, flawless window frames and automatic garage door opener it has always felt a bit like a film set, like a temporary structure to me.
As for the history part, I have good reason to doubt that this house will still be standing in a hundred years. You know what I mean.
P.S. A few years ago, when I was visiting Berlin, I happened to drive by the site of my first apartment building. It had made room for a sleek luxury condominium. The grief I felt was indescribable.
© 2012, Catarina Bannier