January 04, 2006

Ugly house

051223_Front.jpg Slate isn't always contrarian: today, Witold Rybczynski has an essay about how McMansions are ugly. Duh. But it's worth it for this picture alone. I'd love to know how much money the owner of this place paid to be able to live in it.
Posted by Felix at 06:05 PM GMT

The whole "McMansion" thing is yet another classist conceit thought up by journalists in need of justifying their salaries. First of all, the house pictured above is obviously on a rather large parcel of land, so I'm not sure how it gets labeled as a McMansion. I guess I'm not clear on just what defines a McMansion, what separates one from a regular mansion.

Secondly, while the phenomenon of upper-middle class households building large homes on average-sized lots is real, this trend is only an extension of the larger trend of the middle class demanding and getting trappings once reserved for the wealthy alone. Is this bad? If it plunges you into unsustainable debt, then it is bad. If however, it merely results in you living in a freaking huge house with no backyard, as is the norm, then what's the problem? Do only the rich deserve to live in ostentatious dwellings? I'm only half-joking here. Also, the house pictured is not ugly.

Posted by: sac on January 4, 2006 06:51 PM

a mcmansion is a house that is devoid of quality (constructed or architectural or aesthetic) in the same way that a big mac is devoid of nutrition. a mcmansion will keep the rain off your head in the same way that a big mac will fill your stomach... adequately but not in anyway that you would think to thank someone for.

what possibly makes you think this house is not ugly?
-the way that it seems to be on a fair bit of land whose adjectives would be limited to flat, grassy, green?
-the scenery flat nature of the facade?
-the faux columns on the facade?
-the way the garage masquerades as a 'wing' so poorly and so derivatively that no one thinks that it is anything other than a garage?
-the expanse of white vinyl siding on the only other facade we can see that nearly overwhelms the front, with it's careful attention to composition.

ok... venting sarcasm aside- i personally find it abysmal. but am genuinely interested to hear what you like about it. i don't expect to be convinced, but i do want to hear the details behind an idea that makes so little sense to me.

Posted by: geoff on January 4, 2006 08:07 PM

Yeah, I'm with sac. The term "McMansion" commonly refers to the phenomenon of placing a structure like the one shown on an 80' x 100' or smaller lot, creating a weird bloated effect as it crowds all four lot lines.

I don't care for this home's exterior - the brickface, the stick-on colonnades and what I assume to be vinyl siding on the sides and rear all turn me off. But having been in similar homes I assume all that is just cover for the exterior area needed to achieve very open, bright, well-ventilated spaces on the interior. It's probably a very nice house inside. In 20 years it will be surrounded by maples, dogwoods, azaleas and forsythias and will look much more attractive.

Some of Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian concepts are beginning to catch on in American suburban developments. But it's a risk for developers to use them, because their popularity is still uncertain.

Posted by: Sterling on January 4, 2006 08:16 PM

what possibly makes you think this house is not ugly?
-the way that it seems to be on a fair bit of land whose adjectives would be limited to flat, grassy, green?

Exactly. Living on a hill sucks, I've done it. Especially with kids.

-the scenery flat nature of the facade?

I don't know what this sentence means. Do you mean the faux brick? Yes, it is a facade, real brick is fucking expensive. It is the fact that the material is synthetic that bugs you? I'm thinking yes. I'm also thinking you look for "authentic" experiences. Good luck.

-the faux columns on the facade?

See previous.

-the way the garage masquerades as a 'wing' so poorly and so derivatively that no one thinks that it is anything other than a garage?

Better than a garage dominating the front of the house. I highly doubt the intent was to conceal the garage entirely, so that people would gasp in astonishment once they found out the sordid truth behind such archetectural trickery. Seriously, it's a fucking garage. What do you expect it to look like? Again, I sense an ulterior motive here. You really like public transporation, yes? Me too. I also drive to work.

-the expanse of white vinyl siding on the only other facade we can see that nearly overwhelms the front, with it's careful attention to composition.

I'm not sure about this sentence, either. You don't like the facade and you don't like the vinyl siding. Fair enough. I'm guessing you have lots of money to spend.

As for your Big Mac analogy, I don't see the correalation. I don't eat Big Macs because they are unhealthy. I would live in that house because it will most likely keep the rain off of me and my family quite effectively, and also, it's quite spacious.

What gets me is the inherent disdain towards the suburbs, and anyone living there, in these types of discussions. Look, I love cities, they are vibrant and exciting and culturally stimulating. They are also hugely expensive and exhausting once you start having kids. The suburbs are simply less stressful, for me and many others.

Posted by: sac on January 4, 2006 08:27 PM

I can't believe I have to spell this out, but just look at this thing. The facade is incredibly pretentious, with all its faux-classical trappings failing to add up to anything of any aesthetic merit -- but then the white vinyl siding just makes the entire project look like a film set, designed only to be looked at from one specific angle. And given how the path to the front door works, it's actually impossible to approach the building from that angle.

The point about McMansions, Sac, is that they're not "trappings once reserved for the wealthy alone". Back in the day, the wealthy never lived in fugly houses like this one. They actually cared about architecture. Now, people like yourself seem to care only about how many square feet there are, and whether the roof works. Most old mansions are architecturally excellent. The ones which aren't are generally ambitious failures. None of them display the syndrome on display here, which is a builder throwing up as many square feet as he can without so much as thinking about what the resulting monstrosity will look like. Because that's cheaper, and because the buyers don't care either. It's demoralising. A nice-looking suburb is nicer than a nasty-looking suburb: this is nothing to do with suburbs vs cities (where we have plenty of fugly buildings of our own, thankyouverymuch).

Sterling's point about this place being "probably very nice on the inside" is instructive: the owner is mainly going to see this place from the inside, while the rest of the community has to suffer looking at it from the outside. But the owner's the one paying for it, and so he doesn't care if the community suffers an aesthetic injury. There's the suburbs in a nutshell: a place where people can live in bubbles, shuttling from carport to office, without any kind of community feeling. Do you imagine that the people who live next door to this guy feel happy popping over to borrow a cup of sugar? The "good" mansions that Rybczynski cites in his essay are all much friendlier and more approachable, as well as being much nicer on the eye.

Posted by: Felix on January 4, 2006 08:50 PM

you are right, i do have problems with the burbs. unfortunately i don't have an alternative answer for how to house the middle class by the millions, in a semi high density situation, in a style that offends few, for the correct price point, that can still be considered an investment for the buyer. and thats a problem.

however, once you get onto 1-3 acres of land and start dropping $1M+ for a house- there is absolutely no excuse for taking the most banal item out there, rather than doing something that can actually enhance your life.

as for the points from the post above...
-the lawn. grass is hardly native to most of north america and requires an unpleasant amount of upkeep- far more than many types of idigeneous groundcover. $1M+ for a home? wouldn't it be nice if it was landscaped a little? perhaps if there was any indication that the surroundings of the house had been considered as extensions of the interior space, one might have faith that the interior space had been considered at all. it doesn't have to be perched on a hill, or surrounded by swales to not read as flat.
-the brick facade doesn't bother me and i will bet you that they are real bricks. almost no one has built a strutural brick building since probably the 20s... all brick facades are typically a veneer- it keeps the weather out. what bothers me is that they don't continue all the way around. the front facade is simply a piece of scenery- and not a very good one either since the sides are so exposed. it is like a photo of a more expensive house glued onto a cheap house. am i supposed to admire the front and ignore the sides? is the front so spectacular that it makes up for the sides?
-the columns. i don't like columns period- but thats taste vs design. in this case, the columns don't even give the illusion of holding anything up. not even a faux portico or something. they are completely gratutitous and really only there because people who would think this house is attractive would expect it to have columns, since all houses like this have them. the columns are to the facade as the facade is to the house- see the point above.
-the garage. no ulterior motive for my dislike. but if it so doesn't matter, would you object to the doors on the front of it? probably not. a great big storage space is put right at the front corner of the building. does it help the overall composition of the building? no. it's an outhouse and a tumor rolled into one. again i think the thinly veiled cheap way out/lack of consideration is what bothers me. see the point above about the facade and the columns.

point being sac... the pictured house is a pig with lipstick on it. anyone know if there is a better profit margin on a mcmansion (pumped up developer tract house) vs. a regular developer house? my bet is yes, but i am willing to be proven wrong.

a good house can make your day better. it can change your relationship with your family. it can improve your experience of the smallest aspects of your life, simply because the setting is good, it can be something to really look forward to coming home to- and not simply because it is not the office. the space that you live in can be so much more that something that keeps the rain off your family. if the money is there, why wouldn't you want to do that?

probably because you don't know any better.

Posted by: geoff on January 4, 2006 09:35 PM

Thank you for confirming my suspicions, Felix. I'll have you know that my neighbors and I are quite friendly with each other and talk often.

Of course houses built by the wealthy are better constructed than tract homes, they have the money to pay for such quality. Your statement that the wealthy "actually cared about architecture" is ridiculous. As I'm sure you know, most people can't afford to indulge their architectural tastes beyond picking colors.

Monstrous homes built in an older neighborhood so that the resulting house clashes drastically with the surrounding homes are one thing. The house pictured is not that, nor are the newer tracts with massive houses and no yards.

Posted by: sac on January 4, 2006 09:39 PM

Sac, I grew up in the suburbs and we were friendly with all of our neighbors. Once upon a time, that was one of the reasons that people liked the suburbs so much: they were friendlier. But architecture like this destroys such friendliness. If this thing appeared next door to you, do you think you'd talk as much to its owners as you do to your present owners? My point is that this kind of architecture actively destroys community.

You might be right that "most people" can't afford to indulge their architectural tastes. But the wealthy can -- so why is it ridiculous for me to say that historically they have cared about architecture? After all, pretty much all good architecture ever built has been paid for by the wealthy.

We don't know whether the house pictured clashes with the rest of the neighborhood or not, since we can't see what the rest of the neighborhood looks like. We do know, however, that it clashes with itself. Which is bad enough.

Posted by: Felix on January 4, 2006 09:51 PM

Geoff, I'm well aware of the benefits of a nice home. Of course, the definition of nice is objective, as is this whole argument as to whether or not the house pictured is ugly. That doesn't interest me. What does interest me is the underlying motives behind articles such as this one, and the arguments against McMansions in general. The underlying motives that you and Felix display overtly once pressed. Ultimately it has nothing to do with aesthetics and everything to do with one's socio-political leanings.

The suburbs get a bad rap as a homogenized wasteland, yet that characterization is FAR from the truth. I've lived, as a parent and high school teacher, in cities and suburbs. In my experience, the suburbs are more racially diverse and inclusive than cities. That is to say, my kids' classrooms, baseball teams, etc. had a broader spectrum of racial backgrounds in the suburbs. As a high school teacher, I noticed the same thing.

This can be explained quite easily, in that the only "criteria" for living in a particular area in a suburb is income. In cities, racial groups are far more segregated into insular communities defined by racial or geographic background. I'm not saying that's good or bad, just generally true. I bring it up only to shoot down a common misconception of many suburbs. Of course, most young, hip (and temporary) city dwellers know this when they take stock of their group of friends or the places they frequent. Taking NY as an example: Soho, East Village, Williamsburg, whatever neighborhood Rivington St is in? Lily white. Again, neither good nor bad, just interesting.

I'm ranting at this point, and way off topic, perhaps. Mostly I get annoyed at the superior attitude of city-dwellers, like the choice to live either in the city or in the burbs is a moral one, when really it's just a matter of taste.

Posted by: sac on January 4, 2006 09:59 PM

"You might be right that "most people" can't afford to indulge their architectural tastes. But the wealthy can -- so why is it ridiculous for me to say that historically they have cared about architecture? After all, pretty much all good architecture ever built has been paid for by the wealthy."

Because you then contrasted it with how gauche the middle class is. Also, you I have not found that larger tract homes discourage neighborliness. My brother lives in such a place and his neighborhood is almost too friendly. I live in an older section of town, one that you perhaps think of when writing "Once upon a time, that was one of the reasons that people liked the suburbs so much: they were friendlier," and aside from my immediate neighbors, who are also recent transplants from elsewhere, no one talks to anybody. Why? Certainly not because of the architecture; rather, because it's an older neighborhood made up of mostly older people whose kids are grown. Soon (it's already happening) they will move and younger people will move in, fix up the houses, and talk with the parents of their kids' friends. It's all about people.

Also, back to the house pictured, these people dont' want to talk to their neighbors. If they did, they'd live on a smaller plot. Do you think the wealthy frop by their neighbors' house for a cup of sugar? So why should the upper-middle class, if they choose not to?

Posted by: sac on January 4, 2006 10:09 PM

This house it butt ugly! The garage is hideous. Who would spend the money putting up windows in a garage? A place where in an American household largely stores CRAP instead of cars. Is the illusion of a bigger living space worth it? It would be much better set in the back and using that light for space you'd actually do things in like read to your children.

I don't mind suburbs, I live in one myself but what bugs me is the cookie cutter hoods with all the friggin' Big Wheels strewn about and stay at home mommies who can't complete a coherent sentence that doesn't involve the color of the brats' poop.

Posted by: michelle on January 4, 2006 10:14 PM

i'm not going to get into my thoughts on the burbs, as i am sure they are more or less the same as your thoughts on the city (or some variation thereof) and the discussion is a push.

the size of the house pictured in relation to its plot doesn't bother me either.

the implied neo-georgian/ federal style (who can really divne the specifics from it) of the pictured house doesn't bother me.

the house pictured bothers me. period. it bothers me in the fact that someone built it either thinking that it was a simulacrum of a good house or that some patsy would come along and be conned into thinking it was a good house, when in fact it is a slapdash overblown tent. it bothers me that this happens again and again and again with a whole segment of the population that has enough cash to not have to live in shit.

do not confuse this with felix's arguement that great architecture comes from the rich or whatever it is he's saying... if you have two choices for the money- one is crap and one is a good... why wouldn't you buy the good one?

in the end it is really a dumb arguement that bears a great deal of resemblance to any great dumb arguement like 'why globalization is bad' or 'tv is the downfall of culture' or 'do you know what the queers are doing to the soil'...


it is not a good house. and in so far as ugly/beauty can be partially derived from the consideration of the design of an item- the house is ugly.

Posted by: geoff on January 4, 2006 10:29 PM

whatever neighborhood Rivington St is in? Lily white.

Hm. Lemme give you the racial breakdown for 10002:

26.10% White
7.60% Black
0.30% Native American or Alaskan
0.10% Native Islander
12.90% Asian
26.80% Hispanic

Posted by: Felix on January 4, 2006 11:10 PM

And don't ask me what the other 26.2% are. Rats, probably.

Posted by: Felix on January 4, 2006 11:12 PM

Felix - I should have known to not spout off demographics around here. Anyway, I based that part of my rant on my 2 nights out there a few months ago. I guess I should blame Krucoff for only hanging around with whiteys. My point about the burbs being categroized as homogenous is still valid, however. At least out here in Sacramento (which was determined to be the most diverse place in the country, that could not be farther from the truth.

Michelle - your frothing contempt and ridiculous generalization of suburbanites is exactly the bile I was talking about.

Geoff - I love cities. I would live in one if I could afford it and if it didn't take substantially more physical effort to raise 3 kids in one. I know some people may argue it's easier and better to raise kids in a city, but not for me. When our kids are grown, my wife and I plan to retire in a city, most likely SF. So my argument does not come from a disdain for cities. Merely an objection to generalization of suburbs and their inhabitants as uncultured, homogenous sheep.

Posted by: sac on January 4, 2006 11:23 PM

SAC: you can be forgiven for your assumptions based on the Magician (however, didn't the Restaurant Festival right next door tip you off that perhaps it wasn't just whiter than white on Rivington?)

I think the photo is not the best possible example of awful McMansions. I'd be curious to know what the lintels and shutters are made of, if the windows are truly divided light or not, and some other details you can't get from the photo.

If you shot the house from a dead on perspective, the proportioning wouldn't seem as egregious (that doesn't mean it is okay). There are even passable venacular precedents of the brick veneer on only one side (considering that many houses don't even cover one entire facade with veneer).

That's not to say that I like anything about this house, but given what a relative hell home buying is in most parts of the country, this example unfortunately probably sits well above the median. And that is a sad fact.

I'd like to hear more at length about these wealthy people who care so much about architecture. It may be true that they have funded much of what is quality out there, but I would argue that isn't the majority of what they funded. Throw enough mud at a wall, etc. If anything, given the advantages of wealth, I'd say they've done a piss poor job.

Those rich also carry a considerable burden of responsibility for the conditions under which McMansions are built, given the pressure on the financial services industry and other investment vehicles to produce outsized returns. Property devleopment and home building then becomes hostage to the vagaries of the mortgage industry.

Hiring an architect to design your home, particularly if it is contrarian to the look and, more importantly, contents of the predominant style (I read an article once about how mortgages being written in certain zip codes over a certain level had to have whirlpool tubs in the master suite to justify their assessment), even if it gets past private owner's associations, won't get a mortgage. Take a look a the Smith-Adams Smith house here. The owners had very specific program requirements. As a result, even though it was a fairly generous footprint, in an established neighborhood (one of the most exclusive residential islands on the SE coast), because it did not result in the usual spread of 4 bedrooms, 'master suite' etc, they couldn't get a bank to touch it.

Posted by: 99 on January 5, 2006 12:57 AM

You mean they couldn't get a bank to finance it absent a buyer?

Posted by: Sterling on January 5, 2006 03:37 AM

Exactly, Sterling. In theory, a bank should be agnostic between lending me money to buy a house for a certain amount of money and lending me money to build a house for the same amount of money -- assuming that they're worth the same. In practice, however, banks are much more reluctant to lend money against sexy new architect-designed houses than they are to simply accept whatever the secondary market decrees. McMansions are OK, since there's a real market in those, but unique homes are harder to sell. The stance makes a certain amount of sense, but given the extreme reluctance with which a bank will repossess any property, it shouldn't be completely impossible to get financing.

Posted by: Felix on January 5, 2006 04:23 AM

If people want to plonk down big money for a bloated house on a tiny plot, looking into the neighbor's windows, that's their business.

The problem with McMansions isn't just aesthetic. My native area, Bucks County, PA, has seen many of these thrown up over the past 15 years.

The downsides include losing beautiful farmland to these developments and an incredible strain on infrastructure. Peaceable back roads are now routinely clogged. Bucks is one of only two counties (going on faulty memory here) in Pennsylvania that have actually experienced a rise in population - heaven knows how the people in Phoenix or Vegas handle the influx. And more people means even more farmland turned into schools, etc.

But the alternative - decline - seems worse to me. I'm sure the impoverished few in eastern Oregon would gladly trade their beautiful farmhouse for a McMansion in a dynamic economy.

Posted by: Jame on January 5, 2006 04:56 AM

If people want to plonk down big money for a bloated house on a tiny plot, looking into the neighbor's windows, that's their business.

But isn't it the neighbors' business as well? Back in my househunting days, I had an offer accepted on a condo in Lower Manhattan which had magnificent views of the East River and the Brooklyn Bridge. I withdrew the offer when I found out that there were plans afoot to build a condo right in front of "my" window, obliterating the view -- and the value of the apartment.

Posted by: Felix on January 5, 2006 05:20 AM

Well, banks don't lend money they don't expect to get back. What you're talking about here is not a mortgage, it's a small business loan, and a loan officer or committee is entitled to exercise judgement about the prospects of the business. If a developer wants to build experimental housing it should do so on its own dime or on venture capital raised for that purpose.

Now if a property owner of sufficient means went to a bank for mortgage financing to build such a house with the intent of living in it, I would be surprised if the bank turned him away.

Posted by: Sterling on January 5, 2006 05:48 AM

Whereas I'm willing to talk about my finances in detail, it's not my place to do so about others. So suffice it to say you are flat out wrong in this instance.

Posted by: 99 on January 5, 2006 06:41 AM

No, Sterling, that's exactly what we're talking about -- individuals wanting to build a house to their own specifications to live in themselves. Banks turn such people away all the time, for many good reasons and some bad ones. But the fact is that can be very difficult to mortgage such houses, even after they've been built. Banks are not always rational. When I was shopping for mortgages, Bank of America told me that I could get one on my own, but that me and my wife together would be turned down, despite the fact that she has no debts at all.

Posted by: Felix on January 5, 2006 06:44 AM

Okay, boys. You're talking about two different products, a mortgage vs. a construction loan. Obviously the latter is much more risky because the bank is lending money on a concept and not something real and immediately quantifiable. Not to mention if your house is fairly unique, it will be difficult to find adequate comps to support your expected value which is not always what you spent to build the place.

Architectural plans can be appraised as is "planned" but often things change along the way. Construction loans work on a % of completion which is often quantified by % of actual cost incurred over expected total. It's hard to monitor whether the bank's proceeds are actually being spent in the way that was promised, even w/regular inspections (which are costly for the bank).

Take Bill & Melinda's house on Lake Washington for example. Melinda changed the tile in her swimming pool twice. The cost to build their house was ridiculous because of all the changes that were made along the way. Also, there was no comp except for like some king's mansion Egypt which was why there was a huge uproar in what King County wanted in annual RE taxes from them (the county based tax on value derived by cost). If value is determined by what someone is willing to pay for it then their house is worth half of what they spent to build it because everything was too specific to their taste (e.g. structure for electronically projected art and 60-something car garage).

Anyone who's even done any remodeling knows that cost overruns are a HUGE issue. You have to take into account the risk that cost (and supply) of building materials and labor will change. After Katrina, steel prices have increased 2.5x. Other materials have tripled. Finding contractors is nearly impossible.

And maybe after you start digging a foundation, you find that the land underneath is shit and won't support the planned house.

My point is, banks are hardly evern "not always rational". They've been doing this same kind of business for a long time and there are solid reasons for turning down construction loans and very few bad ones. Even if the loan isn't a 'spec' in the traditional sense, there's still a lot gambling going on.

Posted by: michelle on January 5, 2006 07:17 AM

"When I was shopping for mortgages, Bank of America told me that I could get one on my own, but that me and my wife together would be turned down, despite the fact that she has no debts at all."

I find this to be a peculiar statement. Adding her means your risk profile changed. If she had no debt at all and was only bringing in excess cash flow then she must've been bringing in extra risk via credit score.

Posted by: michelle on January 5, 2006 07:24 AM

I misunderstood - I thought we were talking about an architect building one or more of these houses prior to finding a buyer or buyers. That's why I separated it out between a commercial loan and a mortgage.

I'm not clear on what happened in this case. It could be that the situation Michelle describes is the rationale, or it could be that the bank felt that the resale value of the home would be less than the mortgage principle, which is a situation banks strive never to be in. I don't know. Not enough information.

Posted by: Sterling on January 5, 2006 07:36 AM

Principal, that is.

Posted by: Sterling on January 5, 2006 07:38 AM

To declare my biases: I never much liked living in the suburbs growing up, but I'm also with Sac in fending off snotty and ill-informed anti-suburban bias, which, as he correctly notes, is usually the continuation of politics by other means. An example: Obesessing about the taxonomy of poop (Michelle, #11) is universal and is happening RIGHT NOW in an apartment ON THE BOWERY. Who'd have thought? What next? Could I start behaving like a regular Joe and buy a car? Maybe I'll even start buying all that cheap stuff at Wal-Mart rather than being ripped off at the corner Deli.

Posted by: Matthew on January 5, 2006 05:34 PM


You may be right but every career-woman friend turned stay-at-home mommy who's moved into the burbs can ONLY talk poo poo. Am I right or am I right? Their lives become so sheltered in the burbs, an exciting outing becomes a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. Going into the city for a play or anything cultural becomes too much a burden to do anymore. Thus, more poop talk.

Posted by: michelle on January 5, 2006 05:55 PM

You've just ripped the lid off of parenthood, Michelle. Nice work. To add to your expose, that shit (har) happens to parents regardless of where they live. Extreme reactions such as yours are merely fear of losing control over almost every aspect of your life, as one does when one becomes a parent. Also, you tend to love the little buggers more than anything you will ever love again, so forgive us for being preoccupied. You may be encouraged to know that once the 2nd and 3rd kid comes along, our fascination with excrement goes away, or at least returns to the shit coming out of our own asses.

Posted by: sac on January 5, 2006 06:23 PM

I have become fascinated by poo. This happened after I looked in the mirror over Christmas and realized that I had a poo handprint on my face that had been there at least an hour.

I live in a rented overpriced coffin style 1 bed apt in a rather unromantic location of NYC.

I would live in that house if it had a wet bar and a wing for the servants.

Posted by: maccers on January 5, 2006 06:44 PM

SAC: You're so predictably defensive about parenthood. It's so easy to get a rise out of you. And much more entertaining than egging on Sterling these days. Do you too rent out cheaply for parties? Sanford, perhaps you ought to start pimping.

Posted by: michelle on January 5, 2006 07:10 PM

We are all predictable. You about your attitude towards the suburbs, and me about parenthood. As for parties, yes, I am cheap unless you want me to bust out my junk, then the price goes up exponentially.

Posted by: sac on January 5, 2006 07:21 PM

Also, poo is interesting.

Posted by: Matthew on January 5, 2006 08:40 PM

So is puke, by the way.

Posted by: Matthew on January 5, 2006 08:43 PM

Yeah, but SAC, the only reason I write that shit is because I KNOW it'll get your goat EVERY time. It's like putting 99 in a middle of a bar, in a matter of seconds he's all over the one chick with a wedding ring on. Besides, I've lived in the burbs almost all my life. I like it because I love having parking. And I love my car!

Matthew, you're right. Poo and puke are intersting. I've been quite obsessed with my own over the past 6 mos. I'm elated during the rare occasions when I have a smooth BM event and puke without chunks. Totally the best.

Posted by: michelle on January 5, 2006 08:55 PM

Hm. I read all this bitter city-suburb rant before reading the Slate piece, and now I have to say the whole thing's screwed up.

The real problem--both here and with WR's own muddled slideshow--seems to be an uncritical and misguided embrace of bigness. Bigger=better? I'll never forget being in highschool in Raleigh and having an adult from church brag about how he kind of splurged on his Williamsburg Colonial because, "how often to you buy 3,000 sf, right?" [I didn't tell him our house was a lot bigger and it was no big whoop.]

Square footage and ceiling heights and double-height entries and giant master suites are the core value proposition for the RE industry; the "amenities" and the "features" are where the lifestyle enhancements and curb appeal happen. That, and from the size, of course.

Ryb, meanwhile seems totally fine with gigantic houses, as long as they're done by an architect with a name, not just a developer. [Maybe we can call these McRybs?] Pastiche is bad--unless it's by Maybeck, "whose early-20th-century houses characteristically blended craftsman, Queen Anne, and Japanese influences." Ostentation? Bad, unless it's a BevHills re-creation of a James River Plantation. And shoehorning every possible cubic foot into a tiny lot is fine, too--for Robert AM Stern.

Not that I think McMansions are in the eye of the beholder or that the suburbs don't have alienating design and land use. Or that cities are a panacea. Just that the corollary to a McMansion isn't a McRyb; but a smaller, user-centric house in a higher-density neighborhood. I can't believe I'm arguing FOR New Urbanism, but there you go.

Posted by: greg.org on January 5, 2006 09:53 PM

Great stuff.

I am looking to buy a house (in Germany) right now and this thread looks to be the place where I can learn

- aesthetically what type of place not to buy to avoid metrosexual censure (thanks Felix!) and, more to the point,

- get tips on mortgages too.

I am ignorant about mortgages, and am in the dark about benefits of a Bausparvertrag, say versus normal bank loan. And the whole "Tilgung" aspect is still mysterious to me. Can any of the panel offer me some handy tips?

Posted by: Claude de Bigny on January 6, 2006 08:56 AM

We don't have Bausparvertrag in the U.S., though I understand the British experience with them is fairly positive. Can't really offer any input there. As for tilgung, probably best to go with the fixed-rate option, if it's available.

Posted by: Sterling on January 6, 2006 02:49 PM

Ha! German housing market sucks. My advice? Unless you plan on dying in it, run while you can!

Posted by: michelle on January 6, 2006 02:59 PM

Why? The houses are well cheap and the interest rates are still low. I am renting here now and resent this, can buy a better place for the same monthly amount. Even if I move on in a year or two, it ought to make sense, oder?

Posted by: Claude de Bigny on January 6, 2006 04:01 PM

I think Michelle is suggesting that it's time consuming and frustrating to get in and out, at least relative to U.S. housing markets.

In most states in the U.S. it's actually gotten a lot EASIER in the last twenty years to buy and sell a home. There's more paperwork involved as a result of environment regs, lead paint and asbestos disclosure, etc, but not dramatically more and attorneys generally handle it.

A lot of this has to do with the streamlining and professionalization of the appraisal system - reforms which came about as a result of the S&L default and well-publicized related scams like the Clintons' Whitewater. Also, speciality mortgage bankers have expedited processes through automation, in response to competition.

In the 80s, closings in much of the country typically were scheduled for 90 days after contracts were signed, but it's increasingly common for only 30 or 45 days to elapse prior to transfer of title.

The downside of all this is that a lot of people who really shouldn't qualify for a home loan now are able to obtain one.

Posted by: Sterling on January 6, 2006 04:12 PM

Claude's right. Houses are well cheap in Germany. Eventually the enormous discrepancy between house prices in Germany vis-a-vis places like the UK, Ireland and Spain will even out. And even if some of that is the latter housing markets subsiding a little bit, there's still a lot of room for the German housing market to rise -- especially if some of the bureaucracy is jettisoned.

As for the Bausparvertrag, I think, contra Sterling, that there is a world of difference between a German Bausparkasse and an English Building Society. I say just go with whoever offers you the best price for the down-payment you have available -- which I think might have to be bigger at a Bausparkasse than at a bank.

Tilgung is just principal a/o/t interest, I think. But I might be completely wrong about all this.

Posted by: Felix on January 7, 2006 01:47 AM

I definitely wouldn't buy a house there if you're only planning on keeping for less than 5 years. You won't recoup your entrance and exit costs. There is very little to no appreciation in houses in much of Germany. People don't move. Like ever. They buy or build a house and they typically die in them. Unemployment is still really high and the new jobs are almost always coming from the south.

Posted by: michelle on January 7, 2006 04:49 AM

Yes, people do stick in one place/house here much more than they would in the US or UK. I saw a v nice 1850 house with walled garden and pool in the centre of a pretty market town. The widow selling it had been born there, in 1930. She'd married and they renovated it in the 60s & 70's, adding a conservatory, the pool and a sauna. I think they were keen nudists. They made a bar in the cellar, which a lot of Germans did in the 70s, but they'd done it quite well, and she said they had done some serious partying there. She was beginning to get Alzheimer's, and allowed her doted-on cat all sorts of liberties - the sauna had been used as a cat toilet by the smell of things, it stank to high heaven. But a lovely big (250 sq m) house with lotsa potential. She had spent all her life there,l from babyhood, through swinging times in the 60s, and then retirement, widowhood and into her final dottiness. I've come across that a few times with old ladies wanting to sell off their childhood homes. But it was dirt cheap, this house, and if the missus hadn't put her foot down I would have made an offer on it pronto.

Posted by: Claude de Bigny on January 7, 2006 04:00 PM

The odor of cat piss can have astonishing durability, as smells go.

Posted by: Sterling on January 7, 2006 04:42 PM

But like poo and puke, cat piss is oddly fascinating, don't you find? It would certainly make for a novel "conversation piece" in my new house..

Posted by: Claude de Bigny on January 9, 2006 05:20 PM

Don't divuldge us in anymore TMI by plugging us in on how you've also installed Golden Showers into your household routine.

Posted by: michelle on January 9, 2006 05:29 PM

Golden showers (as far as I can work out) are a standard part of any self-respecting German's hygieno-sexual regime - it's called "Natursekt" (nature's champagne) - although I haven't gone native to the extent of adapting it for myself.

What is TMI though?

Posted by: Claude de Bigny on January 10, 2006 07:56 AM

Zu viele Informationen.

Posted by: michelle on January 10, 2006 08:19 PM

Here you go, Sac. Happy birthday.

Posted by: Felix on January 13, 2006 05:07 AM

Speaking of German household design (and TMI), our old friend Herr Armin Meiwes, the "Rothenburg Cannibal", is back in court.

His original crime involved a slaughterhouse he had integrated into his otherwise agreeable looking half-timbered dwelling.

I am not sure I would count his house as being in suburbia, but certainly what he did, and his general demeanour of repressed middleclassness, would fit into the "how awful and hypocritical life in the ´┐Żburbs is" thesis.

Anyway, state prosecutors want his sentence (8.5 years) increased. To spare Michelle's blushes I shall not recount the details of Meiwes' appetites, Wiener schnitzel and all, there's enough cock and bull on this site already.

Posted by: Claude de Bigny on January 13, 2006 08:35 AM

On what grounds could they invent to increase his sentence? I thought he was maxed out given the laws that existed at the time and the fact that his victim wanted to die and be eaten in a very specific manner?

While I was living in Germany, there was another very interesting case where a family fed their father to their dogs. I asked my German students if they knew why I thought this happened and they were perplexed. I told them it was because none of the friggin' stores are open on Sunday!!!

These are not cases of "a general demeanour of repressed middleclassness". I think it has more to do with Germans and their pooches needing to eat more veggies.

Yum yum, it's dinner time. Gotta go.

Posted by: michelle on January 18, 2006 12:29 AM

I think Meiwes' sin was that he ate only part of the body, and did not dispose of the remaining remains in a properly organic fashion (ie in the green bin which is collected Thursday every other week).

The latest scandal here has been about "Gammelfleisch" (rotten meat) which is apparently sold by all butchers in Germany despite draconian regulations, and the government is worried that this incorrect disposal of half-eaten corpses may damage Germany's image.

Posted by: Claude de Bigny on January 18, 2006 09:51 AM

Oh god. Don't remind me. I nearly vomitted each time I had to take the trash out - especially in the summer. Two-week old garbage which, because I often forgot to take out, became four-weeks old was the highlight of my being an expat of Germany. That and paying 55% in taxes.

Posted by: michelle on January 18, 2006 12:52 PM

Felix, yeah I saw that article. I should have written it.

Posted by: sac on January 18, 2006 04:46 PM