Try turning the lunchroom conversation to condominiums.
Your co-workers will probably describe condos as the mini-malls of housing: cheaply built, mind-numbingly repetitive structures forced upon unlucky communities.
Folks who live in condos are socially respectable only if they hate living there and swear they're devoting their lives to "trading up" to a single-family house.
Anyone who lives in a condo and actually likes it is perceived as a Joe Isuzu sort of character who fears yard work would cost him time better spent cruising singles bars.
About now, Biff, that bright young junior bookkeeper the boss likes so much, will chime in that he and the missus just bought a brand-new house in Tiffany Estates or Monte Carlo Villas or some such thing, which means it's sitting in the desert behind a mountain range.
A Traditional Choice
Sure the commute to downtown is long, Biff admits. But getting up at 4:30 a.m. can be rather pleasant, especially since his wife, Buffy, and a lot of their neighbors are up getting ready to go to their jobs too.
Buffy and Biff made a traditional, and many would say wise, choice. On their combined annual salary of, say, $50,000, they probably felt they had few housing options.
Houses in their price range in established suburban areas like the San Fernando Valley were probably "fixers" or otherwise distressed properties and were likely to be in unappealing neighborhoods. By comparison, that new, 1,500-square foot home in the desert looked good.
Maria and Mike--my wife and I--spent the first half of 1988 looking for a home and, coincidentally, have about the same income as Biff and Buffy. Like them, we're a 30-ish couple planning a small family.
We Bought a Neighborhood
In fact, we bought at about the same time and spent the same amount of money for a home. But we're different from Biff and Buffy in one respect: We live in a condo. And we like it. And we plan to stay.
Biff and Buffy bought a house. We bought a neighborhood. Biff and Buffy were priced out of the neighborhoods their parents live in. We live in the neighborhood my parents were priced out of. We live in Los Feliz.
Our third-floor, 1,450-square foot condo has two bedrooms and a loft, a large balcony, a 19-foot living room ceiling and lovely views of the Silver Lake hills and the Griffith Park Observatory.
Our 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage payment, $938 a month, is no problem. I work full time but, being a teacher, have the summer off. I feel no need to scramble for summer employment. My wife works part time and goes to graduate school.
During the school year, I commute to work by bicycle, which I've estimated saves me about $3,000 a year in car-related costs.
Park as Back Yard
The neighborhood has become our front yard. Increasingly, we seem to be walking to the supermarket, the florist or the drugstore. Sometimes after dinner we just stroll around the neighborhood with no particular destination, admiring the architecture and the hills.
Griffith Park has become our 4,000-acre back yard. I hike there with the Sierra Club and cycle with the Los Angeles Wheelmen. Including visits to the observatory, the L.A. Zoo and the other facilities, I set foot in Griffith Park about 300 days a year.
Our "yard work" is also neighborhood-based. We belong to the Los Feliz Improvement Assn., the local homeowner group, and the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Assn. Maria is vice president of our building's board of directors. And I recently completed an earthquake preparedness course with about 35 of our neighbors. We hope to keep the neighborhood functioning in the uncertain days after "The Big One."
If Maria and I had wanted to, we could have bought on the Westside, Pasadena, anywhere in the Valley. We were free to live almost anywhere we wanted to--except for perhaps on the beach at Malibu or in deepest Beverly Hills--simply because we agreed to live in a condo.
Condo living provides moderate-income people in Southern California a freedom they haven't had in years, maybe decades: living where you want to rather than where you can afford.
Little House Below
I'll give you an idea how impossible housing prices are for regular folks in my neighborhood.
About 30 feet below our living room window sits a little stucco box of a house. It was built in the '20s, has three bedrooms, one bath and about 1,500 square feet. It has no yard to speak of: a tiny fringe of grass in the front (maybe enough to pitch a small tent on) and a back yard that consists of a concrete driveway and a shed. Inside, the rooms are little and dark. However, the house has been nicely reconditioned. The asking price: $349,000.
All right, so it won't sell for the asking price, but I think it will go for at least $300,000. Let's say Maria and I were playing by the traditional rules and viewed this as a starter house (You wouldn't want to spend your life in that cracker box, believe me.)