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Going Home Again : Southland residents stick with the familiar and buy the homes they were raised in.

July 17, 1994|SHERI ROSS GORDON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Sheri Ross Gordon is a Los Angeles writer and editor

Lionel and Pam Ochoa didn't sleep well the night they moved into their El Monte home. Like many new buyers, the young couple felt out of place, homesick.

But it wasn't the house that upset them. The Ochoas knew it very well--Pam Ochoa had grown up there. What felt strange was their new bedroom--the same one Pam's mother had slept in for 20 years.

"When we walked into the bedroom, all we could think of was Mom," Pam Ochoa said. "I didn't think we should be (there)."

"Not the best atmosphere for romance," added Lionel Ochoa.

Welcome to adult life in your childhood home.

Like other Southland residents who bought the house they were raised in, Pam Ochoa, 26, lives with warm memories of her family every day. "I liked the fact that we were moving into a home --not just a house," the fourth-grade teacher explained.

A childhood home, unlike other houses, comes with a built-in persona--one that exudes either heartening or haunting memories. Some buyers who go home again feel empowered by their reminiscences and want to honor those memories by maintaining the family homestead.

Other owners say their enjoyment is tempered by guilt over adapting the house to their needs as well as the fear of returning to what they've outgrown.

But whether it's been a positive or negative experience, most family home buyers would agree that never before has a real estate transaction taught them so much about themselves.

Keith Jacobson knew what he was getting into when he purchased his grandmother's Westchester home in June, 1993. After years of Sunday dinners there, the house was familiar territory. In Southern California, that's especially important:

When the Northridge earthquake hit "it was pitch dark, but I knew this place back and forth," said Jacobson, 36, who grew up just around the corner. While the neighbors were stumbling around without lights, Jacobson knew the house's layout by heart, after years of playing "Hot Wheels" along the hallways.

Even before the earth shook, the Los Angeles Kings account executive could pinpoint the home's strengths and weaknesses; there was no hiding of the home's defects.

Other childhood-home purchasers echo Jacobson's relief at not having to deal with sellers who may mislead buyers about the condition of the property.

Not only are family-home buyers intimately familiar with the house's flaws, they know the closest supermarkets and movie theaters, the quickest way to the freeway. And the next-door neighbors may not need an introduction.

"There's a great deal to be said for living in a community you know," said psychologist Dr. Irene Goldenberg, a professor at UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute. "There's a lot of stress and pressure in our society, and living in a familiar place can lessen those strains."

Goldenberg said living in a family home can inspire a sense of history, of belonging, which can be especially refreshing in Southern California's peripatetic lifestyle.

Beth Walker, a prominent community relations professional (she did not want her real name used), appreciated the intergenerational lesson--the sense of being rooted--that her four children received while living in their father's childhood home in the Fairfax district.

"In California, it's so rare to live in the same community, let alone the same house, as your grandparents," she said. "My children saw their grandparents all around them--it was a very positive experience."

Kathie Swanson, who is renting her parents' Encino home, marvels that her 2-year-old son, Evan, finds the same hiding places she did as a child. Swanson, 34, enjoys telling Evan about his grandparents' carefully tended garden. "My parents' sweat is in this house, and even if we did buy it, it would always be their house," she said.

Swanson and her husband have talked about renovating the 1950s home, but so far they've resisted.

Swanson's desire to put her own mark on a house in which she was once the dutiful daughter illustrates what is for many family-home buyers the most significant challenge. "(Buying a childhood home) is similar to moving into the first wife's house," Goldenberg said. "You feel haunted by the way someone else lived."

Freda Garbose, 58, remembers being "afraid of losing (herself)" when she and her husband bought his parents' 4,500-square-foot Georgian Colonial house in the small Massachusetts town of Gardner.

Garbose had already selected a site and an architect to design her "dream home" when a family-business opportunity prompted a relocation in the early 1960s. "I wanted what was mine, not someone else's. I didn't want to become my in-laws," she said.

Garbose painted every room in the house white, updated the kitchen and added a master suite. In adapting her in-laws' house to the needs of her young children, Garbose said, "all my worries about keeping my own identity disappeared."

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