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TAKE THREE: Three views of the Southland | SHAWN HUBLER

In the Real Estate Stampede, a Heart Finds Its Way Home

April 10, 1998|SHAWN HUBLER

We bought our house at the top of the market, in the kind of frenzy usually reserved for stampeding wildebeests. It was 1990 and everyone who was anyone was "in the market," and if you weren't "in the market" you were dead meat.

Not wanting to be dead meat, we ran, snorting, to our bankbooks. Who could blame us, after all? It was the California real estate market, which is its own kind of wild kingdom. From one overpriced bungalow with cottage cheese ceilings to another we galloped, trying not to think about the price.

The house we found was, as homes can be, in the last place we thought to look. My husband's brother had talked us into checking out a place a block from the cul-de-sac where they'd grown up. The street was nothing special, or so it seemed. And the house was one of those yellow ranchettes that people my age deplore. Also, the galley kitchen, God help me, was a dead ringer for my mom's, a coincidence which at the time just about catapulted me back to the car.

But then we stepped out into the backyard, and I felt my lips part in delight. Emerald-colored grass. Camellias. Oleanders. Beds of roses and daffodils. And trees: fig, lemon, tangerine. Grapefruit, peach. Valencia orange. A big blue swimming pool, fragrant with that smell of sun and chlorine. We instantly fell in love.

And it was a darn good thing, because we ended up "in the market" just in time for it to give way beneath our feet. Like those wildebeests when the herd goes over the cliff, we were, almost immediately, dead meat.

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It is said that the housing market finally is back, that the drought has ended and it's springtime in the Serengeti again. In Santa Monica, run-down tract homes are going for three-quarters of a million dollars apiece. From Pasadena and Orange County come reports of bidding wars.

This, at least, is what is being said. Down here "in the market," though, things aren't as wild as they would have you believe. In the lexicon of the real estate agents, the "inventory" is "limited." People are thinking about moving, then thinking again.

Who would have thought that Southern Californians would ever learn to think twice in a good, old-fashioned real estate stampede? Who would have thought that our bred-in-the-bone quest for the quick buck would evolve into something vaguely resembling common sense?

But it has. This time around, there is no dinner party chitchat about nests doubling as nest eggs, ha ha, et cetera. All those people who spent the last boom imagining that their house was also their 401(k) have long since learned how it feels to see vast sums of equity just disappear.

The worship of property values has been ousted by the cult of the mutual fund, and concerns about the stock market notwithstanding, I think this is good. There's something creepy about betting your retirement, literally, on the farm. It's nice to see homes being just homes again.

Which isn't to say that it's bad to make money on your house, but isn't money, after all, the least of it? How can you put a dollar sign on the bedroom where you have read "The Runaway Bunny" 2,920 bedtimes in a row? How can you figure the calculus for that well-worn tire swing on your orange tree?

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We couldn't. The thing about real estate slumps is that they shed new light on the four walls within which you're forced to hunker down. Over time, I developed the strangest soft spot for '50s-style ranch houses. That my kitchen reminded me of my mother was something I grew to love.

I wondered how I ever could have looked down my nose at this seemingly typical street, which, now that I thought about it, was extraordinary, with its manicured lawns and pepper trees. So when the market made a comeback, and we wondered whether we should cash in and move, I almost wept at my own ambivalence.

There are laws in nature, as anyone who watches public television knows. The herd mentality, the quest for turf--these things are not overcome easily. But even the dumbest wildebeest will probably stampede more slowly next time after a run-in or two with that danged cliff.

Maybe this is why, when we put up that "For Sale" sign last month, my big, dumb heart ached every time I looked at it. And maybe this is why, though we're told that if we don't move now we're dead meat, we went out the other day and took the thing down.

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Shawn Hubler's e-mail address is shawn.hubler@latimes.com

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