Open House

Or, Sunday afternoon voyeurism.

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It’s Sunday afternoon. I’ve read the Sunday Times (skimming the Week in Review and studying the wedding announcements), fiddled with an essay in progress (taking out a paragraph and putting it back in again), called my sister to hash over our insecurities (which parent was more to blame?), and watched a rerun of Girlfriends. Still, there are two hours until dinner. What to do?

Fortunately, my husband has circled an open house in the local real estate section, and we’re off on a familiar Sunday jaunt.*

There are two sorts of open houses that my husband and I tend to frequent. One is for glamorous, million-dollar “stretch” houses that occupy former farmland on the border of town. These houses have a fascinatingly freakish quality: They are too large for any self-respecting family and too small for their lots. They have entertainment centers as big as football fields and bathrooms equipped to service male and female giants. They are absurd places to live in but fun to visit, a paradox that feeds our curiosity while bolstering our sense of superiority. In other words, we can gawk at the wine cellar and the home sauna while feeling we would spend our money — if we had it — on worthier things.

The other kind of house we like to visit resembles our own: an old house, preferably in the Victorian style, with lots of nice wood and interesting nooks and crannies. Our house was bought 20 years ago for a very good price that was later offset by the discovery that the roof had to be replaced, the car port was rotting, and the porch was falling apart. The historical lineage and craftsmanship of our house never cease to delight me, but its various failings are a continual source of worry and irritation: the (still) leaking roof, the loose floorboards, the crumbling plaster, the miniscule closets and bathrooms, the clanking radiators, the rust-colored water that flows from the taps. In short, it’s the sort of house that requires regular visits to other houses to make us feel better about it.

Today the open house is at a home that’s like our own, one that we’ve eyed for years with competitive curiosity.

The realtor greets us at the door with a pad and a plate of brownies. We scrawl our name illegibly on the pad, grab a brownie, and scurry away, guilty that our motives are not pure (not that half the neighborhood isn’t dropping by with the same impure motives). I think I recognize the couple down the block, whispering as they peer into the basement.

Traipsing through the house, I seek evidence about the occupants. There is an elaborate photo collage of smiling family members in colorful sweaters on the wall going up the stairs, a cluster of Little League trophies on the table in the hall, a leather-bound Complete Works of John Steinbeck on the shelf in the home study, and a Penn State banner over the fireplace in the den. Are there really families so apparently happy and well-adjusted? Open Houses always raise this sort of question. I am torn between thinking that most people are pretty normal and that I am weird, and, conversely, that appearances are misleading and these people are probably weirder than I am. I’ve seen Shadow of a Doubt and Blue Velvet. If I open a drawer, will I find his porn collection? Her sex toys? A collection of forged passports?

I assess the décor. Happy and well-adjusted doesn’t do well on the esthetic front. Who chose plaid carpeting for the den? Is that really a poster of Monet’s “Waterlillies” over the bed? And how about that doll collection in the living room? There’s a lot of pleasure to be gotten from other people’s bad taste.

The rooms are smaller and the ceilings are lower than ours. I am relieved. Then again, the house has larger bathrooms and a finished basement. Not to mention a renovated kitchen.

I’ve become an expert on kitchens ever since my visit to the Home Show a month ago. I can report that wood-paneled refrigerators are still big but stainless steel is gaining ground, that teak is replacing granite as the preferred counter-top surface, that barstools are out — very ’80s — replaced by narrow, high-backed armchairs. Plasma TVs are to be hung like Calder mobiles over the teak-surfaced counters, presumably so you can watch Rachel Ray in HD while you dice your tomatoes. As I see it, kitchens date quickly, which is why I feel better about never having renovated mine. I tell myself, moreover, that if I had a fancy kitchen I would have to ratchet up my cooking skills, or at least sharpen my knives, which are now so dull that I can barely cut a bagel.

“Isn’t it a great kitchen!” says the realtor, who has tailed us into this dazzling space. “It’s just been redone.”

“I can see that,” I say testily, noting the clutter of high-end appliances which seem to suggest a lot of serious, duo cooking (his and her ovens are now as de rigueur as his and her sinks). “Why did they renovate if they were going to sell?”

“Well,” clucks the realtor, pleased to be able to confide: “messy divorce.”

My husband and I, and the other couple who have materialized out of the basement, shake our heads solicitously. I was right about surface: We’re in Blue Velvet territory. Was it all that cooking together? His porn collection? Her sex toys — or lack thereof? Maybe the dolls had something to do with it.

“How much do they want for this place?” I whisper to my husband. We glance at the fact sheet. The price is closing in on $800,000. Designer kitchen aside, this seems high. My exhilaration mounts. If they want $800,000 for this dump, then ours… Imagination takes flight. Not of course that they will get $800,000. The market being what it is, there are a slew of soi-disant charming Victorians languishing unsold in the neighborhood.

This too isn’t so bad. It makes me relieved to not be selling our own house right now. How much lower, I wonder, will the owners have to go to unload this place? Perhaps we should consider putting in a bid. Too bad the house has little to recommend it (beyond the newly renovated kitchen, rapidly becoming outdated) and that we already have a house we like around the corner.

It’s been a productive afternoon, looking at a lackluster house with an asking price (if not a selling price) that makes us feel hopeful about what we can ask (if not get) for our own house, thankfully not on the market. It’s time to go home to eat our meatloaf in our unrenovated kitchen and be grateful that we’re not going through a messy divorce. • 17 March 2008

*It is my conviction that real estate is the preferred fantasy of upwardly mobile professionals; sexual fantasy is the fallback position. That’s what happened with former Governor Eliot Spitzer. Since his father was a real estate mogul and he lived in a luxury apartment for free, he was deprived of real estate lust and driven, by default, to frequenting high-priced call girls.

 

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.

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