The Dangers of House Hunting

Feb 23, 2018

Before the winter weather hit, my wife and I were deeply into the quest of finding a new house. Nothing is forcing us to move. Maybe we’re driven partly by consumerist urges. Clicking through online photos of dens and kitchens and sunrooms and backyards, we were looking for the right combination of features. We were patient shoppers. With each day we were getting a better sense of what we wanted, but as we clarified our goals, the flaws of particular homes seemed more significant, causing us to hesitate. We were caught in the trap that psychologist Barry Schwartz calls the paradox of choice. We had too many options, too much time, and too strong a tendency to seek perfection. Because this huge decision was elective, we also had the fundamental decision of whether to choose at all.

Why move house? Our current home isn’t perfect, but we aren’t hurting. We live on a charming street among friendly neighbors. The area is decidedly dog friendly. We love to walk, and the river path is only a few minutes away. We live conveniently near my work. Yet we’ve both come to feel that our place is too small and dull. It lacks the exciting features we would love, such as a wider stretch of land, a more modern kitchen, and greater light-filled interior spaces. At some level, we believe that a new house will make us happier. Maybe that’s an illusion, but isn’t it easy to imagine that the wise person who wrote that “happiness comes from within” did so while sitting comfortably in a cute breakfast nook with a lake view?

We visited one home that came close to winning us over, but in the end it failed us, or we failed it. The property – an old-fashioned home with a modern kitchen – lay along the river beside a city park. There were a few problems with the layout, but the most fundamental flaw had nothing to do with the rooms themselves. It was the fact that the architects, almost a hundred years ago, ignored the beautiful water view. The sunroom didn’t even look out on the river. As owners, we would forever be wishing to reorient the house. That would be a constant frustration. We would be stuck merely imagining the views that should come with such a setting. The ideal home should reflect your feelings about the outdoors. Cave dwellers want a dark hideaway, and sun-worshipers want a temple of light. The right house can foster a celebration of living. In those terms, our current home feels like a waiting room.

Admittedly, these are the considerations of an idealist who stands above the problem, like a god. Such questions are beside the point for people who are forced suddenly to relocate. They have to satisfy themselves with the best available choice. Something else is happening with us. In a case like ours, hunting for a new home is an existential gambit. The process inevitably involves me in reflections on fundamental values. Imagining my self in a new home means imagining the choice of a new life – and even the choice of where I might eventually die. On that day, how extensive do I want my view, and my mortgage, to be? In the meanwhile, who am I? How should I invest myself in this world? Do I know myself well enough to make a good choice? If you want to reassess all that your life has been and what it might be, go house hunting. And when you make a decision (if you can make one), share your wisdom with irresolute people like me who wander in the realm of possibilities.

Music: House Hunters Theme from HGTV, "House Hunting" from Adventure Time (Cartoon Network)

Credit Tony Krabill