The river of housing

August 11, 2006 | Housing, Science fiction

If life is a quest, then our homes are its vessels, each a personal space that we bring with us up and down the river of housing needs:



Philip Jose Farmer made this metaphor science-fictionally real


Home is where we spend more time, where we gather and store our belongings and float with them through life: upriver and then down.



Thomas Wolfe understood

Each home, like each vessel on life’s river, has its own unique rigging: its price, comfort level, configuration, required effort. 




Some are better early on the river, some better later.   No one vessel is optimal for our entire river, and when we start, we do not know what vessel we will need when.  As we round each bend, we sometimes confront rapids or shallows, where for the next stage we need a new vessel. 



Household container, for sale or rent.


1.         We navigate up, then float down


As we canoe upriver (change tenure, gain control, increase our housing space), we also increase the financial effort (monthly installments, down payments, and maintenance burdens of ownership).  We must work harder to rise higher (financially and in housing cubic consumed), we accumulate financial altitude (equity buildup). 


The bachelor pad?

All this means work, which we willingly undertake because we feel we are rising: demographically, economically, and habitationally.


In the afternoon and evening of our lives, we may choose to coast down river, but it’s not the same river.


“And you’re not the same person, either.”


We reduce our housing consumption and liquefying accumulated equity (through reverse mortgages or endowment-based congregate living), and coast down the equity river.


2.         Our big events require portage


Unlike a walk in the woods — one foot in front of the other — housing tenure is characterized by long periods of relative calm (sailing or paddling our vessel) interspersed with very complicated and demanding portages, when we shift from one vessel to the next.  (Rare indeed is the individual who is born, lives, and dies in the same house.) 


We disembark (move out), unload our goods and chattels, journey over unfamiliar rocky terrain (finding the new house and paying for it),



A very few are able to do it themselves.


stow our goods (move in, U-Purgatory), then embark in a new vessel.


Which always leaks, of course J.



Substantial rehab required.


3.         Our portages require bearers


Each shifting from one vessel to another is complicated.  We are in unfamiliar territory. 



Many savage underwriters lurking among the trees.


To us the river is new and unknown, each bend a mystery. 



Who knows what we’ll find in the uncharted lands?


Change makes markets; at every portage there are some who camp, who learn its ins and outs, who profit by their knowledge and their service.


(In historical fact, it’s no accident that cities grow up around portage points: Alexandria where the Mediterranean meets the Nile, Cairo where the delta meets the flood, Aswan at the First Cataract.)



Aswan‘s first cataract, low water


Indeed, each time the shift from one to another vessel attracts all the specialists — traders, guides, porters, moneychangers — or, in our world of real estate, the brokers, closing attorneys, appraisers, mortgage originators, and recapitalization experts, all of whom live on the turbulence.  Their value is that they do repeatedly what most people do rarely, often only once.


Our winding cruise through this extended metaphor has thus yielded three housing-market insights:


Housing’s river: three insights


1.       Housing consumption is an arc: increasing in young adulthood, decreasing in old age

2.       Changing housing means changing homes, a discontinuous portage

3.       Each accommodation change calls forth portage specialists.


Life’s journey ends at the River Styx, where we exchange our open vessel for one more permanent.



“I’m from the underworld and I’m here to help you.”