Thursday, May 3, 2012

Home Is Where the Sofa Is

Manhattan is lousy with real estate offices, and all of them put photo collections like the one above in their display windows so people can see what's for sale. There's hundreds more every week on websites and glossy magazine pages.

Every time I see them I shake my head, because of course the photos don't show what's for sale at all. They're just pictures of other people's furniture. If you took away the stylish sofas, chairs and grand pianos and all the expensive rugs and artwork, most of these rooms would look pretty much the same in their closeups, which is to say not very good.

Your average New York apartment across all but the highest price ranges is plaster walls, wood floors, factory-made window frames, and small, merely serviceable kitchens and bathrooms. Until you trick them out with your own stuff, they're just white space, dwelling dummies.

Real estate is always said to be about "location, location and location." But in other places the location is a lot more likely to have some intrinsic character to it, some essence that makes up part of the core of the value you imagine you're acquiring when you take ownership.

Not here. The value you acquire when you buy in Manhattan is nearly all extrinsic to the property itself, starting with the fact that it happens to be in Manhattan and going on with its distance from work, transit, shopping, schools, night life or whatever else you think is cool.

Those are key considerations when you buy a home anywhere of course. But whereas elsewhere they're likely to be ancillary, here they're the whole ball game. The apartment is not where you live. It's only a staging area for your actual life which is conducted in other places.

So it's curious that New Yorkers obsess over real estate more than anybody else I know. Wherever you go, you can overhear people complaining about their condos and co-ops and talking about their searches for different space.

I suppose what happens is that people keep buying more furniture, so they eventually need more room to keep it in. This would also explain why brokers sell apartments with photos that do nothing but demonstrate their usefulness as storage facilities for personal property.

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