February 11, 2006

If You Can't Afford the Tip, Don't Eat at the Restaurant

RECENTLY, The Boston Globe had a fascinating story looking at how homeowners ensconsed in massive newly-built homes decorated their dwellings. The newspaper found that not only did many "McMansion" owners underuse rooms in their cavernous residences, some actually had trouble properly decorating their homes.

Here's the money graf from the Globe's story*:

It's fair to say that the average family with a new oversize home doesn't have what it needs to fill it up. ''It's hard to stretch the modest furnishings you brought from your 1,500-square-foot Boston brownstone into 10,000 square feet," says Needham interior decorator (Sheri) Edsall, who has done work for several clients with huge homes. ''What usually happens is they space their furniture out -- a piece in this room, a piece in that room -- and then they run out of furniture. And they're cash poor. Almost everyone ends up with one or two rooms that are unfinished. They have tumbleweeds rolling through them. The kids end up riding their bikes in them."

There are a few amusing anecdotes sprinkled throughout the Globe's story, such as the homeowner who admits that the new home her family has moved into is "way over our heads." Another homeowner has a room simply called "the bonus room" in her family's 13-room manse: it has a pool table in it and not much else, except perhaps a repository of bad luck. But my favorite anecdote from the story is as follows:

Mary Beth Orfao calls one of the 16 rooms in her elegant 11,000-square-foot custom-designed manse in Concord ''the family library corner." (There's also a living room, family room, guest suite, ''husband's retreat," ''Costco room" for storing groceries, crafts room, personal gym, and room designated for the family dog, Carmela, with a dog shower, dog wallpaper, and a heated slate floor.) The library corner has custom cherry cabinetry, a reading chair, and a desk. ''My husband uses the room, and the kids get tutored here," she says.

Isn't that an amazing paragraph? I think so. It reeks of both upper-middle-class pretension and upper-class parvenudom. I mean, come on: a family library corner? Why not just call it a library? Maybe there aren't enough books. Along those lines, why not call the "husband's retreat" an office or a study? Somehow, I can't imagine the man casually saying, "Darling, I'll be in the husband's retreat until brunch." Yet strangely, the home with the "husband's retreat" also has a "Costco room." Not a pantry or storage room -- a "Costco room."

This statistic is also worth noting:

Number of rooms for domestic servants mentioned in story: 0
Number of rooms for dogs mentioned in story: 1

I realize that it is extremely expensive to have live-in staff, and household tasks are often outsourced these days (a search for "domestic help" on Google retrieves 681,000 hits). Plus, it could be a matter of taste. Still, though, it seems strange one would have 16 rooms, 11,000 square feet and an entire room made over for a dog -- yet no mention of any space set aside for potential workers.

A lot about this story seems strange, really, to the point where it raises alarm bells in the back of my head. If we go back to the first quote from Edsall, the interior decorator, it seems that lots of people have too much house and not enough money to properly enjoy it. Not so much people like the Orfaos, who clearly have money, but the cash-poor folks Edsall mentions. The latter group seems to have forgotten the old maxim that if one can't afford the tip, one ought not eat at the restaurant.

Why is that a worry? Well, what the devil happens if the economy goes south again, or interest rates keep rising, or some localized real-estate bubble goes pop? If a considerable number of people are having trouble furnishing their homes, it stands to reason that with a few bad life events, they could feasibly someday have trouble paying their mortgages. Should the dynamics in the housing market change, it could have an impact on consumer spending and other fuels which keep the national economic engine running. And if that sputters, God help us all.

* registration required, the bastards.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at February 11, 2006 10:46 AM | TrackBack