One family's search for home

  • Article by: KATY READ , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 8, 2009 - 2:16 PM

A New York writer tells the funny but serious story of her family's harrowing search for a house in the final days of the real estate bubble.

Gimme Shelter by Mary Elizabeth Williams

Anyone who has tried to buy a house in this century probably can tell stories of astoundingly overpriced dwellings and other disappointments. Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote hers down. "Gimme Shelter" is an account of her experiences shopping for a house in the years just before the real estate bubble popped.

If Williams' tale is more harrowing than average, it's because she and her husband -- less-than-affluent writers in New York City -- decided to put down roots amid some of the most expensive real estate in the country. "Ugly Houses, Cruddy Neighborhoods, Fast-Talking Brokers and Toxic Mortgages," the book's subtitle, sums up the experience.

"Maybe trying to buy a home in a millionaire city on our middle-class budget was what we refer to in the online community as a 'tinyass first-world problem,'" she writes. "It's the one fate has handed us, though. We're living where our lives and destinies have sent us. We're just trying to pay our bills and give our kids an appropriate place to grow up. We have less than some and more than most. We are fortunate. I am wrecked."

Armed with a $400,000 budget and a gritty sense of humor, Williams traipses through an endless series of dim little rooms with peeling linoleum or missing appliances, their windows overlooking air shafts or the expressway. One place has a case of termites, another a yard covered with Astroturf. All carry eye-popping price tags.

"We've been priced out of neighborhoods we wouldn't dream of inhabiting, places where the presence of gorgeous 19th-century brick homes is mitigated by the fact they currently serve as drug houses and squats," she writes.

Increasingly desperate and panicky, Williams and her husband cling to their hopes and weigh compromises. Should they try to stretch beyond their budget, consider a move to outlying suburbs, look for a place with "good bones" that they can renovate?

Williams places her story in a larger context by describing the home-buying experiences of friends -- some similarly frustrated, others triumphant after stumbling upon lucky deals. She explains the mechanics of nontraditional mortgages and the like. Arguably, she crams in too many details, as the countless gloomy apartments and commiserating friends begin to blur.

But as a record of the toll that this manic moment in U.S. real estate took on one ordinary family, the book is valuable as history as well as entertainment.

The story ends happily -- sort of. They find a place. Then Williams' husband loses his job. Williams wrote in Salon last fall that the couple has since separated, their marriage failing under the stress and financial pressures.

Katy Read is a writer in Minneapolis whose work has appeared in Salon, Brain Child, Real Simple and elsewhere.

  • GIMME SHELTER

    By: Mary Elizabeth Williams.

    Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 320 pages, $26.

    Review: Since the housing market collapsed, this book has lost some of its timeliness. But Williams does a good job of documenting the astounding world of overpriced and under-beautiful (and sometimes only remotely inhabitable) houses, and the efforts of one family to find a home.

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