Love Your House, Hate You

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Keeping up with the Joneses is never easy, what with their plasma TVs and German sports cars. And it stands to reason that if we sometimes envy other people’s clothes or cars, we very much envy their homes. After all, real estate is perhaps the biggest investment most people ever make—especially here in San Francisco, where a house costs double what you’d pay in many other cities. Naturally, people can become a little obsessed with what kind of building and neighborhood they live in.

Nowhere is this obsession more obvious than online. Websites like the Real Estalker offer an intimate look inside the houses celebs across the country are buying and selling, complete with the price and details of the deal. Meanwhile, locally based sites like Curbed SF and SocketSite dish out tips, trends, gossip and, most importantly, photos and inside information on properties up for grabs. (One recent posting about a new high-rise in SoMa drew nearly 150 comments.)

“Looking at fabulous houses is like looking at pornography,” says the Real Estalker, a San Franciscan now living in Manhattan who needs to remain anonymous so that his sources will keep leaking him info about their high-profile clients. “There’s a lurid pleasure in looking at something you think you want, but can’t have.”

Perhaps more painful are the occasions when the green monster attacks in person rather than virtually. At some point, we’ve all been invited to a fabulous loft or a beautifully restored Victorian, gazed out the window at a drop-dead view and felt simultaneously awed by and sickened with desire for such a beautiful home. Just listen to how Chris Wiggum, a thirty-year-old independent-film publicist, describes it.

“I went to a party in a cavernous, meticulously designed place in SoMa that had just been bought and remodeled by three friends,” recalls Wiggum. “I love San Francisco and can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be, but it crushes me when I walk into a place like that and am confronted by what I’ll never have. It makes me want to leave behind my job in the arts and start over as a stockbroker or real-estate agent. Or maybe rob banks.”

“This type of purchase envy hits close to the bone, and bites with pangs of inadequacy,” says the Real Estalker. “And unfortunately, it’s much worse in San Francisco than in New York. New Yorkers have a long history of renting until they die. Whereas in San Francisco, not being able to purchase is a more recent trend.”

But—as any longtime Manhattanite can testify—even rentals can inspire real-estate envy, if the apartment is nice enough. Stefan Parker, a twenty-four-year-old software developer, moved into his two-bedroom SoMa apartment last June. “I chose SoMa because it was clean, felt somewhat high-class and the weather is much nicer than on the west side of San Francisco,” says Parker. Located in a building boasting amenities like a pool, Jacuzzi, sauna, billiards table, tennis courts, and miniature theater, Parker’s apartment is sweet enough to turn his friends’ heads. “It happens every time friends see my apartment for the first time,” he says. “They ask how much rent I pay and how I found my place. I do see my home as a measure of success, but it’s not the only measure.”

Of course, there is one cure-all for any San Franciscan suffering the pangs of real-estate envy. Whether you live in Presidio Heights or the TenderNob, if you own in the city, you’re still ahead of most Americans. A November 2006 Business 2.0 survey of American cities listed SF as the most bubble-proof market in the country, having posted a 4.2 percent annual appreciation rate over the past fifty-seven years. (The remaining top five markets are, in order, Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston and, in fifth place, New York City.)

Kenneth LeBlanc, a realtor for Hill & Company who’s been in the business nearly thirty years, says that even though the market offers plenty of properties for sale, San Francisco prices do seem to be staying strong: One-bedrooms in such popular neighborhoods as Pacific Heights, Russian Hill and SoMa currently average upward of $800,000. With price tags like that, LeBlanc says simply living in the city is quite an achievement.

“We have one of the highest real-estate prices in the country,” says LeBlanc. “Anyone in a position to own real estate in San Francisco has achieved a certain amount of success.”

By Stacy Dale

Related Story: Keeping Up with the Joneses


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