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Elizabeth Reader
May 7, 2003

About ten years ago, one of my clients asked me if I had ever seen the movie Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. Since I hadn’t, he explained that it was an old Cary Grant movie from the 40’s, about a New York City couple who go through the trials and tribulations of building a new house. I thought to myself, okay, I’ll watch it to humor him, but how is a fifty-year-old, black-and-white movie going to be relevant now?

For those of you who haven’t seen this 1948 film, based on a novel of the same name by Eric Hodgins, the Blandings see an old house in the Connecticut countryside, fall in love with it, and pay a fortune for it. They proceed to tear it down, after several engineers tell them it’s not structurally sound. They then hire an architect, and design and build their “dream house.” The movie humorously recounts all of the headaches involved in this whole process-the desire to build more house than one’s budget, the unforeseen construction complications, the cost overruns.

Somehow, it was both maddening, and reassuring, to watch this movie, because the crux of the subject matter hasn’t really changed much with the passage of time. When it comes to the construction, renovation, redecoration, buying, and selling of houses, human nature has changed little over the years. If the need for shelter is such a basic one, then why do we make it so incredibly complicated, and why, for many of us, is it so emotion- laden?

In a recent Washington Post article, writer Daniela Deane reflects that, beyond the fact that our houses are usually our biggest financial investments, their worth goes well beyond dollars. Houses are the fruits of our hard work, the places we raise our children, the scenes of our most pleasant memories, the environments we create to escape the outside world-“they are our own version of the American dream.” Owning a house gives us a sense of control over our environs, something we may not get in other areas of our lives, like our jobs or our relationships. Deane goes on to quote University of Houston Professor of History Steven Mintz, who declares, “Our houses are absolutely critical to our identities and our whole definition as a people…. They give us a sense of rootedness in our highly mobile, highly impersonal society.”1

According to Marjorie Garber, who wrote a book entitled Sex and Real Estate: Why We Love Houses, “The house and all that it symbolizes is the repository of histories, memories, fantasies, self- images, aspirations, and dreams. That is why our romance with houses is– in every sense– such a consuming passion…. Many stories have been offered to ‘explain’ this relationship, stories based on anthropology, psychology, sociology, philosophy, phenomenology and economics…. But none of these ‘answers’ really touches the heart of our passion for houses….”2

What is at the heart of our passion for houses?

Architecture schools rarely address the emotional component involved in residential design. Architects, critics, and architectural historians tend to think of houses as objects, or artifacts, which are meticulously designed and composed, rather than as shelters, which are inhabited by real people, with untidy rooms, complicated lives, and dubious tastes in lighting fixtures. But the truth of the matter is that residential clients do tend to have higher levels of emotional involvement in, and attachment to, their projects than do the clients for commercial or institutional buildings.

Architects begin residential projects by talking to clients about their functional and aesthetic aspirations for their houses. In this building programming phase, an architect tries to “get inside the clients’ head,” and to get a grasp on the client’s personality, tastes, preferences, biases, motivations, and family dynamic. More than one client has remarked during this building programming phase, “Oh, so you guys are like house psychologists.” The goal of all of this building programming is to unearth the clients’ dreams, even those that may be totally unrealistic, irrational, or contradictory. One husband- and- wife client, after about a two hour programming session, summarized their renovation goals by saying, “What we’re trying to create is a lifestyle.” This struck me as odd initially. I mean, didn’t they already have a lifestyle? But maybe what they were trying to verbalize is what people really mean when they say they’re building their “dream house”-they have an image in their mind’s eye of their ideal selves, and they project that ideal version of themselves, living their ideal lives, in a “dream house” that they think will somehow enable them to make that lifestyle a reality.

Architecture magazines written for architects, like Architectural Record and Architecture, rarely ever broach the subject of clients’ difficulties explaining, or even honestly recognizing, their needs, let alone the emotions they encounter during the design and construction process. And newsstand shelter magazines, like Better Homes and Gardens, Southern Living, and Architectural Digest, tend to focus on the end result, rather than the sometimes frustrating process. Some recently published books are aimed to help people recognize, and verbalize, their housing needs and aspirations. The most popular of these books is The Not So Big House, by Minnesota architect Sarah Susanka, in which the author asserts that, “In one of the wealthiest societies ever, many people are deeply dissatisfied with their most expensive purchase.”3 (Meaning, of course, their houses.)

Susanka’s solution to this problem, and the thesis of her book, is what she calls “The Not So Big House,” which “exchanges space for soul, so that the quality of the space is more important than the sheer square footage.” Susanka believes that, “we are all searching for home, but we are trying to find it by building more rooms and more space…. But a house is so much more than its size and volume, neither of which has anything to do with comfort.” “What makes the Not So Big concept work is that superfluous square footage is traded for less tangible but more meaningful aspects of design that are about beauty, self- expression, and the enhancement of life.”4

The type of house Susanka praises in her book, however modest in size, is not necessarily less expensive, a fact that Susanka readily acknowledges. As she plainly puts it, “Building a house, more than any other undertaking, pits our dreams against our realities. When we think about dollars we tend to be very practical. Dreams, by their very nature, are often impractical. The reconciliation of the two is never an easy thing-and yet, in building a house, it’s essential that the two come together. People’s dreams are frequently two to three times more expensive than the realities of their pocketbook. The challenge is to find a way to bring dreams and realities in line with one another, without making people feel as though they’ve given up on their dreams.”5

This issue of dreams versus reality is a big one. As if the renovation, addition, and construction process wasn’t complicated enough, throw money into the equation, and things can sometimes get agitated and irrational. Money is the eight- hundred- pound gorilla sitting in on those initial building programming meetings. As Mr. and Mrs. Blandings learned the hard way, it’s just human nature to want more house than you want to spend, and to have “sticker shock,” or sometimes adamant denial, when you’re told what your dream is really going to cost.

While Susanka’s solution to dreams- versus- reality is to favor quality over size, I think that most of middle- class America favors size over quality. Americans like things big, and they’re proud “Do-It-Yourselfers.” Enter the big housing developers, like Ryland Homes, so prolific across the country. They build a product that appeals to many consumers, because it is accessible. From a bank’s perspective, these houses appraise much better than Susanka’s Not-So-Big House, so it’s easier for the purchasers to get loans equal to the houses’ sales prices. The purchasers of these houses are trying to get as much as they can to start out with, and know that, once they get into the house, they can work on it over time. They can finish off the walk- out basement for the kids, the “bonus room” over the garage for the mother-in-law. They can upgrade the kitchen cabinets, replace the flooring. They spend a lot of weekends at places like Lowe’s, which, if you haven’t noticed, is no longer called a hardware store, but, instead, a “Home Improvement Warehouse.”

Why have the marketing people at Lowe’s branded their stores “Home Improvement Warehouses,” as opposed to “House Improvement Warehouses?” Why is it “Home Depot,” not “House Depot”? Why do architects refer to houses as ‘houses’, while realtors, and pretty much the rest of society, call them ‘homes’? And why, at one point in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, when the Blandings have decided to nix building their “dream” house because it’s way over budget, do they gaze dreamily over at their architectural rendering, and melodramatically rationalize to one another, “But we’re not just building a house, we’re building a home, and not just for ourselves and our children, but for their children!”6

Washington, D.C. architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen offers this explanation for the ‘house’ versus ‘home’ nomenclature: “There’s a difference between ‘housing’ and ‘houses’. Housing to me is masses of tract housing, repetitive, built to the market-housing. That’s opposed to houses, which are one of a kind. Architects design houses. Mom makes ‘home.’”7 Maybe the nomenclature issue is essentially a class issue, as Paul Fussell argues in his book Class: A Painfully Accurate Guide Through The American Status System. Fussell asserts that we can trace “the stages by which house disappeared as a word favored by the middle class,” and was replaced by the term ‘home.’ Fussell claims that the term ‘home’ was “offered by the real- estate business as a way of warming the product, that is, making the prospect imagine that in laying out money for a house he was purchasing not a passel of bricks, Formica, and wallboard but snuggly warmth, comfort, and love.” Furthermore, “the middle class… also enjoys the comforting fantasy that you can purchase love, comfort, warmth, etc., with cold cash.”8

Fussell’s right– if you have the stomach to read through those florid, weekend real estate ads, you’ll never find gushing descriptions of “houses,” they’re always “homes.” These real estate ads really play up the emotional in their appeals for buyers, using words like ‘prestige’, ‘lifestyle’, and ‘community’. Their slogans reflect these emotional ploys, too. There’s Ryan Homes (“Welcoming Families Home For Over 50 Years”), Centex Homes (“For Everything Home Means), and Toll Brothers (“America’s Luxury Home Builder”). What’s ironic is that while the marketing departments of these developers stress the emotional aspects of home and family, the developers are actually building what Hugh Newell Jacobsen calls ‘housing,’ not ‘homes.’ Their ‘homes’ are identical, cookie- cutter, generic, sterile. When clients come in wanting to renovate or add onto these houses, they’ll always say things like, “We’re unique, but our house doesn’t reflect that,” or, “We want to take this cookie- cutter house and make it more ‘us.’”

Enter the prolific, and profitable, businesses of shelter magazines and home- improvement television shows, which the inhabitants of these tract ‘homes’ turn to in order to personalize their abodes. These magazines and TV shows bank on the fact that a big chunk of us are “dreamers” when it comes to home renovation. What the glossy home and garden magazines sell is desire, according to author Marjorie Garber. The editor of House & Garden magazine puts it this way: “We love the voyeurism of going into somebody else’s home.” These magazines are “the eye candy of the (baby) boomer crowd” because they are addictive, and they give us “permission to be nosy.”9 According to dwell magazine, there are over a hundred television programs, and several cable networks, expressly devoted to home renovation and redecoration. These shows are “the new staple of daytime TV,” and “are not just about home improvement but about self- improvement, a form of mass therapy for people in search of confidence and comfort.”10

Unlike their TV home show counterparts, the glossy shelter magazines almost never have people in their photographs. Why? Because, according to Architectural Digest’s editor in chief, “When readers look at an interior, part of the enjoyment is actively projecting themselves into it. If…people are shown too prominently, it shuts the reader out.”11 Instead, magazines prefer to allure you with perfection– the rooms are waiting just for you. Our office has seen first- hand just to what extent these shelter magazines go to create fantasy. Not only do these magazines have photographers, writers, and editors on their staffs, but they also employ professionals known as “photo stylists.” These are the people that set things up just so, tempting you to walk into that room, recline on that chaise lounge, dine at that perfectly set table (complete with china, food, and wine, of course). One shelter magazine we worked with routinely removes all of the homeowner’s furnishings, and puts all new furniture into a house for the photo shoot. This furniture just happens to be manufactured by one of their major advertisers, and it’s offered for sale after the photography session is complete. Even many architects, when they hire architectural photographers, routinely infuse reality with fantasy, taking out the homeowner’s furniture, importing a moving van full of more photogenic furniture. The reality is that, in most mainstream publications, it’s rare that you see the homeowner’s actual belongings.

What’s even more impressive than the way these shelter magazines try to seduce us is the way they have us all figured out. These magazines have taken economics, demographics, and psychology, and rolled them all together into an interesting concept they call “psychographics”. Peter Lemos, the editor of Home magazine, explained it to us this way– shelter magazines know that their readers aspire to the next rung or two up on the social and economic ladder than that to which they belong. These savvy editors know that people don’t read publications that they think are at their level, but those at the level that they aspire to be a part of. The editors of Southern Living have confessed the same statistic-they are fully cognizant of the fact that the cost of the typical house featured on their pages is beyond the purchase price, and income range, of their average reader. It’s just not as exciting to fanaticize about something that’s easily- attainable. These shelter magazines, like decorating ‘guru’ Martha Stewart, have a finger on our “wanna- be” pulses. It’s similar to what a recent Washington Post article said about The Woman We Love To Hate-what she’s selling is “wish fulfillment and dreams…. She markets an unattainable image of perfection.”12

While some people find the building programming, design, and construction process to be frustrating, for others it plays on their emotions in an entirely different way-it’s totally exhilarating; it’s, as one of our clients put it, “the most fun I’ve ever had.” In fact, some people enjoy the process so much, that they take it to an extreme. They don’t want a project to move on, and they get upset if it invariably begins culminating towards actual, physical construction. These types of people have more fun dreaming, and constantly revising that elusive dream of theirs. They don’t want to commit to a final design, to be limited to only one physical embodiment of their fantasies and aspirations.

In a recent article entitled “Paralyzed by Perfection,” Salon magazine writer Cary Tennis seems to be guilty of this phenomenon. Tennis humorously, and neurotically, describes his own obsession with his home renovation process. He confesses that, “…while some people treat the house they live in as a thing of joy, and others consider it nothing more than a practical necessity, the house I live in has become for me a kind of psychological malady. It’s not a structure, it’s a disease; I seek not a remodel but a cure, and I am less than serenely comfortable discussing my affliction….” Tennis goes on to say that he doesn’t want to hear people’s ideas about his house, because, “I am afraid, frankly, that you might have a simple, ready- made solution, and I do not want a ready- made solution. Because I am in love with my problem. Because if there were a solution then what would become of my problem?….More than the answer itself, I want the experience of finding the answer. Like many with this kind of illness, I fear the cure as much as I crave it. Without my illness I am nothing!”13 Clearly, for Tennis, consequence- free, architectural exploration and dreaming is the fun part, the exhilarating part; you get the clear sense that he’d be disappointed if his house were not an ongoing project.

The urge to remodel, to redecorate can be a curious obsession to those who don’t share it. In her novel The Box Garden, Carol Shields created a character, a housewife, “who achieved, if not happiness, at least a sort of jealous, truncated satisfaction in perpetually revising and reordering her immediate surroundings.” The character’s reading material consisted solely of decorating magazines, and “from those pages, which [she] turned with anxious, hungering fingers, she fanned her fanatical energy.” This character is truly possessed: “While she was working on a room she was in a state of violent unrest, plagued by insomnia and shocking fits of indigestion. She planned her rooms as carefully as any set designer, bringing into life whole new environments. Later she would suffer agonies of doubt. Was it in good taste or was there something maybe just a little bit tacky or gawdy [sic] about it? That pink vase, was it a little too much accent? Too bright? Too garish a shade? Maybe if she spray- painted it dusty rose, yes. Yes.” In the novel, this character’s daughter concludes that, “an obsession such as the one which ruled my mother’s life could only have existed to fill a terrible hurting void.”14

Although Carol Shields’ compulsive, frenzied redecorator is seen as an emotionally unfulfilled housewife in the novel, I’ll admit it was humorous for me to read about all of her frantic painting, stenciling, wallpapering, sewing, soldering, and carpentering. This is because I, too, grew up with parents who were, and still are, incessantly working on their “house projects.” Extremely industrious, resourceful, and creative, my parents have constantly renovated the houses they’ve owned, some rooms three and four times over, although for very different reasons than those which motivated Shields’ character. For my parents, I think the renovation impetus may have come from the need for constant change, the by- product of my dad’s thirty years in the Navy. For the first half of his career, they moved every two years or so, so there was always a new house to fix up, to make their own. Later in his career, he didn’t have to move constantly, but by then the damage had been done. They had become so used to moving that they had developed a deep- seated need for change in their physical environment. In order to satisfy the need for change, they constantly renovate and redecorate, which can range from the minor, like rearranging and reupholstering furniture, to the major, like removing or adding entire rooms. Then, every eight years or so, they’ll buy a new house, so they can start the process all over again.

So far, I’ve been talking primarily about the construction and remodeling of houses. But, as any realtor can surely tell you, the process of buying and selling a house can be an equally stressful, emotional, and irrational process. In fact, the phrase “falling in love with a house” is so commonplace, we don’t even stop to think about the emotional grip it describes. A New York City real estate broker summarized real estate transactions, and his role in them, in this way: “It’s a crisis in your life. This is a big change for both [the buyers and the sellers]. So there is this emotional rawness which people bring to the table which I as a broker enjoy dealing with. I’m trying to be like the eye of the hurricane-the calm of the storm.”15 Often, real estate transactions involve the buyers’ or sellers’ personal crises, like divorce, death, or job loss, which makes them even more emotionally complicated.

Marjorie Garber, author of Sex and Real Estate-Why We Love Houses, compares the buying and selling of houses to another, equally emotion wrought experience-dating. Both of these experiences, she says, can potentially have the same end result: a broken heart. She sees real estate open houses as analogous to freshman mixers; real estate ads are analogous to singles ads. Houses are the singles waiting for mates, for relationships with someone new. In fact, some of the descriptions used in real estate ads could be just as easily substituted in the personal ads: “fixer- upper,” “diamond in the rough,” “just needs love.”16

Garber likens falling in love with a house to starting an affair. You certainly don’t want to be reminded that your new object of affection has an ordinary, sometimes boring, life of its own. (In fact, this is probably why most realtors prefer that the homeowners not be at home when they show a house to a prospective buyer.) Garber notes that one of the greatest dreams of some house hunters is the “rescue fantasy,” in which the poor “Cinderella” house, suffering from the “present owner’s terrible taste,” is saved by the gallant house hunter, who will “take you away from all of this…and get rid of those awful drapes.” She notes other romantic parallels: competition for the house from other prospective buyers makes “the heart grow fonder” during the “courtship” phase, which can lead to heated bidding wars, which can then lead to “buyer’s remorse,” comparable only to “morning after” remorse.17

The real estate profession has its own version of the “photo stylists” employed by shelter magazines, and they’re called “professional stagers.” Professional stagers advise sellers and listing agents on how to make a house more appealing to prospective buyers. Marjorie Garber describes these people as “something between a personal trainer for your house and an old- fashioned society chaperone” who makes the most of her charge’s looks. The job title ‘stager,’ she notes, “proudly displays the elements of theatricality and performance essential to a successful home sale.”18

One such professional stager, Mary Sullivan, was interviewed recently in The Washington Post Magazine. The objective of staging is to take a house, before it goes on
the market, and make it look “blandly tasteful, and to edit out as much of the personality of the homeowner as possible.” The stager’s job is to “rearrange, accessorize and redo the rooms-as if setting a stage for a play.” In fact, Sullivan has a stash of “tasteful” objects, like Chinese vases and throw pillows, which she buys at discount stores and yard sales, keeps in her garage, and uses in her “staging” transformations.

In the article, Sullivan is at work staging the house of a couple in their sixties, who have lived in their house for many of their thirty- seven year marriage. They’re awash in knick- knacks, 70’s shag carpeting, and sentimentality about their house. During the staging sessions, they’re going through the necessary process of “cutting the strings of emotional attachment,” saying ‘goodbye’ to their house. After Sullivan has completed her work, the husband is quoted as saying, “I’m letting go. To tell you the honest truth, I don’t think it’s as cozy as it used to be. We spent 26 years making it cozy and now it’s all sterile and white. It looks like a house you’d start decorating to suit yourself.” His wife adds, “A model home, I guess.” But, according to their realtor, Carol Greco, all of this staging will pay off, because, “these days busy families want a ‘turn-key’ house, not a home where they will immediately have to begin painting and remodeling.”19 Obviously, Greco doesn’t subscribe to the “rescue fantasy” involved in those “Cinderella” houses.

Even when realtors don’t employ professional stagers, it’s common that they give homeowners advice, from the basic, such as cleaning, painting, and landscaping, to the more sublime. The more sublime suggestions are aimed at triggering the emotions of prospective buyers, including “olfactory come-ons”-like infusing the house with the smell of baking bread, a roasting chicken, or a crackling wood fire. All of these subtle techniques are intended to “subliminally whisper ‘home’ into the ears…of browsing potential buyers.”20

Salon magazine writer Cary Tennis toys with the idea of putting his house on the market in an article entitled “Housing and Its Discontents.” Tennis figures that the realtor he found through a Web site called “” probably sees a lot of people like himself, prospective home sellers who are, “vaguely troubled, beset with…longings, restless, dabbling tentatively at the edge of a wound, flirting with catastrophe and inexplicably willing, out of quixotic hope, blind ignorance or sheer existential discontent, to plunge our household deeper into debt and cast our fate to the title company, to trudge up the hill with all our belongings like refugees in search of a better life or at least a different life, a different set of keys, a different color headache in a different part of town.”

Tennis neurotically obsesses about his house, and the improvements he could make to help it realize its full potential. He describes the “joys and manias that seem to affect anyone who becomes signatory to a real property deed.” Truly the Woody Allen of home improvement, he laments, “why can’t I just… live in a house like a normal person? Why can’t I look out the window without mentally rearranging the trees?” He asks himself why he’s thinking of real estate transactions, since he knows that finding a new house won’t necessarily make him any happier, but will likely, instead, be a “bigger, more expensive source of complaint and worry.”21

So, why are houses so important to us, and why do they make us so crazy? Why are we so emotional when it comes to buying them, selling them, fixing them up, and building them?

Maybe it’s because they represent the way we see ourselves, and the way we want ourselves to be– our ideal selves, living our ideal “lifestyles,” like those former clients described. Maybe it’s because we’re not at all nomadic by nature, and our houses represent stability, continuity, and family. Maybe it’s because, as a recent magazine ad for Andersen Windows declares, “[Home] is a haven. A refuge…. The one place where we can truly be ourselves.” Or maybe it’s because our houses are reflections of, and repositories for, our personal histories– where we’ve been in life to- date, and the objects and memories that we’ve accumulated and protected. Thus, they more clearly define who we are, better than some of the other components of our lives, like our jobs, our cars, or our families. The emotional and nostalgic pull of the houses of our pasts, whether our grandparents’, our friends’, or our own, is strong and undeniable. Is there anything wrong with our innate, emotional, and irrational attachments to our houses?

Asks Salon writer Cary Tennis, “Why should a house be anything more than a place to keep the rain off? Why…are we investing so much significance in these boxes we sleep in? To what degree is concern with the aesthetics of home a bourgeois distraction, and to what degree is it a deep, historical and cultural duty that connects us with the world and makes us human?”22

Marjorie Garber might answer his questions with her conclusion that, “…human desire cannot be contained within explanation or need. The house is the repository of our unmet needs, our unfulfilled dreams, or our nostalgic longings. It cannot really satisfy any of them, but perhaps that is why we have so much satisfaction in making the attempt. In the process, we get to experience the very specific pleasures and pains that only a house can provide.”23

1 The Washington Post; March 20, 2002; pp. G1, G9; “For Many Americans, Houses Are Crucial To a Sense of Identity” by Daniela Deane.
2 Sex and Real Estate: Why We Love Houses; Marjorie Garber; Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc.; New York, New York; 2000; pp. 204, 207.
3 The Not So Big House: A Blueprint For the Way We Really Live; Sarah Susanka with Kira Obolensky; The Taunton Press, Inc.; Newtown, Connecticut; 1998; p.7.
4 Ibid.; pp. 8, 10, 24 – 25.
5 Ibid.; pp. 134 – 136.
6 Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House; 1948 RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.; Director: H. C. Potter; Screenplay: Norman Panama and Melvin Frank.
7 Inform magazine; Virginia Society of the American Institute of Architects; Vernon Mays, Editor; 1998: number two; Special Supplement pages: “Ruminations on House and Home” by Hugh Newell Jacobsen, FAIA.
8 Class: A Painfully Accurate Guide Through the American Status System; Paul Fussell; Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc.; New York, New York; 1983; p. 181.
9 Sex and Real Estate: Why We Love Houses; p. 17.
10 dwell magazine; Michela O’Connor Abrams, President and Publisher; Allison Arieff, Editor-in-Chief; June 2003; pp. 102 – 104; “The Renovation Will Be Televised” by Cathy Lang Ho.
11 Sex and Real Estate: Why We Love Houses; pp. 17 – 18.
12 The Washington Post; March 4, 2003; pp. C1, C4; “Martha, In the Soup: Taking Stock of the Phenomenon Who’s Stirred Up Women” by Paula Span.
13 Salon (on-line) magazine;; David Talbot, Founder, Chairman, and Editor in Chief; September 5, 2002; “Paralyzed by Perfection” by Cary Tennis.
14 The Box Garden; Carol Shields; Penguin Books USA Inc.; New York, New York; 1977; pp. 43 – 44; 46 – 48.
15 Sex and Real Estate: Why We Love Houses; p. 8.
16 Ibid.; pp. 5 – 6; 12 – 13.
17 Ibid.; pp. 9 – 12.
18 Ibid.; p. 22.
19 The Washington Post Magazine; March 16, 2003; pp. 12 – 17; 32; “Brewing Up A Sale” by Annie Gowen.
20 Sex and Real Estate: Why We Love Houses; p. 22.
21 Salon; August 7, 2002; “Housing and Its Discontents” by Cary Tennis.
22 Ibid.
23 Sex and Real Estate: Why We Love Houses; p. 207.