The Real Estate

I’ve mentioned once or twice I am a pretty big non-fiction reader. I don’t review a lot of it because much is super specific and wouldn’t have wide appeal. But today’s your big day. I’m giving you a quick peek into a few of the real estate books I’ve read and found to be quite readable and interesting.

House Lust by Daniel McGinn was one of the first books on this topic I read and fell in love with. McGinn is a writer for Newsweek, so his style was fluid and easy to follow.

This particular title published January 2008, right around the crash of the housing market. But, considering how long it takes to research and write, this book was put together right as the housing market was where there was a ton of money to be made. I read it in the summer of 2008, so the housing market was just beginning to nose dive.

McGinn’s book discusses how American culture has always had an obsession with housing, and in the high times of real estate, there was a ton of money to be made (and spent!). This book focuses very little on the financing aspects of real estate and much more on how we obsess with what features a home has, what areas of the home need to have the most value, and perhaps the part I loved most, our obsession with reality home television. It was interesting to learn how people began falling in love with HGTV’s House Hunters and with the obsession we have with the notion of square footage and price per square foot, the writers of the show rewrote it to include this information.

This is also the book where I learned about the power of the website Zillow. Did you know people used to hold (and maybe still do!) hold Zillow parties where they’d get together and price all of the homes in the area to see where they stood up?

If the social aspect of real estate interests you, this is a good pick. I noted in my review of this title 2 years ago that I found his style a little grating and that some of the really interesting stuff (to me!) got less time than I wish it did. Thinking back on this title in comparison with the two I’m going to talk about next, this is a terrifying look at how the real estate market got to where it is now. I might need to reread it, simply to see where the signs were so clear. This will both interest and sicken readers, which is what a good piece of non-fiction should do. Check out the website if you want more info or want to read an excerpt.

So, now that we know about the obsession American culture has with homes, how about what happens when we can’t afford what we lust for? Alyssa Katz, in Our Lot, published in June 2009, deep in the heart of recession. Of course, take some of that with a grain of salt when you consider the time period of her writing and researching.

Katz, like McGinn, is a journalist and writes for a number of outlets. In Our Lot, she tackles the topic of American greed and how it ultimately came to cause the collapse of the housing market. She writes fluidly — and with less grate then McGinn — making a book that could otherwise be overwhelming with its jargon and technicality on banking and financing really accessible. And utterly terrifying.

I read this book while trying to get my own mortgage, and it made me eternally grateful for the struggles we had in attaining our financing. Reading about how bankers utterly deceived people in order to build a profit made me sick to my stomach, and it made me reevaluate how I had perceived the great real estate collapse (more on this in a second). For the most part, I thought it was even-handed politically. Katz gives us some insight, too, into how we can get our obsessions in check for a much sounder, safer real estate world. This book will teach you a lot about the banking side of real estate, and it should be read in companion to House Lust.

If you want more information, she maintains a nice real estate and financing blog on her website.

Last, but certainly not least, I finished up Edmund Andrews’s May 2009 title Busted this week. If Katz’s title can be called a good look at the “faceless” side of real estate, I think that Andrews’s title could be called the face of greed.

Andrews is a journalist for The New York Times and more specifically, an economic reporter pulling in a 6-digit salary every year. In the midst of the housing frenzy, he chose to invest in a house on a low-doc mortgage well beyond anything he could ever imagine to afford. HE KNEW THIS going in, and yet, he followed his lust and jumped into it.

Busted does a little bit of what Katz’s book does in unraveling the complexities of the housing collapse on the banking side, but what made this book stand out to me was that Andrews himself is a person facing foreclosure and the loss of his house. He gives us the background into how banks were misleading underrepresented groups with subprime lending, as well as how bankers and underwriters were approving (and even encouraging) applicants to lie or not even mention important things like income in their mortgage applications. Reading this after the hellacious experience I had getting a mortgage made me grateful again it was such a horrible experience.

That said, this book shows us the utter greed people like Andrews brought to the collapse of the housing market. He, with his 6-figure job, background in economics, and education, knew better than to do what he did, but because he was lusting after more (see House Lust), he chose to jump in anyway. And it doesn’t work. This is his attempt to document it.

Unfortunately, while this book reads well and does a good job of putting a face to the crisis, I never once felt sympathetic for Andrews. I felt even less sympathetic when I found out later he omitted some pretty important details in his experiences (like the fact his new wife had filed for bankruptcy twice). Reading this in conjunction with Katz’s title, though, was important because it emphasizes that there was no one cause for why real estate fell to pieces. It was a combination of greed from a number of sources, as well as deception from a number of sources. Bonus: he has a little report, too, in the NYT for your reading pleasure.

If you have even the slightest interest in our current plight, read these. Read them each with a grain of salt, of course, as you would any non-fiction title. They will inform you and inform each other. Even if you have no background in real estate or financing, you will find all three accessible (and skimmable for if you find yourself bored by some details).

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  1. says

    I had the same reaction you did to Busted. Another book you should check out is Gimme Shelter by Mary Elizabeth Williams. I really enjoyed that one!

  2. says


    I did read that one, too. I actually read about 15 pages and couldn't handle Williams's whiney, self-righteous tone. I had to quit :(

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