Evan M. Cohen
Times Insider explains who we are and what we do, and delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how our journalism comes together.
A little more than a year ago, Noel Millea, the deputy editor of the New York Times Real Estate section, asked if I could recommend a journalist to take over a column called “What You Get.” The assignment was to write every week about three houses on the market that were roughly the same price, but located in different parts of the United States.
Like many New Yorkers, I was already spending a lot of time online looking at real estate for free. I usually did this at night when I couldn’t sleep and the idea of uprooting my family and moving to, say, Abiquiu, N.M. — where we could buy a house with 50 acres of vineyards for the price of a two-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan — didn’t seem preposterous.
So I did a Dick Cheney and recommended myself.
Now every week, in broad daylight, I think up a number from $250,000 to $3 million and investigate what it would buy in San Diego or Philadelphia or maybe Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Using websites like Zillow, I pick three homes that are in good condition and nicely furnished and photographed. If a house has been staged with clichés like horse-head portraits or caged hanging light fixtures, I pass it by. I am also averse to obviously faked photos, with fires pasted into fireplaces and lawns the color of Sprite bottles.
Once Noel approves my choices (she almost always does; we are sisters in our armchair real-estate-buying enthusiasms), I call the listing agent of each property and ask a lot of questions. Who built the home? What is the neighborhood like? When was the kitchen upgraded? Is that fireplace mantel original?
I lean toward homes with strong character, like a Queen Anne Victorian in Fall River, Mass., that belonged to Lizzie Borden ($799,000), or a circular stone house with a mushroom-shaped carport in Pleasantville, N.Y., designed by Frank Lloyd Wright ($1.5 million). I’ve also found an astronomer’s lair, complete with observatory and seismograph, built under the clear skies of Tucson, Ariz. ($650,000), an imitation lighthouse standing at the edge of the Ohio River in Prospect, Ky. ($849,000), and a mansion in Boise, Idaho, modeled on a medieval castle ($2.675 million).
By making price the only constant, “What You Get” conveys the jagged economics of geography. In the first week of September 2018, $1.9 million bought you a three-story brick rowhouse near Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia ($427 a square foot), an International Style steel-and-glass pavilion in Westchester County in New York ($578 a square foot) or a midcentury cottage in Palm Beach, Fla. ($1,028 a square foot).
The disparity can feel vertiginous. In hot real estate markets like Washington, D.C., and Boston, what you get seems to shrink and grow flimsier by the month. Entire cities have become like fashionable restaurants, overpriced and short on places, though there have been recent signs of a cooldown.
And yet, as I peek into the interiors of America, I am surprised by the things they have in common. Like leather sofas, for which, apparently, there is no climate too sticky. Or kitchens that flow uninterruptedly into family rooms. (That rumor about the death of the formal dining room is not greatly exaggerated.)
Contrary to the assumptions of many readers, and a few friends in various cities who send me hurt notes asking why I’ve snubbed them, I do not personally visit any of the 156 properties I write about each year. (Though I did once dispatch my brother Drew to check out a house in Portland, Ore., where he lives.) Instead, I have built warm telephone relationships with real estate professionals. They often invite me to drop by the towns I’ve only just learned about, like Middleway, W.Va., which lays claim to a two-centuries-old ghost story, known as the “Wizard Clip,” involving noisy invisible scissors. Or Danby, Vt., which may have the largest underground marble quarry in the world.
I find I even have fans. Nothing I’ve written in a long journalistic career has won me more eyeballs than this column. Even blood relatives exclaim, “That’s you?” when I mention it.
Why is vicarious real estate shopping a national pastime? Not long ago, to check out someone else’s home, we had to inveigle an invitation to tea, buy a shelter magazine like House Beautiful or go to an open house and pretend we wanted to buy it. Now we have HGTV, Instagram and Pinterest. In the age of obliterated benefits and the gig economy, we’ve lost faith in the perfectibility of our work lives, but not of our home lives. We believe happiness is an en suite bathroom, a raised vegetable bed or a wood-burning fireplace, with or without an inglenook.
Sometimes the spell cast by the listings I read is so overwhelming I call my husband over to look at the screen. He usually admires whatever renovated New England barn or Craftsman cottage on the Michigan-Indiana border is shown there, before asking, “What’s wrong with it?” because the price, by New York City standards, is absurdly low.
At which point there is only one thing to do: Type “San Francisco” into the search engine.