Thursday, February 4, 2010

My Favorite Reads: Gimme Shelter by Mary Elizabeth Williams

My Favorite Reads

Each week I am featuring one of my favorite reads from the past. In February I am going to feature books related to the bad economy. First up:

Gimme Shelter by Mary Elizabeth Williams
Summary (from the publisher):

"Of course I want a home," writes Mary Elizabeth Williams, "I'm American." Gimme Shelter is the first book to reveal how this primal desire, "encoded into our cultural DNA," drove our nation to extremes, from the heights of an unprecedented housing boom to the depths of an unparalleled crash.

As a writer and parent in New York City, Williams is careful to ground her real-estate dreams in the reality of her middle-class bank account. Yet as a person who knows no other way to fall in love than at first sight, her relationship with the nation's most daunting housing market is a passionate one. Williams's house-hunting fantasy quickly morphs into a test of endurance, as her search for a place to live and a mortgage she can afford stretches into a three-year odyssey that takes her to the farthest reaches of the boroughs and the limits of her own patience.
"Welcome to the tracks," she declares at the outset of yet another weekend tour of blindingly bad, wildly overpriced properties. "Let's go to the wrong side of them, shall we?" As her own quest unfolds, Williams simultaneously reports on the housing markets nationwide. Friends and family members grapple with real estate agents and lenders, neighborhood and quality-of-life issues, all the while voicing common concerns, as expressed by this Maryland working parent of three: "The market was so hot, there were no houses. We looked for years at places the owners wouldn't even clean, let alone fix up."

How frustrating is the process? Williams likens it to hearing "the opening bars of a song you think is 'Super Freak.' And then it turns out to be 'U Can't Touch This.'" Told in an engaging blend of factfinding and memoir, Gimme Shelter charts the course of the real estate bubble as it floated ever upward, not with faceless numbers and documents but with the details of countless personal stories -- about the undeniable urge to put down roots and the lengths to which we'll go to find our way home.

Why I chose this book:

This memoir was so difficult to put down. I bought my first place 2 [now 3] years ago, and I lived in New York City for 5 years. From the schadenfreaude aspect, I was thrilled to know my own house search was simpler, and my place is both bigger and cheaper (I was already 99% sure but it's nice to know how much bigger and how much cheaper!) Williams is a great writer, very down-to-earth and relatable, with a charming family. It was so pleasant to spend time with her and her family. This memoir was a captivating and quick read. You really root for them to get one of the apartments they love and at the same time you thank your lucky stars that the rest of the country is not quite as insane (mentally that is, not price-wise I mean here) as New York when we have to go through this process.


Alyce said...

This does sound like a good memoir. I know I'm curious what the long-term effects are going to be from when that bubble popped. We were lucky because we got into our house before the prices inflated so extremely. My parents though, got their house right before the economy went south, which was kind of sad because they could have saved so much money had they waited a few months, but they had no way of knowing that.

Carin Siegfried said...

That's true, and I bought at the height of the market too but I knew after the bubble burst, mortgages would be VERY hard to come by (I didn't anticipate the rate satying so low though.) But I don't think I overpaid. And basically, as long as you plan to stay in your place long-terms and didn't think you could "flip" it and use it as a profit center, you'll be okay. A house is a very long-term investment, and over 40 years or so it only (usually, last 10 years notwithstanding) increases at about 2.5% per year, so not much better than a CD. This book was great though for making all the rest of us feel much better about our situations. Your parents might like it!

Mary Elizabeth said...

Thank you so much! I'm so glad you enjoyed it.

It's crazy indeed here, but it's home.