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Bigger houses mean deeper debt

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KAI RYSSDAL: Ask yourself this as you start thinking about that home remodel you’ve wanted to do for ages now. Do you really need that 700-square-foot media room? How about that breakfast nook to go along with a spacious dining area? If our mortgage payments are going up, it could be because our homes have gotten a lot bigger.

Commentator Karrie Jacobs says that we might have bitten off more than we can chew.

CARRIE JACOBS: I think that the real-estate bubble and its collapse have a back story.

Beyond low interest rates and creative lending practices, something happened in our collective psyche that transformed the humble American home into an object of feverish speculation: We abandoned the notion that modesty is a virtue.

Now, when I bemoan the death of modesty, I’m not complaining about Britney Spears gyrating in her undies. No, I’m talking about the fact that we’ve sold out the bedrock of the American dream — our precious homes — for yet another get-rich-quick scheme.

Back in the post-war period, the home building industry was born… and with it, the golden age of the American middle class. Most houses that were built back then were, in a word, modest.

Levittown, where today’s efficient methods of home building and marketing were invented, consisted of houses that were a mere 800 square feet. The smartest post-war suburban developers were able to build architecturally adventurous homes for ordinary people.

But today, ordinary people no longer want to perceive themselves as ordinary. I like to visit newly constructed subdivisions and wander through the million-dollar-plus model homes with names like the Whitney or the Getty. I’ll bet you could fit an entire Levittown ranch house into the master bathroom of one of these babies…

Sure, houses have always been status symbols. What changed is that we stopped buying our houses to cultivate an appearance of affluence. Instead, we began to buy houses as a shortcut to actual wealth.

Buy a house named Getty. Flip it, and you too can be a Getty… Well, you could have, up until a few months ago.

Personally, I hope the credit crunch has an upside. Maybe it will cross-pollinate with the green movement to renew America’s affection for the modest house.

Or, as I like to put it, less is the new more.

RYSSDAL: Karrie Jacobs is the author of The Perfect $100,000 House. She lives in Brooklyn, where she has a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage.

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