Tuesday, 11 July 2006

Big Brother's House

One of the things that first amazed me about Australia is the size of the houses here.
Coming from Israel, where everyone lives in apartments, it was really strange to come up to a place where the majority lives in houses. And the houses are not mere houses: the house my brother was living in when I came to Australia as a tourist, the house he was living in when I migrated here, the houses his friends lived in - they were all mansions that in Israel you have to be a multi millionaire to be able to live in. Not just Israel: most of the places in Europe I was familiar with were the same, because the more prestige a place has, the more people want to live there, and when enough people want to live somewhere and still be able to afford it, the eventual answer is apartments.
I guess it this "exclusive" factor that me feel shocked and awed by those big houses. Come to Australia and live in a palace.

Last weekend I got to recall all of this when we visited a friend's place in an outer suburb of Melbourne. It's quite amazing to be leaving our place and driving for an hour to get to his place at relatively high speeds (60-80km/h) and find that we left from one point in Melbourne and ended up at another point in Melbourne while never leaving Melbourne.
Anyway, friends' reunion aside (which again made me realize how valuable friends are and how nice it is to spend time with them), this friend that we visited had a huge house. We, on the other hand, live in a small two bedroom house, and even our living room is small, so the contrasts is fairly obvious.
Size is obviously a relative affair. This small house that we're living in is similar in size to my parents' place, where I lived until I was 28, but in Australian suburban terms it's small. When my parents came for a visit, for example, they couldn't stop saying how small our place is; the fact they only said it because they came straight from my brother's mansion had a thing or two to do with it, I suspect. The funny thing is that people like my aunt, who have never been to Australia and hardly ever got to leave Israel, tell me over the phone that I should move to a bigger place; which goes to show that brain washing is not exclusive to the dungeons of the KGB.
Still, maybe it's in my genes, but I cannot deny I am fascinated by big houses.
Yet the rational person inside me knows this is pure bullshit and that we are better off in our small house.
There are several reasons to support that conclusion, starting from the financial point of view. The bigger the house, the more expensive it is; the closer the house is to the center of things, the more expensive it is. Therefore, given a fixed budget, you have to select a size/place combo that fits you. Our house is already way out of touch if we apply Israeli standards to Melbourne, as evident by my parents' lack of comfort with staying with us and coming over to visit our place from my brother's place. Yet by Melbournian standards, we live in the relative center, and the fact we're near the beach and near Brighton makes us live in quite a respectful place.
Not that place and cost matter that much. It's not like we're living in a house we can afford: we have a huge mortgage on our necks. We didn't buy our current house because it was cheap and we didn't buy it because we could afford it; we bought it because we decided on a budget that sounded as if we'd eventually be able to afford, a budget which fitted our status related social aspirations, and that was the main factor dictating our choice.
In retrospect, I think the choice of a small house was wise. It's easy to maintain: just the thought of cleaning a huge mansion makes me shiver, given the "enthusiasm" that cleaning our small house gives me. It's easy and economical to run, too: You turn the heat on, and within 5 minutes the house is warm, simply because there's not much of it to warm up.

I can go on justifying our choice as much as I want, but do we have enough space in our small house?
We keep on hearing people telling us that "when we have kids we will need to move". It's true that I wouldn't exactly be overly enthusiastic with kids playing around MY toys - the Stereo and Co - but they would probably be doing so in a big house, too, simply because that is where I will probably be hanging around. And I grew up in a small place, and I don't think I did that bad.
We will have more room to put our stuff in, like the old Sony 29" TV that is still a hell of a TV, quality wise, yet we have to dispose of it in eBay and it doesn't seem like we'll be getting much for it. Yes, we will have room for it, but will I want to use it if I have a 50" TV? I severely doubt that.
What we'll end up with is lots of inefficiently thrown around mess, the way I had in the first place I rented after moving to Australia (featuring a huge lounge, a huge living room, and three big bedrooms): One bedroom was used exclusively for cloth drying, and the rest had lots of things thrown all over the place. Nothing was efficient, nothing was tidy, because there was no reason for it to be; lots of money was spent on populating those empty rooms with something that would make them feel decent.

I know I messed this point up, but what I'm trying to say is that the difference between a small place and a large place is not that great. It's mostly a psychological difference. If you accept a given size, you will manage living with it and you will be living with it quite happily.
That said, I suspect eventually our status anxiety will drive us to fork a few more hundreds of thousands of dollars so that we could keep up with the Joneses and live in a big mansion. I just don't think we should, not for the reasons for which we would.

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