Although the Great Recession was set off when the United States housing bubble burst in 2007, amnesiac Americans are again speculating in domestic real estate. The steep rise in property values during the final two decades of the twentieth century still lingers in many people’s minds, as does the widespread memory among the baby-boom generation that the family house was the best investment their parents ever made. Perhaps we have not reverted to pre-crash irrational exuberance, but people seemingly cannot resist the temptation to “flip” residential real estate—that is, buying and reselling in the short term to make a quick profit.
Recovery in the national housing market remains spotty—7.4 million home mortgages are seriously “underwater” (i.e., the balance of the loan is more than 25 percent higher than the property’s current assessed value)—but a healthy local economy can support flipping even modest residences. Several cable TV channels broadcast series that follow this process, including Flip This House, Flipping Virgins, Rehab Addict, and my personal favorite, Flip or Flop. This program stars a telegenic young Southern California couple who take down-at-the-heels Orange County tract houses, remodel them to suit contemporary tastes (loftlike “open concept” floor plans, spa-inspired bathrooms, and obligatory granite kitchen countertops), and often make a five-figure return on their investment (although some of their cost estimates can seem low and their completion schedules speedy to anyone who has ever done home improvements).
Flip or Flop and other examples of what has been called real estate porn remind us that there is a huge inventory of postwar suburban housing stock all around the country, much of it in the style we now call midcentury modern, although more exists in hybrid modes that mix traditional and contemporary elements. Millions of detached single-family houses were erected on the outskirts of American cities between the end of wartime building material restrictions in 1947 and the onset of the oil embargo recession in 1973, but two new books differ greatly on the exact number.
Barbara Miller Lane’s Houses for a New World puts the figure for the first two postwar decades at thirteen million, whereas James A. Jacobs’s Detached America states that during the quarter-century after the war “private builders and building companies constructed about 35,500,000 housing units…[of…
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