Where's Home?

If you live in one place, and have always lived in that place, then your answer to the question, "Where's home?" may simply be your street address, city, and state.

It's where you keep your stuff, wake up, eat, spend leisure time or work, perhaps raise your family, entertain friends, and sleep.

While every place -- house, street, town, neighbors -- changes over time, there's a singular rootedness that attaches to opening and closing the same front door day after day, year after year.

If you ask that question of your clients, however, you may discover a more complex reality. While they may be asking you to design or remodel their primary residence, it's just as likely that the house you're about to create for them reflects an expansion or shift in their idea of home. Kids off to college, downsizing, upsizing, corporate relocation, climate change, disabled, working at home, etc. Regardless of the reasons, if they're like most Americans, where home is will change every five years.

A person might live in one house all year round, moving every few years as life warrants. Or he/she may maintain multiple residences, relocating seasonally. Another version of this scenario is home exchange: owning one house, but swapping it with another homeowner for the privilege of living in his/her house for an extended, temporary period of time.

Over the past few years, as I've split my year among three locations, I've often been asked "Where's home?" I could pick one place, or I could say each of them is home, depending on where I'm living at the time. Pondering the question, however, I find it's more complex than that.

Because, first I'd have to ask, "What do you mean by 'home'?"

Is home the place where I was raised? Where my family and old friends live?

Is home the place where I spend the most time?

Is home the place where I have clothes, a studio setup, familiar haunts and habits? If I have more than one place with those things, which one is home?

Is home the place I find most beautiful? Most stimulating? Most challenging? Most relaxing?

Is home a place I've never lived but have dreamed of living?

Is home a place I've not yet seen, but yearn to discover?

Is home where I lived during certain key experiences of my life?

Is home a place or a time? Is it both?

Is home a place where I "live" while I'm traveling from one home to another? Familar airport, train station, airplane route, train line?

Is home the place where I want to be buried?

Even if I can arrive at a specific answer to the question, "Where's home?", does the answer stay the same? Or does it change, depending on the moment in my life when I'm asked?

The question came up recently when I was considering various home refinance options. Every mortgage broker wanted to know how long I was planning to live in my house.

On the one hand, knowing that the average American moves every five years, I shouldn't worry about paying off the mortgage, since I'll probably sell the house way before I pay off a 30-year mortgage. An adjustable rate mortgage with an interest-only payment would free up monthly cash to pay off other things or invest in additional real estate.

On the other hand, this house suits us just fine, and it's possible we'll want to stay here for at least 10 years, maybe more. In which case, we might want to get a longer term, fixed mortgage, and try to pay down the principal.

Truth is, I have no idea how long we'll live in this house. I can't predict what circumstances life will bring.. We love living in this area, but is this "home?" Not necessarily. It's pleasant, and it's an appreciating asset. It's where we work all day and sleep at night, but I don't know that I'd call it home. We've lived in other beautiful and interesting places, too. Which one is truly "home"?

If home is the place one goes to for comfort, I sometimes think it's virtual, consisting of my memories of when and where I felt most myself, most alive, most full of promise . . . memories of good times that were never wholly that good, but that I find myself yearning for nevertheless. It's true that "you can't go home again" to the actual geographic place and find it to be the same as you remember; but you can go home again to your memories of it.

This week I attended a real estate seminar. The moderator asked each of us where we came from, where we had called home before moving here. I said "three different states", since I spent each season in a different location. The couple next to me said, "the cab of our moving truck," since they'd put all their possessions into storage and spent the previous four years driving around the country transporting other people's possessions from home to home. Someone else said, "our house in Ohio for the past 25 years." I'd venture to guess that each of you would answer the question differently, when asked, "Where's home?"

This kind of thinking is new to a lot of people. When one-house owners contemplate doing what I do, I can see the wheels turning in their heads, as they imagine recreating a second or third home with the same quality levels of space, finishes, furnishings, mortgage, insurance, landscaping and maintenance that they have at their primary residence. Just as quickly as they imagine it, I can see them feeling overwhelmed and putting aside the fantasy for another day.

Their hesitation is not necessarily financial. It seems just as much an issue of logistics and emotional attachment to a familiar lifestyle and place.

What I explain to them, if they're truly intrigued, is that I long ago learned to limit my attachment to the daily experience of living in a particular place, rather than the physical scale and quality of my home. Yes, I make my living spaces as comfortable and accommodating as I can, but it's the special features and particular people in each geographical place that make spending the season there uniquely appealing to me.

For your clients, the answer to "where's home?" has a big impact on the often emotional decisions they face about the expensive, physical realities of design and construction. If it's "home," then maybe they go for the details that comfort them but may not add to the resale value. If it's a place they'll use, but won't be getting attached to, then builder-quality features can keep them within budget and free their resources for other needs.

With the big surge of Baby Boomers beginning their quest for the best way to structure the next phases of their lives, "Where's home?" will become the loaded question for the next decade. It will make your design practice interesting and very challenging, as you find yourself in the position of life-transition coach for clients who started out adulthood by saying, "Never trust anyone over 30," and now find themselves hurtling towards the far side of that idealistic divide.

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