Thursday, Oct. 12, 2006 | Something interesting happened last week when The San Diego Union-Tribune’s business section set up a personal finance hotline staffed by volunteers from the Financial Planning Association of San Diego: everyone called to talk about their mortgage. It was a prominent topic, according to the paper, which was compelled to write a story about callers’ keen anxiety about real estate.

Early in 2004, when my husband and I bought a townhouse in Chula Vista, we were relieved to get in at all. There were two homes available in a plan we could afford (sort of) on the day we happened to drive by to check things out. We were so sure that we had caught the last boat to financial freedom that I personally drove across town to get our checkbook for the $5,000 earnest money deposit while my husband talked adjustable rate mortgages with the builder’s in-house lending specialist.

Housing prices were appreciating so rapidly at that time, we felt certain we would never be able to afford the projected prices for the builder’s next phase two months later.

We sold the townhouse last summer for a small profit far less than we originally hoped for. We were really lucky.

Two years is apparently a long time. Today, as the U-T’s hotline story underscores, people are anxious that the slowing housing market means they will be stuck in their homes forever, unless forced out first by foreclosure.

When we sold our home, we felt relieved again. We were turning our backs on the frazzled faces of sellers whose homes weren’t selling. We still read the Multiple Listing Service of comparable townhouses in the area to confirm our choice to jump off the first boat and into the second. We were refugees from the Great Housing Hysteria of 2004.

It’s a sad irony that the housing mania that produced so much celebrated wealth is now giving way to considerable anxiety.

Nowhere is this anxiety more evident than in the pages of the Union-Tribune’s Sunday real estate special advertising section where builders attempt the delicate balancing act of exalting the virtues of homeownership while acknowledging that the housing market is a crap shoot (my words, not theirs). They are still trying to convince people that they will never get in to the homeownership club if they don’t do it now. Their attempts are awkward if amusing, but I love to read them.

What I’ve found is that the American dream is being marred by large-font references to rock-bottom pricing and too many exclamation points. “Right House. Right Price. Right Now.” screams an ad by Standard Pacific Homes. “We’re rolling out savings left and right. Because you can never have too much green,” says Brookfield Homes. Cantabria Condos offers “Zero Down!” The builders of Carmel Point Condos urge buyers to “Name your price!”

There is something unseemly about home builders – purveyors of a sunny, comfortable, near-beachfront- lifestyle – resorting to flashy car dealership sales tactics. They don’t even see how funny it is that their pastoral images of an elegant, but easy-breezy family life are now covered by bargain basement signs.

My favorite from last Sunday leads readers through a photo montage of life at Derby Hill. Horses graze. A handsome man in a suit nuzzles (or bites?) the neck of a woman in a cocktail dress. Kids use computers. Ocean waves do what ocean waves do. All this could be yours along with a two-story white colonial with black shutters. Pardee Homes says: “Take the High Road.” Indeed.

Builders might do the same. Hidden in the fine print of their advertisements are the details of just how to get the dream at a discount. Like car advertisements, few people actually qualify for the low financing rate advertised. It’s no wonder why home builders increasingly advertise their properties in terms of monthly payments rather than selling price.

It sounds a lot more doable to do $1,584 a month than to do a $519,000 mortgage. But read the fine print on this Prudential California Realty advertisement (which orders readers to “Own it!”) in Sunday’s paper and you’ll find that monthly payment comes at a high price that may or may not involve negative amortization, which means your principal balance increases rather than decreases because your payments don’t even cover the interest on the bill. While this bad news is hidden in a tiny font at the bottom of the full-page ad, Prudential busies your mind with Yuppie code words like “secluded” (from terrorists? criminals? immigrants?), “lush” and “gourmet.”

Why can’t they all just advertise selling prices in a straightforward way without tricks and marketing gimmicks like “free” designer upgrades and financing schemes designed to get you into a bigger house than you can afford? Builders get a clue: if you’re having trouble selling, why don’t you just lower the damn price?

But that doesn’t fully address the issue because builders heavily advertised exotic mortgages when houses were flying off the market, which is how we got where we are. We all invested in this perverse culture of hype and anxiety about real estate in part by believing that the appreciation in our home values was really ours, like money in the bank.

The question now is: What are we going to do about? Are we going to continue to play suckers to lenders’ easy financing schemes? Resign ourselves to never owning our own homes? Demand that politicians admit we need prices to fall to reasonable levels and that the economy probably won’t be destroyed as a result? Or will we allow them to get away with claiming to be for “affordable housing” while asserting that prices won’t fall as much as they need to because of San Diego’s “strong” economy?

Here’s a new rule: you can’t call your economy strong when less than 20 percent of area residents can afford to buy a home. And I don’t mean a condo conversion in a shady neighborhood or a luxury home in Carlsbad. I mean a regular house in Clairemont or Pacific Beach or Del Cerro that middle class people can buy without flirting dangerously with default and foreclosure. Maybe then we can find something else to get anxious about.

Catherine MacRae Hockmuth is a free-lance writer living in Point Loma. Please contact her directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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