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Posted March 6, 2006
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W hat could be more solid, more firmly rooted, than real estate? A house stands while occupants come, hopeful and expectant, and go, transferred, perhaps, divorced or just in search of something better. But people leave their marks. They knock down walls and tile the bath; they plant poplars in the backyard. A house becomes a statement of taste and priority and a daily source of pride or rebuke. "A most simple majesty" is how Franklin Hata, the emotionally-constricted protagonist of Chang-rae Lee's "Gesture Life," described this sensation of dominion over real estate. Hata also saw in a house "the shape of one's life, how it has transformed and, with any luck, multiplied and grown."

We are our houses, in other words, and over the last decade, as prices have soared to impossible heights, real estate has occupied a much larger part of our conversation. This week, we devote an entire issue to the topic of real estate and how it changes us. Some of these transformations are about broad economic forces: how Bushwick, one of the most crime-ridden places in New York, began to be populated by trendy restaurants and artists' lofts; how an accidental tax deduction came to be thought of as the foundation of homeownership in the United States; and one economist's surprising views on why housing prices are so high in some cities.

We also chronicle the exploits of people who, in one way or another, are trying to put their marks on property: the couple who constructed the most environmentally sensitive house they could; the billionaire trying to buy fabulous vacation resorts for the superwealthy; and the speculator who has the confidence — some would say audacity — to bet large on his vision of a real-estate boom in the wrecked city of New Orleans. What these people will see in their creations is, of course, impossible to know. Franklin Hata was ultimately dismayed by what his Tudor house, renovated to perfection over the years, conveyed of the shape of his life. Most of us hope for better. But even if we fail to give our own houses a desirable shape, the houses will still be standing, waiting for the next occupant.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times Magazine of Sunday, March 5, 2006.

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