The Vancouver sculptor Robert Chaplin, an artist of remarkable gifts, has a work I can't afford but which I recreationally covet. Two obsidian ovoids, one styled as a bear and the other as a bull. From time to time I visit them in his studio around the corner from my office in Gastown, and twirl them in one palm like Chinese Baoding meditation balls, imagining I can see the future with utter clarity.
Real-estate watchers in Vancouver and across the country probably wish they had a similar device, as the bear and the bull are indeed circling one another in Canada now. It's a slow dance to see who is leading and who is following, and the outcome has heavy consequences.
U.S. real estate has been flattened as if by a quake, with aftershocks still rocking the markets. No surprise that real-estate seismographs are chattering up here. We're looking at rising inventories, units-under-construction numbers peaking, and a scary-looking downward crook in the housing price index for Vancouver east side condos in March, off 15 per cent from January. Those numbers made headlines online, certainly, when they were released by Landcor Online Real Estate Analysis. And although the decline was reversed in April, the index has not regained its September, 2007, peak.
We care about all this for economic reasons, obviously. Losses anything like those south of the border will be deeply and widely felt. Last week, over at Dr. Housing Bubble - one of the hundreds of American real-estate bear blogs - the headline read: "You can kiss $2.84-trillion in housing equity goodbye ..." But the psychological impact of all this might be just as important in the long run. We were changed by the bull. It seems worth wondering how we might be changed by the bear.
When I say "changed," I mean in the most personal ways. Barely a generation ago, real estate was a private matter. Now, assessed values for every property in Vancouver are a mouse click away. And people are comfortable with all this self-disclosure, because we accept that on one level we purchase objects in accordance with an algorithm that incorporates personal identity.
Specifically, we buy things hoping to inherit the attributes for which the products themselves are known. The cosmo-international chic of a designer handbag. The mingled foodie and political virtue in a $25 bag of farmer's market heirloom tomatoes. And yes, crucially, the attributes of our real estate as determined by its style, location and price.
That's why it became such sport to follow real estate during the bull market in the first place, because price escalation offered a flattering, reflected glow on the purchaser.
Maybe the psychological downsides of a bear market won't be as steep as those depicted in Ruby Slippers Theatre company's recent production of James Long's play The View From Above, in which the Vancouver North Shore of 2011 finds itself literally sliding into the sea. Maybe the fallout won't match the sepulchral tone of the many real-estate death-watch blogs that have emerged in the past year: vancouver (un)real estate, condohype, etc.
But houses and condos in a bear market may yet threaten to flatten those they previously flattered. And our relationship with them can be expected to change.
Clues to how are offered by the oddly timed House Lust, by Daniel McGinn, a book about the American love affair with real estate that plumbs a decade's worth of "talking about, scheming over, envying, shopping for, refinancing, or just plain ogling houses ..."
That strikes me as exactly the list of activities that will have ceased in the lives of the people Mr. McGinn profiled for the book. And if Canada's experience is to be even a fraction of the American one - a fraction of 2.84 trillion can still add up to a very big number - then we might anticipate similar affects here.
Dinner parties where nobody mentions real estate. Our envy retooled so that people who bought five years ago aren't automatically considered geniuses. Open houses - which you attend because you're actually thinking of buying something - where bidding wars are unlikely, where it might even be possible to suggest to the selling agent an offer subject to the sale of your own home.
It's telling in House Lust that Mr. McGinn promises in his introduction to show us "just how contagious the ideal of owning the best home on the block can be." Interesting way to put it: contagion. Like people may never have really wanted any of it - the granite countertops, the stainless appliances, the media room - but caught the desire like a virus from somebody else.
There's another thing you might anticipate if the bear rounds on the bull. A sudden immunity to this effect. Buyers withdrawing their personal identities from the housing market, even if it is too late to evacuate their dollars.
Timothy Taylor is a novelist and journalist based in Vancouver. His latest book is the novel Story House.