Off Message July 2006

The Bard of the Bubble

For informed real estate coverage, look for David Streitfeld's byline in the Los Angeles Times.
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If you want the latest news about the American real estate boom—and whether it's about to go bust—you have plenty of options.

The news pages of Google, Yahoo!, and other Web sites offer a constant stream of wire stories about the state of housing markets around the country. The Wall Street Journal and USA Today follow the big picture with front-page stories about bubble worries. Local newspapers track their own markets, though reporters are often hampered by the Babbittish tendencies of real estate professionals, many of whom will invariably say the market's just humming along, even when it's stone dead.

This is all fine, as far as it goes. But for a story this momentous, one on which the financial well-being of so many Americans, not to mention the economy itself, is riding, most of the coverage is pretty thin. Real estate has never been a plum newsroom job, and there just aren't many reporters who both 1) recognize the boom for the dramatic economic and human story that it is, and 2) have the talent to cover it in all its fullness.

The most striking exception to this rule is David Streitfeld, a reporter in the San Francisco bureau of the Los Angeles Times who has been writing housing stories on and off for the past two years. (Disclosure: The Times published an op-ed by me last Sunday.) Though Streitfeld doesn't cover the beat full-time, when his byline appears over a housing story, you know you're in for something smarter, and a lot better written, than the usual fare. His work isn't just a cut above—it delivers the boom as a tableau vivant of life in America right now.

There was an example this week, headlined "For San Diego Real Estate, the Skies Are Not So Sunny." In this 1,300-word dispatch from what was until recently one of the hottest markets in the country, Streitfeld introduces us to a real estate broker named David Davis, an optimist who assures him that San Diego is on the upswing: "Our No. 1 industry is now tourism.... Unless they take away the sun, we'll be fine."

The story continues: "If Davis radiates cheer, the fliers taped to the window outside the office door tell a different story. 'Huge Price Reduction,' one says. Another says both 'Reduced' and '$15,000 Credit.'

"In some cases, the prices are dropping faster than the fliers can be reprinted. A two-bedroom town home has its price of $324,900 crossed out with a marking pen, replaced by $309,900."

Later in the story, we meet a doubter named Rich Toscano, a San Diegan who is so exercised about the bubble that he's set up a Web site about the coming crash called piggington.com. "We've built a whole economy based on selling each other homes," he tells Streitfeld. "That's not sustainable."

The two characters cut against each other nicely, each moment anchored by a memorable quote, a Streitfeld trademark. In an e-mail exchange with me, Streitfeld called the San Diego piece a "minor story." Yet on the day it was published, it was at several points both the most viewed and the most e-mailed article on the Los Angeles Times Web site.

I got to know Streitfeld slightly in the early '90s, when we were both reporters for the Style section of The Washington Post. At the time, he was on the literary beat—writing profiles of famous authors and covering the book business so aggressively that he often seemed to have the whole Manhattan publishing world on its knees. He doesn't appear to miss those days.

"Real estate feels directly relevant in a way that Norman Mailer's new novel never did. It's the one subject that binds all 36 million Californians together. Everyone's got an interest, and a self-interest, in it."

This is, he told me, "one of the great stories of our time, ranking with terrorism, obesity, and whatever we're calling the Internet revolution these days."

A self-described "agnostic" about the bubble, Streitfeld jumped into the market himself last summer and bought a house in the San Francisco suburbs. "If there is a bubble and it pops severely, I'm probably doomed, like much of California."

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