Reality bites of parting with real estate

How does it feel to sell off your home — a space that’s synonymous with memories? Property transactions are financial ones, but they usually come with an attendant bagful of emotions.

By Anjaly Thomas

Published: Sat 5 Feb 2022, 8:41 PM

Last updated: Tue 8 Feb 2022, 1:00 PM

Buying a home may not only be the biggest financial transaction most people will undertake in their lives, but also the most emotional one, especially if you have wrapped up your dreams or hopes in it.

This point was driven home when I was packing boxes with books, souvenirs, and everyday things I collected over the years which I’d lovingly set up in what was my dream project — my little writer’s hideout on my coffee plantation somewhere in the southern reaches of India, knowing well that I’d never open those boxes again. My broker/real estate agent had been rather merciless when driving the bargain, showing me the demerits of owning a tract of land that remained neglected the last three years. “Your coffee bushes are now trees,” he argued dispassionately, “and very soon this place will attract wildlife. You’d do good to move on.”

Which was true, of course — but what about my little hideout that held so many memories within? It had to go with the plantation, obviously.

Sure, I had become a victim of circumstances. The entire exercise of selling what I loved so much was largely due to my inability to travel (thanks to Covid), shortage of labour force and, more importantly, falling crop prices. But it was also my very own… the very first property I’d bought, so emotions played up. It was like uprooting memories and experiences rooted in the physical space.

I suppose because buying or selling a home or a property, at a base level, is an exchange of money for a product, without taking into consideration the emotions.

It is often more than money — whether the transaction is happening for a good reason, or a wrenching one.  I’ve known friends who sobbed their way through closures, because, as they said between sobs, it was not just four walls that provided shelter, “it was the nest of memories”.

Dr Scott Huettel, chair of the department of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, links memory to space. Research proves how a physical space can be tied to a memory and therefore imbued with significant value beyond anything monetary.

Cracks in the floor

Trivandrum-based writer and language teacher Mini S Menon vividly recalls the emotional turmoil of watching her home “go” — the home that she says was the “only one I was attached to” as a young child.

“My childhood was a fragmented one. An only child in a broken family meant constant moving of homes — each one lasting for as long as the peace within lasted. I grew up in three different places for the first 21 years of my life,” says Mini. “But the place I considered home was my mother’s tharavad (family home), a typical house of land-owning families in Kerala with provision to store agricultural produce.”

Mini recalls the joys of exploring the windowless attic where all the junk was stored — brass and bronze vessels, old china, sepia-toned photographs, fraying ledgers. “It used to be a treasure trove,” she recalls.

“I loved that house: every nook and corner, every shadow and every beam of light that fell through the roof,” says Mini. “But again, my memories alternate between loving and painful. When I moved away, it felt like a chapter of my life had ended. The house became a liability and, over the years, the property was partitioned, and the new owners demolished the house and built a new one. To this day, it seems surreal.”

In her heart, she maintains, the house is still alive. Whenever she yearns to revisit, all she must do is close her eyes and she feels transported back to the “old house with cracked floors, the panelled granary door and the fat, white lizard that came out of the beams at night…”

Gathering the fragments

For Mita Srinivasan, UAE-based founder and director of Market Buzz International, the memories of her home in Darjeeling, India, are the fondest. She says it is never easy to say goodbye to something one had loved so much — but the dictates of time win in the end.

“It is heart wrenching letting go of parts of your past and even more so when there are stories attached to it,” she says. “But sometimes it just has to be done.”

Her father inherited a house in Darjeeling along with his brothers and after he and his siblings died, “we [as the next generation] decided that we would sell the property because none of us were in a position to help manage the property or its upkeep. We also wanted to make sure that a couple of our elderly aunts could get some of the proceeds from the sale to help them live on. It was a logical decision to make,” she says.

Mita says while the decision to sell was unanimous and practical, she felt a slight tug of guilt at having to sell it because of the treasure trove of memories attached to it and because the next generation would lose the chance of seeing an important part of their heritage.

“It wasn’t our primary home, but a family holiday home and the memories we made there were always happy ones. But no matter who owns the place today, we will always have those memories. Our family was very closely knit.”

Meanwhile, Ritwika Chaudhuri, UAE-based founder of The Palette Art Training and Consultancy, explains how some sales become a need, which, besides the emotional connect can become the real reason for its disposal. Referring to their family property in Kolkata, she says, “There were emotions, yes, but a more pressing need was to curb encroachment of the property that was left unattended.”

Selling it was hard, considering that for years it belonged in the family, but a collective decision was made keeping in mind the advancing age of many family members. “We kept losing the older members of the family [only mom remains now], and the upkeep was getting harder. Added to it was the problem of encroachment — so, technically, we had various reasons to do away with it.”

Ritwika says selling a much loved and lived-in property was depressing and upsetting because it meant closing the doors on the memories of all the functions and family gatherings, the picnics in the garden… “When we signed on the dotted line, I sort of felt the door shut. Never to open it again.”

She says it took her mom and older cousin brothers a long time to reconcile to that fact that a move was imminent — but it needed to be done. “We did not feel guilty because it was the best solution to a problem that could not be ignored.”

Practical vs emotional

British journalist and broadcaster based in the Philippines Brian Salter has lived around the world; however, his memories of selling a house in Britain — originally built for the then-keeper of the British Museum in 1922 (designed by Lutyens). It was a long and narrow house with a huge garden.

“It was cold in winter and hot in summer, but it had fabulous views and was simply a joy to look at,” he recalls. “It was located 40 miles to the south of London and eventually I had to sell it when I got a job in the north of England. That was a sad move, but necessary. And a house I later bought in Yorkshire was also a wonderful house and eventually that had to go too — so no looking back and no regrets,” he says.

Over the years, Brian bought several houses, some to live in and some to rent out, although he admits he had nothing to do with the sale of his parents’ home in Britain. When he moved to the Philippines, he ended up buying two houses there. The reasons included mortgages, upsizing, downsizing and divorce. “When upsizing, it was something to look forward to, as each house was better than the last. As for the selling of the last house, when I got divorced, it was all wrapped up in the entire proceedings. I felt sad about having to say goodbye to a really lovely house, but there was no choice in the matter.”

A sense of security

Assistant Professor of Psychology, School of Social Sciences, Heriot-Watt University Dubai, Gregory Fantham explains why humans relate to their homes to the point it hurts when they have to say goodbye to it.

“Selling your home can be an extremely emotional experience for most people because it is the place where you have lived and made memories,” he explains. “Homes also have a deeply emotional connection because there’s a lot of involvement and effort in decorating the place — be it choosing the paint or the curtains and envisioning the whole look in totality; then seeing it come to fruition is a satisfying process. It’s more than mere ownership.”

Fantham recalls his personal experiences. “The home that we own, bought, and paid for is in France. But our European citizenship vanished with Brexit. We own it, but it feels less of a home knowing it has restrictions. There is something unconditional about a home; it’s connected with what positive psychologists call ‘unconditional positive regard’.”

According to him, a home is often the largest and most important financial investment of one’s life, and it has a major impact on our lives. The various steps involved in selling a home, such as deciding on the price, engaging with brokers or prospective buyers, negotiating, can be stressful and unnerving. Another aspect would be the reason for selling, such as monetary reasons, which can be hard to come to terms with, or moving closer to a loved one or the workplace.

“The cluster of associations with homes have a deep emotional impact on us. For example, the memories of celebrating your successes, hosting family and friends, growing your family etc, evoke happy emotions.  We associate them closely to the place where these were experienced.”

He explains how a home provides a sense of belonging and security. “It is only in your own home that you can truly be private and secure with complete freedom and autonomy to be in control of your surroundings.”

Memory fountains

Home is where the heart is, goes the saying. But having to sell a home, reasons notwithstanding, can feel like years of memories being taken away and, worse, if the move involves a life change, every process feels like salt in the wound.

Dr Huettel’s research shows that memories and associations that are connected to all those facets of life that make houses so heavily connected to us. That might make it the place where you grew up, or brought your children home from the hospital, feel invaluable… and it is hard to part with, even though it is ultimately just a physical thing with a price tag attached.

As Gregory Fantham says, it is worth remembering that the identification of “home” with property ownership is quite specific to societies that prioritise individual investment and, indeed, individualism as a value. In the US, for example, the idea of a home-owning democracy is deeply ingrained in the political culture. In contrast, more collectivist or less money-orientated societies don’t exhibit this identification of home with property. In fact, the distinction is something we all appreciate at times.

“As a family, we moved on more than half-a-dozen occasions, and, even after our children moved abroad, there was never any doubt that home was wherever we were, own it or not.”

He elaborates how external factors such as surroundings, neighbourhoods and relationships with neighbours can also be reasons for a deep sense of connection with our homes — and, therefore, the resulting sense of loss of connection to a place can be that much more overwhelming.

Physical places endure and serve as memory fountains, so homes and neighbourhoods help us keep alive some of the strongest sources of what has given our lives meaning, wellbeing, and happiness.

I know I am going to miss the sounds of the wild and gurgling streams and the stress of managing a dwindling labour force. But then, I know what I am going to do with the proceeds of the sale. Travel.

Because there is nothing like travel to heal broken hearts and create new memories.

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