1990, almost a million houses were built in the United States. One of them, at 12204 Backus Drive in Bowie, Md., was a four-bedroom colonial with a bay window. The average home price that year was $150,000; this house, in a desirable middle-class suburb of Washington, sold for $227,140.
Like every house, it became a vessel for its inhabitants’ personalities and possessions — the vast record collection of the first owner, the wedding photos of the most recent ones. It also came to hold a promise of prosperity, as the boom encouraged Americans to think of houses as not just places to live, but as investments that, thanks to rising prices, could dispense huge cash returns.
The story of 12204 Backus Drive is in many ways the story of the American housing market: first anodyne, then ruinous, then resilient. It is peopled with losers and villains, lucky winners and a young couple hoping for, but not counting on, good fortune. This house’s value peaked at $540,000, plunged to $215,000, and rapidly convalesced until, last year, it sold for an amount that might be considered auspicious.