Greg Bruce: The painful story of the million dollar Mangawhai beach house

Greg Bruce considers the nature of love for a house and a city.

A couple of weeks ago, while we were staying at a nice holiday house in Mangawhai Heads, we noticed a place for sale five doors down. Zanna looked up the listing online and we fell instantly in love. It was a beautiful old barn, with decorative sacking, quality art and concrete floors, which would be perfect for easy elimination of sand brought in from the beautiful nearby beaches. We weren’t in the market for a beach house in Mangawhai Heads, but nor were we not in the market.

A couple of days later, driving home from the beach, we saw they were having an open home. It seemed like a sign. I asked the agents what it was likely to go for and they said they never say because they’re always wrong, but they gave me a list of recent sales of similar properties and, based on that, it seemed reasonable to think it would be about a million, which is money I neither have nor would be prepared to spend on a converted barn bach on a main road several minutes drive from the beach in a small settlement in Northland. So why couldn’t I stop thinking about it?

I’d been to Mangawhai Heads a couple of times before but this was my first time staying there. It’s a beach town and I hate beaches as a rule, but the weather was so nice and the beaches were beautiful and my kids loved the place so much it was hard not to feel the contagion of joy corrupting both my values and economic rationality. Friends with kids the same age owned a bach a few doors down and I imagined the idyllic summers we might spend over the coming decades, barbecues with our friends, the kids growing up with each other and going off to the beach together in the late afternoon while the adults lay around on the grass reading speculative fiction and getting tipsy.

The agents asked if we’d been in touch with our bank and I reflexively said yes. I think they knew I was lying but just in case they didn’t, Zanna told them. We weren’t going to buy the house, couldn’t afford to buy the house, but I couldn’t fight the feeling in my body that we must buy the house. It was a feeling driven by the twin forces of hopes and dreams. We had to have it. This feeling was so powerful that once it was in me, everything became possible and all barriers ceased to exist. It was a feeling that elevated my mood and made me a better person – more fun to be around, more outgoing, more generous, more understanding.

“We don’t have the money,” Zanna said.
“It’s just money,” I said.
“Where’s it going to come from?” she said
“We’ll manifest it,” I said.

I’m aware this sounds crazy, but have you seen property prices? I’m hardly the only one experiencing a complete failure of rationality.

The house was beautiful. We’d spend whole summers there. Our friends and family would visit and big groups of us would spend long nights cheating at Pictionary. The kids would invite future friends I don’t really approve of and they’d stay in tents on the lawn outside, drinking and doing drugs, thinking we didn’t know about it, and I’d take them aside afterwards for a quiet chat, saying, “I just want you to be safe,” and they’d cry and say it was just a one-off and they’re so happy I’m their dad, then we’d all go for a swim at the beach and pretend they were telling the truth.

The last day was the best day. It was hot and cloudless and we found a new swimming spot, almost deserted, with perfect, clear, calm water. I’d never seen our kids so happy, our family so joyfully united. This would be our spot and, in 20 years, 80 per cent of our Christmas reminiscences would be about it. Quite a lot of emotion was, by this time, involved.

The next morning, we drove back to Auckland – only 80 minutes away, according to the agents, although our drive up had been 103 minutes, plus an additional eternity for crisis and comfort stops. “Eighty minutes!” I said to Zanna. We’d come here every long weekend and a bunch of regular weekends as well! We’d be here all the time!

We needed to reframe the way we thought about it. In another 10 years, assuming current real estate trends continue – and why wouldn’t they?- the house would be worth at least $2 million. Far from being something we couldn’t afford to buy, it was something we couldn’t afford not to buy. In 20 years, its sale might help pay for a few weeks’ rent on the tiny houses our children would be sharing with multiple flatmates on the outskirts of the city.

It can be difficult to distinguish infatuation from love. The drive home took more than two hours including stops and, when we rounded the corner at Esmonde Rd, where the view opens out across the harbour to the city skyline, I felt a great wave of happiness and affection for this place and the people in it. It was a warm feeling, a sense of belonging and contentment. I thought, “I don’t need more than what I already have,” which tied in nicely with the fact I couldn’t afford it.

The house went to auction on Thursday. I didn’t go.

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