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Finding myself in strangers’ homes

My family’s open-house hobby gave me a way to understand other people’s lives

My parents have lived in the same house since the month before I was born, and they never, as far as I know, had any serious intention of moving. But when I was a child and teenager, our family visited open houses anyway—for fun.

On weekends, we’d drive out to houses on the market, either already-built homes in nearby towns or model homes in the under-construction new developments that, at the time, seemed to be springing up all over our part of New Jersey. My parents would pose as buyers, and my brother and I would endure the sales talk until we could all do what we’d really come there to do: wander through the house and imagine what our lives might be like if we lived in it.

It’s a popular hobby in Sweden, where one in three Swedes visit open houses without any intention of buying property. But as a kid, I didn’t know anyone else who spent weekends this way. It was a hobby that felt like my family: maybe a little bit quirky.

We each had favorite houses. When I asked my parents recently what they remembered from those visits, my dad started talking about a house with a playroom that stretched above the entire two-car garage. My mom described a house with French doors that led from every room to an outdoor patio. It had a $1 million price tag and a kitchen with two dishwashers.

I can still close my eyes and call to mind a larger model home in a new development, most likely a sprawling subdivision built by Toll Brothers—the developer whose homes we all remember most clearly—where the room designed as a teenager’s bedroom was high-ceilinged and wallpapered in gray and black stripes patterned with records. If I lived there, I thought as an impressionable preteen, I could become the sort of person who wallpapered her room in gray and black and images of records: maybe a little bit cool.

Open houses are designed to spark buyers’ imaginations in this way. Sellers are told to remove personal objects so a buyer can imagine her own possessions there, and model spaces in new-built houses are often staged for a “type.” For the developer or homeowner hoping to close a sale, these are tactics. For the prospective buyer, the decor in an open house or model unit can be aspirational. For me, a kid who never quite felt she understood how to be like other people, the open houses offered something else—a way in.

Walking through someone else’s home, even when the person is an imaginary “model,” is an invitation to think about them with rare specificity and even intimacy. When I visited open houses as a child and teenager—and then once I not-so-surprisingly became a real estate reporter in my 20s—I would imagine the lives of those strangers. That habit of imagining made it easier to let go of the impulse to make judgments or assumptions, and to instead walk through homes with genuine curiosity about their inhabitants. Homes like the one with two dishwashers were opportunities: Why, my family would wonder, would someone want or need two dishwashers? In the granularity of the question, the people who lived in these homes came alive to us as individuals.

That same curiosity led me, in turn, back toward myself. What is this person’s day-to-day life like—and is that what I want my life to look like? As I mentally auditioned each home and the life I might live in it, I was looking for the sensation that the writer Meghan Daum calls “domestic integrity,” or the union of self and space that allows one “to not feel like an impostor in your home and, therefore, in your life.”

I realized I was not the kind of person who would wallpaper her room in black and gray and images of records—a design choice that, to me as a preteen, signaled a level of trendiness I did not possess—and I found I didn’t actually want to be. But I wouldn’t mind a vast patio accessed by French doors. My own home didn’t need to look like anyone else’s, but it could, as long as it also looked right to me. I came to my sense of domestic integrity from the outside, looking in, letting what I liked about others’ decor choices slowly reveal me to myself.

I felt most at home amid blues and greens and yellows. I liked the way a modern metal coffee table looked next to a more traditional gray sofa, and I found minimalist design too cold and midcentury modern furniture too angled and unfriendly. I liked a deep, old-fashioned-looking chair and a wall of bookshelves. When I began living alone, with the freedom to arrange my space exactly as I liked, I decorated my apartment this way, visiting one furniture store after another and bookmarking color combinations to consider, following an internal barometer honed over years of exploring other people’s homes. The result felt, finally, exactly like me.

Sara Polsky is Curbed’s features editor.