Suffering From Real Estate Depression? Here's the Cure

Once upon a time there was an apartment for sale. It was big and beautiful (after you painted over the lime-green living room) and in my friends' building. And we could afford it.

This was five years ago in the postcrash lull. Without casting blame, let me just say this: We didn't buy it. And the two or three other great places we saw? We didn't buy those either.

If you're commiserating right now -- and many people are -- your jaw has likely dropped as home prices rose at unprecedented rates, your American dream dashed: You, too, may have real estate depression.

For those of us who still obsess about homes that got away, we present some professional psychological advice.

Go forth and mourn

Don't say, "Meh -- no big deal."

It is a big deal. Per Freud's interpretation of dreams, a house is "the representation of the human person as a whole." (Take it with a grain of salt: "Those with entirely smooth walls are men; but those which are provided with projections and balconies to which one can hold on, are women.")

"Homeownership is a right of passage," says Elizabeth Carll, a former real estate agent and a psychologist in Huntington, NY. "And now you've lost it."

It's OK to be bummed. It's a bummer.

Don't feel ashamed

Anger, anxiety, loss, guilt: Real estate causes an "avalanche of emotion," says Cynthia Cummins, a San Francisco Realtor@ and a blogger.

Cummins' renter friend "fell to pieces" as she watched San Francisco's market rise for 30 years. "It pulled away from her to the point where buying wasn't possible," she says.

Her friend developed the "shame of not being a homeowner."

It's harder when, ahem, your extended family clucks at your mistake. Tell them that you share their frustration, but don't let that frustration lead to shame.

Choose productive regret

Yes, there is such a thing.

"Unproductive regret" -- ruminating, blaming -- "depletes your happiness and overall feeling of satisfaction in your life," says Sherry Helgoe, a California-based therapist who works with real estate agents. Productive regret means examining what led to your real estate -- less situation, so you can learn from your mistakes.

So why didn't you buy that house? Fear of change? Not enough savings? Unwillingness to compromise on space or location? Poor relationship communication? Perhaps a husband's intransigence and overly pickiness?

Ask and answer these questions, to prepare yourself to buy next time.

Set new goals

Now that you've mastered productive regret, set new -- realistic -- real estate goals, re-examine your values, and rejigger your priorities. Maybe you're willing to move farther away, or to a smaller home. Maybe, says Cummins, "you figure out how to make the space you're in work for good."

Celebrate the home you live in

Be nice to your current dwelling. Buy some flowers. Paint a room. Spend a little down payment money on it.

Find its attributes. Affordable? Near a decent coffee shop? Safe? Nice neighbors? Bing Crosby was right: Accentuate the positive. Adds Carll, "find a way to instill hope. It doesn't mean that your whole life is on hold; it just means that buying a house is."

Here's one way, if you're a renter, to celebrate: "A house is a bottomless pit," says Carll. "There's always something to do and to spend money on."

"The whole American idea of homeownership being some sort of necessary ring to acquire in order to be a grown-up or be successful or be fulfilled," says Cummins, "is a really outmoded idea."

Remember: Real estate does not a fulfilled person make.

Don't torture yourself

Take a break from obsessively poring over listings (may we recommend's News & Advice section?). "You're only setting yourself up for disappointment," says Carll.

Also, don't start every conversation with your friends in the apartment-that-got-away building with, "If only I had bought that apartment."

"If we're living in the past or the future, it can be pretty depressing," says Cummins.

Says Helgoe, "If 'I didn't buy a house in time' is your repeated thinking, you begin to miss out on the other positive areas of your life."

Practice radical acceptance

In the words of one of the great gurus of our time, Queen Elsa: "Let it go."

Allow yourself to privately seethe.

Until, every six months or so, you yell at your husband, "I'm going to be mad that you were so picky about real estate for the rest of our lives!"

Oh, wait -- don't do that. See radical acceptance, above.