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The Homes That Built Us

John and Cynthia Abendshien’s decision to sell their sprawling home in Winnetka, Ill., now that they are empty-nesters would not be newsworthy but for one fact: Most of us have very fond memories of that house.

We did not need to go to Winnetka to visit the Abendshiens’ home. The 1990 blockbuster film “Home Alone” brought the house to us. We explored the place from basement to attic as 8-year-old Kevin McCallister, played by Macauley Culkin, defended the homestead from a pair of klutzy burglars after his family forgot to take him on a holiday trip to Europe. I saw the film, and the house, maybe a dozen times as my daughters watched the movie over and over on video cassettes in the 90s. The Abendshiens have lived in the house since 1988, but I spent so many Saturday mornings there with my kids that, in a way, it almost feels like home to us too.

We imbue all sorts of inanimate objects with value well beyond their material worth because of the roles they play in our lives. Today’s sky-high gold prices do not tempt us to sell our wedding bands, at least if we are happily married. The Seiko watch on my wrist cost a couple of hundred dollars when I bought it for my father about six years ago. My mother gave it to me after he died. You could offer me 20 times what I paid for it and I would not sell it, even though I know I could replace it on eBay for a modest sum.

Psychologists and social scientists have documented our tendency to attach a higher value to the things we own personally than to the things we do not. This principle can apply to everything from stocks to Matchbox cars. To you, that frying pan in my cupboard is just a used frying pan. To me, it’s the frying pan with which the girls and I perfected the art of the chocolate chip pancake. Even if you like that frying pan, you’ll never offer me what it would take to persuade me to sell it. Maybe I should leave it to the Smithsonian.

If we get attached to frying pans, what kind of connections do we make with bigger things, like cars or houses? Just ask someone who, in middle age, scours the countryside for the best possible replica of the jalopy he rebuilt as a teenager. Or ask any real estate agent how often a client insists that her home is worth much more than the nearly identical one down the block that sold last week.

Houses take on special significance because they are the places where our lives are most lived. It does not matter how grand or modest the house may be. Country music artist Miranda Lambert and songwriters Allen Shamblin and Tom Douglas captured the idea in a beautiful hit song from last year, “The House That Built Me.” Reading about the Abendshiens’ decision to move on made me realize that it is not just the houses we live in that touch our lives. In our media-infused culture, a lot of other houses can play their own parts.

Growing up in cramped apartments in the Bronx, my ideas about a lot of things — houses, California, large families and housekeepers among them — developed around “The Brady Bunch.” It turns out my childhood dream home was a two-bedroom split level, built in the San Fernando Valley in 1959 to house a family that had been dislocated by construction of the Ventura Freeway.

The lovely home in Pasadena, Calif., that appeared in the 1991 film “Father of the Bride” has quite a following. So does another Pasadena home, occupied by matriarch Nora Walker on the ABC television series “Brothers & Sisters,” which may have just completed its final season. These are what we might call aspirational homes, the type that middle- and upper-middle-class folks could hope to occupy someday.

In contrast, few viewers of “Brideshead Revisited,” either the film released in 2008 or the miniseries released in 1981 — both based on Evelyn Waugh’s novel — have any aspirations of living in a place like Castle Howard, the English manor where both were filmed and which Waugh reputedly visited before writing his book. Then again, that house was not exactly a carefree, happy place.

It was certainly nothing like the adventurous romp that we all enjoyed back at the Abendshien abode in Winnetka. It remains to be seen whether the house’s fame will result in a higher selling price than the property itself would merit. It is not clear whether our tendency to overvalue things that are our own extends to properties with which we have only a virtual tie. But we do feel a connection to the place, because that stately residence in Illinois built a little bit of a lot of us.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s most recent book, The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Anyone Can Achieve Wealth,” and Chapter 19, “Assisting Aging Parents.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s previous book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55.

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