Tales of the crash of 2007

The meltdown in housing prices may not cause a recession, but it's costing some people their homes - and some their marriages, Ben Stein writes in Fortune.

By Ben Stein, Fortune

(Fortune Magazine) -- It doesn't look to me as if there will be a recession - at least not a major recession - from the subprime problems or the credit crunch or any of that panic on Wall Street. But there are effects rippling all over the place right here and now, and some of them are not what you might expect (though some are).

Item: My dear friend B is a broker for super-luxury homes in Scottsdale. He used to be perpetually out of breath from hustling around that lush area showing immense houses and depositing huge checks.

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Ben Stein says market chaos is having some surprising ripple effects, including unhappy marriages.

"Now," he says, "I go into the office on Saturdays and Sundays, and I'm literally the only person there. There are dozens of empty cubicles, but their phones never ring. Never. Not once all weekend. It's as if I were down in the desert 100 miles from here. That's how quiet it is."

"Why do you bother going in at all?" I ask.

"If I don't," he says, "there's a 100% chance nothing will happen. At least here by the phone, there's a chance."

Item: I, your humble servant, am negotiating to buy a condo in Sandpoint in magnificent, super-beautiful northern Idaho. The day I made my first offer, I read a piece in the New York Times that seemed to say that jumbo loans were either unavailable or available only at rates in the range of 13%.

That same day my mortgage broker offered me a 30-year jumbo at 6 7/8%. She said she had money to lend and could do the thing in two weeks. The next day two more lenders called and offered me the same deal. Don't believe everything you read in the papers.

Item: On CNBC there is story after story about the mortgage cutoff and credit crunch. In between are ads for mortgages.

Item: One of my best friends, a blue-eyed, red-haired stunner and a math whiz, is married to a builder and mortgage broker near Naples, Fla. She flew into town, and I had lunch with her today. "How is your husband taking all this stuff?" I asked her.

"He doesn't sleep. At most he sleeps from 5 A.M. to 7 A.M. We built two spec homes near Naples. We spent $2.7 million on each of them. We had them listed for $4 million each. We haven't had one prospect in a year. We lowered the price by a million each. Still no prospects. We're losing $60,000 a month on the two of them. My husband has no business. None. The phone never rings."

"Horrible," I said.

"I'm leaving him," she said. "He's grouchy all the time. I want a guy who's rich and cheerful all day and all night. Why should I have to suffer because his business is bad?"

"He's your husband," I said. "You have to stick by him."

"Why? I want to laugh and have fun, and he's in a bad mood for months on end. I didn't make this mortgage mess, and I don't see why I should have to suffer for it."

"It won't last," I said. "It never does."

She suddenly looked much more upbeat. "How long until the market turns around?" she asked expectantly.

"Maybe six years," I said.

She looked staggered. "That's it," she sighed. "I want you to start looking for a rich husband for me who's going to stay rich no matter what. Tell him I'll be a really great wife." (She has a killer sense of humor so I am praying she's kidding.)

Twenty-four hours later, as I was driving to Malibu from Beverly Hills, I was called by a woman friend of 37 years who is a psychologist and marriage and family counselor in a suburb of Philadelphia. I told her the story about my friend who's planning to look for a richer husband. She gasped.

"That could be a disaster," she said firmly.

"Because she's breaking up her family over money?"

"No, because what if she leaves him and the mortgage market and the spec home market suddenly turn around and he gets rich again and then she can't find anyone as rich to marry next?"

"Good thinking," I said.

"You have to be realistic," she answered.

Ben Stein is a writer, lawyer, economist, and actor.  Top of page