I've spent so much of my adult life trying to keep my primary residences from collapsing on me that I've never had enough spare time to own a second home, too.

It's not that the thought hasn't cross my mind occasionally. Just as it does, however, an electrical switch fails, or the furnace blower fan sputters to a halt, or the check valve on the sump pump sounds like the Second Battle of the Marne.

The checkbook opens, number 90xx is filled out and signed, and $400, $500 or more is deducted from the ever-dwindling balance.

Yet, someone must be out there buying. Clearly a third of all residential real estate sales in 2004 were second homes. My friends Tom Kelly and Christine Hrip Karpinski, for example, are selling great numbers of books about buying property in Mexico or owning vacation rental homes, so someone obviously has the money to do it.

My monthly mortgage payments have always been exceeded by private school and college tuition payments, so there hasn't been much to play with. I thought it was just me, but I look at my neighbors and realize that most of them are one-house people, too.

Even my next-door neighbors who do have a house at the shore inherited it from parents who bought it when property was sand cheap.

Yet, when the bills were stacked high on the kitchen table, we've always treated ourselves to really nice vacations. Before the kids started school, we went in the cheaper off-season. During their school years, we vacationed with everyone else.

Wherever we went, I found I had enough time to look at property with a wouldn't-it-be-nice attitude.

We spent a week in two consecutive Junes in the mid-1980s at a resort outside of Charleston, S.C. The houses we rented were not beach front but they were much nicer than our ever-in-need place back home, especially the central air conditioning and the modern, eat-in kitchen and spacious bedrooms. My wife and I went as far as discussing whether to buy one of the less-expensive places and renting it out 50 weeks a year.

Talking is as far as we got. We then found the west coast of Ireland, made friends in a small village, and began looking at a place for sale across the road from our friends' bed and breakfast.

The price: 17,000 Irish pounds, which was about $30,000 US. The house needed everything, including financing, since Irish banks did not lend mortgage money to foreigners. We didn't have enough equity in our primary residence for even a $30,000 second mortgage, plus the work would have cost a small fortune. The lottery was the only other option, and we never could win it.

Today, 15 years later, that house is worth $400,000 US, and we still can't afford it.

Every vacation brought another dream. One year it was Cape Cod. Unfortunately, we owned two primary residences, and two mortgages on top of school tuition were more than enough for us, thank you.

Then there was an apartment in Paris, a flat in London or a condo at Hilton Head. We couldn't escape the idea of a second home even when we were tent camping. Last year, we ventured out from Acadia National Park and into Bar Harbor, Maine, looking for places in the $400,000 range.

I can barely put up with a short and rainy Middle Atlantic winter these days. Seven months of nor'easters would put me under in eight months.

Things have gotten better. We have a primary residence that increases in value and requires little more than regular maintenance. We've finished paying tuition. Our new tent doesn't leak.

We still don't own a second house, and it's not that I can't afford one. It's just that I'm not ready for one. Twenty years ago, a second home meant a place to get away from it all. Today, with retirement looming, a second home means a place to go when I'm done here, and I haven't begun to figure out the best place to spend the rest of my life.

Fortunately, real estate is more of a liquid asset than it was 20 years ago, which means that if you don't like, you can change it and probably make money in the deal. If you move to Maine and decide that snow isn't your thing, there's always someone waiting in the wings to take it off your hands.

Although I've never owned a second home, I've stayed in enough of them to come up with ideas to make my house more livable. So, in effect, my primary home these days is good enough to be a second home, too.

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