The morning after my husband, our four blended children, and I moved into our new house I realized we had made a grave error. It was as if I had gone on a drunken sexcapade and awoken next to a stranger who only the night before, in warm amber light and substance-induced bad judgment, had appeared dazzlingly irresistible, but now looked scuzzy and decrepit in the harsh morning sun.
Except this stranger wasn’t a person. It was a big, fat, 3000-square-foot house that had gobbled up the majority of our nestegg and saddled us with a 30-year-mortgage. It had scuffed-up hardwood floors, portions of which were so warped you could roll a marble down them. It had 100-year-old cabinets and drawers that either didn’t open or didn’t close. It had lots and lots of oversized windows that needed screens. It had enormous common rooms with permanently dust-coated Douglas Pine wood wainscot and box beams, and a porch overhang so deep that only slivers of light peeked through.
Suddenly, the house felt unwieldy, dark and depressing. It was also located in a euphemistically-termed “transitional” neighborhood notable for many exquisite historic homes owned by serious restoration buffs or gay interior designers–but even more notable for seedy apartment buildings, auto body shops, kitchen supply warehouses, and the occasional crack house. Those first few nights in our new abode, Atticus and I lay awake listening to the thwack-thwack-thwack of police helicopters circling above in search of felons.
As the choppers looped endlessly over my head, so did the thoughts inside it:
What if this isn’t really the bottom of the market?
What if this isn’t really the bottom of the interest rates?
What if we lose all our money?
Now, one year later, my obsessive fears have come true. We bought the house at the false bottom of the market. Yes, the average home in our city had decreased in value by about $200,000 but there was another $100,000 yet to go, thanks to foreclosures, short sales, and a stand-off between buyers and sellers. The interest rates, the lowest in decades when we closed escrow, fell almost an entire point lower over the next few months.
Being house-poor might not be so bad if we were house-poor in a house that didn’t need so much work, in a gentrified neighborhood with more Starbucks and less sober living facilities. But the only affordable homes large enough for six of us (this was before Luca left) were in neighborhoods like ours–rough around the edges.
“Why didn’t you stop me?” I asked Atticus the other day. “Why didn’t you tell me buying this house was a really bad idea?”
“I did,” he said. “You were out of your mind. It was this house or else.”
I was out of my mind, and here’s what made me crazy. When Prince and I split up, he kept both houses we had purchased during the marriage. In 2005 the housing market was still vaulting upward and, even with my buy-out money, he knew I couldn’t afford to buy a house on my own. So he offered me a deal I should have refused but didn’t, because I obviously needed Karma to kick me in the ass one more time.
The deal was this: Prince would contribute 2/3 of the downpayment and I would pitch in the remaining third. I would pay all the mortgage, all the property tax, all the insurance, and all the upkeep. If and when I remarried, we would dissolve the partnership (since he would not allow his money to remain in a home in which I lived with another man, or in which I knew any real happiness, for that matter). Prince got the better end of the deal–since that’s the only kind of deal he ever makes.
And I? I got a charming 1700-square-foot bungalow that I remodeled up the wazoo: stainless steel appliances, deep green ceramic floor tile and a red glass mosaic backsplash in the kitchen; a pantry converted to a darling powder room with an exposed brick wall and Mission sconces; sun-drenched rooms painted in Craftsman hues; a lawn landscaped with flowering plum trees and fountain grass. I got a generous wraparound porch that I turned into another living space with tables, chairs, and orange butterflies hanging from the rafters by gossamer strings. I got to sit on that porch in that hip ‘hood, feet propped up on the table, drinking coffee in the morning and sipping merlot at twilight.
But mainly I got hubris. I had bought into the notion that homeownership equals adulthood. When Prince and I were married, we lived in an upscale neighborhood, in a gracious two-story Colonial with a black-bottom kidney-shaped pool and a cobalt-blue-tiled hot tub. We threw elegant martini parties in the winter and kid-friendly pool parties in the summer. This, I thought, is what grown-ups looked like.
When we split, I rented a perfectly respectable ranch-style home, and I’m ashamed to admit I was ashamed of it. My friends were all homeowners, some twice over. My own parents had rented until I was a senior in high school and I had been ashamed of that too. I grew up in a high-brow East Coast town where families had summer places in Nantucket and winter places in Vail or Barbados. My friends’ parents were bankers and lawyers and Mayflower descendants; mine were in the helping professions, with plenty of advanced degrees, but no trust funds or real estate between them.
And here I was, post-divorce, back where I had started from. I foolishly believed that owning a home again–something I could only do with Prince’s help–would give me the Stamp of Adulthood and would give my children a secure nest. But I didn’t have the income to justify owning a home. I was that woman Suze Orman hollers at, the woman who can’t accept where she is at this moment.
When Atticus and I got engaged, I asked Prince if he would let us live in the house for an additional two years. We wanted the time to figure out what living situation would best suit our blended family and blended lives. First Prince said no, then he said yes, then he said maybe and he would let us know for sure “sometime” before our wedding.
Tired of letting Prince determine where we lived, or worrying if he would send the Sheriff to our door the morning of our wedding, I decided we had to get out of the house. He promised to buy me out and I went into an MLS-surfing frenzy. I was determined to get a house similar to the bungalow that I loved, but twice the size for less money. We found this one, which fit the bill. Prince promised to buy me out of the bungalow, we went into escrow on the new house, then Prince said, oops, he couldn’t come up with the buy-out money after all!
So we fell out of escrow and I went completely bonkers. No- sleeping, no-eating, I-need-a-house-for-our-kids-NOW- bonkers. I gussied up the bungalow with orchid plants and lemon bowls, and sold that baby in four days and $11,000 over the asking price, thanks to the uptick of misguided optimism from Obama’s first-time buyer’s credit.
Fueled by If-I-Don’t-Own-A-House-I-Am-Not-A-Grown-Up folly, I convinced a much more cautious and sane Atticus to re-open escrow on this house. The house that in the rosy hue of hypomania seemed grand and Norman Rockwellian. The house that on the downslope of hypomania now seems like a carcass of decayed gentility that has sucked up all our money.
With a diminishing job market, a 50% divorce rate holding steady, and a 30-year-mortgage model that is so yesterday, more people will be opting out of homeownership. How many can really be certain they’ll be able to stay in a house long enough to collect any equity?
Now that I have grown up the hard way, my perception of home has changed. A duplex, an apartment, a rental house that someone else has to tend when tree roots clog the sewer pipe, that seems like a fine place to raise a family. No property taxes, peace of mind, more vacations with the kids: that’s what grown-ups look like.