As a small child, my fondest dream was to one day become The All-Powerful Supreme Overlord of Earth (regardless of how difficult that title would be to print on business cards). The dream of most other Americans, conversely, is somewhat less grand and considerably more achievable: to own their own home.
Last year alone, this dream was achieved by almost 40% of Americans under the age of twenty-five (according to the 2001 Census). More remarkably, the percentage of American homeowners climbs to 79% for those approaching forty.
Many people that age are often on their second house and third divorce, yet my wife and I have amassed nothing more in our 40 years than hundreds of canceled rent checks (which we are fashioning into a papier-mâché replica of Stonehenge).
First Place winner of the prestigious Foster City International Writer’s Contest, Humor Category, November 2002. Reprinted here with permission from the author, namely, me.
Our nomadic career paths made brief stops in New York, Indianapolis, Tampa, and Miami among others, arriving most recently in the Bay Area. All that moving meant we rarely lived in any one city for more than a year (by then, someone usually tipped off the Feds and we’d go on the Lam again).
Our recent five-year stint in a San Francisco apartment was the longest yet and provided us with numerous occasions to consider purchasing a house in the Bay Area (only to dismiss the notion as grounds for being committed to one of the local mental institutions).
Still, if 79% of our peers were currently living The American Dream®, we wondered aloud, how hard could it be? Our downstairs neighbor loudly offered his opinion by suggesting that we “Cram it up there or I’ll have you evicted!” pounding the ceiling with a broom handle for emphasis. It was caring, helpful citizens like that made the decision to move out of the city all the more difficult.
The timing of our search, however, could have been somewhat better. It was November of 2002 and the “New Boom” had left an economic crater in the Bay Area the size of…well, the Bay Area. The Dot-coms had burnt through venture capital like kerosene-soaked flash-paper.
The market crash had turned nouveau Republicans back into old school Democrats. For most Bay Area residents, it was a time for withdrawal. A time for cutting back on discretionary spending and big ticket items like luxury cars, big screen TVs and Grande Café Lattes.
Sadly, the Voice of Prudence that told others to squirrel away their money was drowned out by the Voice of Irrational Materialism screaming, “The economy is in the toilet! Unemployment is skyrocketing! Now is the perfect time to over-extend and take on crippling financial debt!”
The Voice made a persuasive argument, to be sure, but the primary motivation for looking around now was the realization that we had flushed away over six figures in rent and God only knows how many thousands of dollars in missed tax deductions.
(“Dear Dual Income Married Couple with No Dependents or Write-offs, thank you for supporting the entire U.S. Government for yet another year. Enclosed, please find two cigarettes. Sincerely, the IRS.”)
It didn’t hurt that our lease was up, either.
The first step in buying a house was to determine how much we could afford to spend using the 2.5-times-your-income rule of thumb. My wife and I make a comfortable living that, in many parts of the country, would justify considering a Tudor mansion complete with servants and a lawn measured in zip codes.
But in the Bay Area—where the median price of a home is “Oh, my God! Is that in Pesos?!”—we’d be lucky to get a rundown shanty strewn with empty crack vials and fresh bullet holes in the wood paneling. Thankfully, the normally daunting decision of where to live was made easier by the limited number of crack-homes available in a housing market so tight even cockroaches are out on street corners holding cardboard signs.
Having little success finding a traditional single-family dwelling in our price range (that wasn’t built on sacred Indian burial ground), we pursued other avenues. Our townhome options were a tad better and, looking closer, we saw some real advantages to buying one.
Not only was a townhome less expensive than a real house, it relieved us from landscaping, painting, lawn maintenance or any other form of outward personal expression. In addition, a townhome offered every bit as much living space without the expense of unnecessary “extras” such as architectural charm and individuality. Obviously, this was the way to go.
Soon after narrowing down the list of available townhomes based on location, square footage and amount of residual old person smell, we put in a bid on an affordable 2-bedroom, 2-bath unit. The unit’s owner, keen to get out before the market tanked further, accepted our initial offer with a minimum of hoop-jumping.
We merely offered him all the money we’d ever make in our entire lives and he said, “Okay.” Some friends of ours who had bought during The Boom had to overbid tens of thousands of dollars and then sing Celtic folk songs while ritually sacrificing a raccoon before their offers were accepted. All told, we got off easy.
The actual buying process, however, wasn’t the simple transfer of deed between a relieved seller and an unsuspecting buyer. No, there were lots of other “interested parties” who came out of the woodwork. So many parties showed up that, at first, we expected buying a home to be somewhat fun, if not downright festive.
We soon discovered it was the kind of fun that a panicked gazelle has after being pulled down by a pack of ravenous hyenas. “Parties,” in this context, turned out to mean “people with no discernible sense of humor” (as in “political party”).
Going into the negotiations, we had our people, they had their people and I think their people even had people. It seemed like a lot of people for a structure that had only two bedrooms (and more distressingly, only two bathrooms).
Fortunately, many of the people were certified inspectors of various specialty and weren’t sticking around for dinner. A seemingly endless parade of boot-wearing tradesmen traipsed through our intended townhome guaranteeing its market value and pest-free status, simultaneously guaranteeing that we’d have to have all of the carpeting replaced.
Over the course of the day, they also checked the unit for structural damage, plumbing problems, faulty wiring and, we assumed, dead, decomposing bodies spackled-over inside the drywall.
A well-dressed woman standing nearby then handed us each a pen and a stack of papers only slightly shorter than what you’d expect to get from clear-cutting Muir Woods. We were told, in all seriousness, to read each page and sign or initial it at the bottom. By the 20th page, we had stopped reading what we were signing and found that it sped things up considerably. In our haste, I believe we regrettably agreed to hand over our firstborn to someone named “Angelo.”
One of the pages we did actually read contained assurances from an official-looking government report that our new abode did not reside on an earthquake fault line. “Actually,” our realtor optimistically added, “the townhome doesn’t reside within a full 50-feet of a fault line!” Imagine our relief.
After we’d signed the entire stack of incomprehensible legalese—in effect promising to pay everyone and their brother more money than Mozambique’s GNP— we finally had a home. Not a pad. Not an apartment. But a home. Well, okay, technically just a gargantuan mortgage, but it was all ours now and no one could take that away from us, even though we begged them repeatedly.
No sooner had we taken possession of our new tax shelter, when we started to notice the little differences inherent in home ownership. Like the fact that our new handyman was a lazy, unreliable and incompetent buffoon possessing the same Social Security number as myself.
This wholly unsolicited job title came as quite a shock to me since I didn’t remember promising to impersonate Bob Vila when my wife and I recited wedding vows (I do recall, though, agreeing to “kill any and all spiders”).
This became an issue when every appliance and fixture—all of which performed flawlessly in the final walk-through—was now inoperative, leaking, smoking or dripping human blood. As a renter, these kinds of problems could be solved with a quick phone call to the building manager who almost magically completed the repairs while you were at work.
As a homeowner, these kind of problems take considerably longer to repair often mandating several expensive trips to Home Depot and at least one mad dash to the emergency room shortly thereafter.
Elective home improvements (that is, ones my wife “elected” me to do) were no less troublesome. Replacing the dining room flooring, for instance, required so much planning, preparation, backtracking and childlike weeping that three weeks into the job, I was actually farther from being done than when I began the project. The job I originally estimated to take three weeks to complete was now looking as if it would take closer to four. Years.
Doing things yourself always seems like a good idea, especially once you see the initial estimate from a contractor. Remember, there’s a good reason contractor’s estimates are always so high: contractors know things you don’t. They know the fixtures you want to install won’t fit without costly modifications.
They also know the house wasn’t built strictly to code and that any new work will require expensive retrofitting. But most importantly, they know you’ll screw it up spectacularly if you do it yourself and so, sooner or later, you’ll beg them back to do the job right at any cost. Frankly, I just write them a blank check and ask them to be gentle.
Home repair, whether you do it yourself or pay somebody else, is never cheap. Fixtures are priced as if the Pentagon were shopping for it. Furniture comes in just two types: the kind that will last and the kind you can afford. And flooring is so expensive that it’s priced by the square foot to avoid traumatizing you with the total cost before you have soft, cushiony carpeting installed on which to collapse. Home improvement is, to put it bluntly, a racket in league with such unscrupulous enterprises as numbers-running, prostitution and bridal-related services.
Having joined the ranks of Suburbanites, we were determined to get to know our neighbors if for no other reason than to have someone who could sign for packages and call the fire department should our cats set fire to the place.
Historically, we didn’t strike up friendships with neighbors due to the transient nature of renting not to mention the creepiness of meeting someone we heard having loud, enthusiastic and vocal sex through the paper-thin walls every night. But the difference between people in the suburbs and those in the city couldn’t be more stark, or more unsettling.
Immediately upon moving the last boxes into our new townhome, we deduced that leaving our garage door open—even for a nanosecond—is neighbor-code for “Come on over and say Hi!” Our neighbors clearly understood. To a person, they all stopped over and welcomed us graciously to the neighborhood while eying power-tools to potentially borrow in the future.
Despite being somewhat anti-social by nature, we introduced ourselves to everyone and tried valiantly to remember faces and names as best we could. When the last neighbor finally left, we instinctively made a mental note to ensure the garage door was kept closed even if it meant parking on the street. Shedding our apartment-mentality and paranoia, we realized, wouldn’t happen overnight.
The neighborhood surrounding our townhome is both clean and pleasant assuming you prefer the sterile, manicured perfection of corporate office parks to the random, untamed beauty of Nature. And we most certainly do. Truth be known, our idea of “roughing it” is having to take the only empty space at the far end of a store’s parking lot.
As city-dwellers we walked everywhere, but now, going any farther than a block is reason enough to take the car. We did, after all, buy a home in the suburbs for a reason. If we’d wanted to get back to Nature, we would’ve purchased a tent. They’re a lot cheaper.
We have now spent all of six months living in, decorating and fixing up, our new home. Having managed to survive the house-buying gauntlet, we have no doubt in our minds that buying this home has changed our lives in many positive ways (unlike joining that Satanic cult back in 1993). We’ve painted our walls in colors other than beige. We’ve become good friends with most of our neighbors. And we’ve learned to use power-tools without seriously maiming ourselves or others.
In all, the effort we’ve put towards making this empty shell of a townhouse into our new home has been well worth it. And I’m gratified to have finally achieved at least one of my childhood dreams (although the Supreme Overlord dream would have been preferable, given the choice). Investing in the American Dream may turn out to be the best decision we’ve made if for no other reason than, at the end of the day, we sleep under our very own roof.
A roof that suddenly appears to be leaking.