I’m 32 years old, but I hardly feel grown up. Yet we all get a dose of those little reality checks along the way, reminding us that we certainly aren’t as young as we think. The responsibilities and stresses of life, from finances to family, can keep our feelings of immortality and youthfulness in tow. For me, deciding to buy a house was one of those reality checks. So much, both good and bad, comes with owning a house; was I prepared?
With a new job secured, some would argue that following that up with a house purchase would be absolute insanity. There is a top-three list of life’s most-stressful events chronicled by someone and kept hidden in a secret place. On it are a new job and house. Translation: My life, which had already changed in a big way, was about to change even more, accompanied by a hurricane of stress.
Yet I could not stomach the idea of renting again. The same floor plans. The community rules. Those paper-thin, whitewashed walls. Dingy, dark rooms sapping creativity out of life. The pungent odors from whatever the neighbors are cooking that day, all colliding in centralized hallways to create a stench overbearing to the senses.
And then there is the financial side of renting; it’s like throwing money away, while gaining absolutely zero in return. No equity, no assets, nothing. Yes, if moving back north really was in my plan, I intended to make it permanent, to settle down, to get a grip on life. A house would certainly ground me, keep me there.
So I began house hunting, which isn’t nearly as illustrious as HGTV makes it seem. In fact, it quickly leapfrogged many activities on my “Most-Hated Things to Do” list, right up there with grocery shopping (don’t get me started on my grocery-store pet peeves). The first few houses I toured were met with excitement and intrigue. I looked for the potential in everything. “Oh, I could change that.” Or “Just a little paint there.” And a “Can’t you just see my stuff in here?” Potential wasn’t enough, however. I needed that moment when I walk into a house, the heavens open and choirs of angels sing, all to mark the house I was meant to buy.
Round and round we went. My family quickly learned how picky I can be. And there is truth to that. Not only picky, I’m also a perfectionist. I have a vision of what I want, and it takes a lot to get me to move from my position. Every house seemed a project, a lifetime of crawling on all fours to fix and clean. Getting my ideal home (not my “dream home”; let’s be realistic, this was my first home purchase, so I didn’t expect my million-dollar mansion immediately) meant stepping into the next pricing tier. And was I committed to doing that? One thing is for sure, moving north has benefits, one of which is more house for the money compared to Milwaukee real estate.
I began entertaining both ideas: fixer-uppers and move-in ready houses. Even condos, although I couldn’t fathom paying the high association fees. I quickly learned that “charm” in the real-estate industry simply means “an old house that needs work, but you’ll get it cheaper.” Newsflash: I’m not a handyman, nor will I ever be. I’m the kind of guy who pays others to fix the plumbing, alter the electrical, whatever. Don’t get me wrong, I can get my hands dirty with the rest of them, moving, painting, cleaning, decorating, yard work, whatever. I can certainly attempt an improvement project, but chances are you’ll just end up doing it over anyway. I’m the kind of guy who can change the oil in his car, that’s about it. I just lack the handyman’s acumen. It’s genetic.
So for me, buying a house that would be a never-ending weekend project was not an option. I also have neither the time nor the patience to “flip a house,” as they say. Having realized that, I began seeing houses more quickly. On a few occurrences, I wouldn’t even get out of the car when my realtor pulled up to a potential house. I’d simply say, “No, not for me. Next!” A few other times I’d walk in just to be polite, only to be out in five minutes. I think she still secretly hates me.
We saw all kinds of houses during those few weeks. Some lacked character but had all the amenities and conveniences I wanted (give me a patio for entertaining, a laundry room, a gas fireplace and stainless-steel kitchen appliances, and I’ll quickly sacrifice the roof). Some were older but needed love (yep, more projects). Some had strange layouts (do they think when they put together some of those floor plans?). Some were married to railroad tracks or major highways (not exactly ideal for an insomniac like myself). Some smelled of old people and cigarettes (first impressions are everything).
I also learned much. Like what a short sale is. Or how mortgages work. Or that tenants really do appreciate a 24-hour notice before you decide to show up. It was all so fascinating, yet so boggling to the mind. So fun, yet so frightening. So exciting, yet so stressful. And I just wanted it to be done.
And then I saw it. The house. My house. A little ranch with cathedral ceilings (typically, “ranch” and “cathedral ceilings” aren’t spoken together). Gas fireplace. Three small bedrooms. Hardwood floors. Stainless-steel appliances. A cozy backyard with a patio for summertime entertaining and drinks. A separate laundry room. A finished garage. Relatively new. Oh, my goodness. I had to have it. I apologize to all the other houses that were high atop my list that day, all in competition for the top place in my heart. But there was something about that house that reeled me in.
I awaited acceptance on my offer. During that time, I got cold feet. Naturally. I spoke with friends and family about whether buying a house was right for me. Was I ready? Should I wait? Maybe a year later would be best. No, I was going to do this with crossed fingers, hoping and praying that everything would work out or that I’d find a way. I signed paperwork with trembling hands. Cold sweats. An overactive brain.
And then the phone call. The day before signing the final paperwork, my mortgage officer called to say that he had been incorrectly entering data. My data. He casually dismissed his error as if to say, “Ooops, better luck next time.” No problem, man, it’s only my life you’re messing with.
Turns out my student loans, along with the credit-card debt, would be a problem after all. Writing this is not easy for me; it is admitting a very private, personal part of me. But this story, this blog, is about disclosing everything, even those things considered humbling or humiliating. I would have to pay off my credit cards, plus lower my student loans (lower monthly payments but more payments overall), and even that would mean a mortgage higher than I could afford. Something about negative debt or something (yes, that is a technical term).
I was left feeling downtrodden again. After the new job, I thought things were looking up. How naïve. Another punch to the gut. Rather than get back on the horse, I decided to stay off it. That meant moving in with my parents for a year. An independent 32-year-old moving back home, invading the empty nest and learning to cope with a generational gap.