Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Divine House

I have a nice list of complaints about my house. I'm sure they are not much different than the complaints a lot of people have about their own houses. The features of my house which irk me include a small eating area, not enough countertop space, no entry area (the front door dumps you right into the living room), a living room which can barely contain a full sized sofa, most of the rooms are glorified hallways, narrow bedrooms upstairs while the master is down, and lamentably nowhere to put a piano.

We decided to move back to Middle Tennessee after I graduated with my MS because we wanted to be closer to family. Both sets of parents lived in the Greater Nashville area and the two and a half hour drive back over the plateau was getting old fast. The reality was that even though the timing in our personal life couldn't have been better, the timing in the overall housing market was terrible. The housing bubble was fully inflated with just the first cracks in the market beginning to show. We had a down payment saved, but between a teacher's salary and graduate school, it wasn't as large as we would have liked. We also had a problem.

Since we were moving to be closer to our parents, we wanted to live in a location where we were close enough to actually see them. It seemed pointless to move and end up living in an area where we would still be over an hour driving to visit. We wanted to be within an easy distance from at least one set of parents, but they both lived in fairly upper middle class areas. Areas in which we could not afford to live. It was a real problem.

We looked and looked through the real estate listings and even the smallest, oldest, most broken down houses in these areas were well above our price cap of 150K. It was upsetting. What was especially upsetting was the lack of understanding from many sources about our predicament. Family members who did not understand why we were not looking closer or did not believe the houses just weren't there. Coworkers who did not understand why we didn't just live in town or move to the other side of town which would be a couple of hours away from at least one set of parents. The bottom line was money, the lack of it, and the absurd prices of the housing market.

After looking for several months, we found a house in foreclosure about five minutes from Dave's parents. The lot was more than I ever thought we would have at over an acre. Dave loved the yard. The house was not my dream house. The eating area was small. There was not enough countertop space in the kitchen. The living room, which the front door opened right into, was small where it would be hard to arrange furniture. The bedrooms were split on different levels. There was a lot of cosmetic work to be done. It had previously been a rental and looked it. I guess the previous owners got tired of being landlords and just let it go back to the bank. There was dog mess on the floor. The paint was horrifically bad. But the price! The price was within our budget. Here was a house we could fix up a little, live five minutes away from one set of grandparents and an easy hour from the other, and we could afford it. We stretched as far as we could and still stayed under our cap. It seemed so unlikely for this house to be in this location and sell for this price. It came with the serious trade off of the commute, but truthfully the commute was going to be part of my life no matter where we lived. We could not afford to live closer to town and still be on the same side of the city as our parents.

Several months after we bought our house, the housing market collapsed. People panicked, but since we had just bought our house out of foreclosure, the market value of our house never dipped below what we paid for it. I was always grateful for that mercy. After we lived in our house for a few years, Dave's father was diagnosed with cancer and died with a year. Dave was so grateful to have had those years with his father so close. The strain of having a mortgage payment at the top of what we could afford eased first with a refinancing and then with my eventual raise.

We have lived comfortably in this house.

What brings this topic to the forefront of my mind is Dave's recent access to the backend of the MLS. In our town, there are zero houses listed for what we could have afforded when we bought our house. Zero. In the current market, there are few houses we could afford even now, measured by the handful. It is so unlikely that we live where we do, but we do live here. It is our own small measure of divine intervention, our own divine house.


bearing said...

This is a nice post.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

Wow! You know I have almost the same laundry list of complaints about our house. Except for my additional complaint that all the bedrooms are on one floor which means absolutely no noise insulation, if I'm doing something in the kitchen or living room, the kids will hear it in their bedrooms. I'm especially irked right now about the lack of entryway. We live in New England! I have five kids. Our doors spill into the living room and the dining room. There is no good place for boots and snowsuits and hats and mittens and such.

And all that said, there's no way we could have afforded this house without my parents cosigning for us and helping us with the downpayment. We simply could not afford to buy around here and our credit was shot after Dom lost his job right after Bella was born and was unemployed/underemployed for almost a year. And yet there are very few places that we could have rented that would have enough space for all our kids. (Actually our first apartment was bigger than this house, but sadly was on the wrong side of Boston and was sold out from under us, making us have to scramble to move.)

But do I spend much time being grateful for this house? I do not. Not to my parents and not to God for the wonderful gift of a roof over my head and a yard for my kids to play in. I really like your conclusion, Jenny.

Jenny said...


The pictures of your house remind me a lot of my house. The whole social area of the house is just misbegotten. :)

Melanie Bettinelli said...

I think the excuse for the entrance that dumps into the living room is that our house originally had a garage (it was converted into a bedroom and is the room we use as an office/tv room) and my guess is the builders envisioned that being used as the mudroom, entrance when people had muddy boots and such. Even so, I think some kind of entrance space is just infinitely more civilized.

bearing said...

It makes a big difference. You may remember that through a bizarre run of luck we were able to build a new house in the middle of Minneapolis, so we designed our own. There's a pass-through mudroom in the back and an entrance hall in the front (although the entrance hooks and bench are slightly off to the side of the front, it's fairly convenient to use and generally boots and things actually go there). Neither are very large but they do their job well, in that they are always completely full of bags/boots/coats/diaper bags/babyslings, and that means that those things are not anywhere else in the house. They're terribly messy most of the time but I am conditioned to ignore it and be thankful that we have those spaces.

Our house is much *less* valuable (measured in $$) compared to what we can afford; we built it to fit into the neighborhood we happened to own a lot in. Median sale price in our neighborhood is a hair under $150K last year, and our property value for tax purposes is estimated at $195K (our mortgage is more than that though). You really can't compare home values from city to city very well. Some of my friends out in the suburbs have smaller houses than mine with MUCH higher home values (granted, they do have bigger yards).

I love it, inner city location and all. It's compact, but we use the space well.

Jenny said...

The difference in real estate prices does make it hard to compare. It all seems so arbitrary. Also the difference in tax rates. The taxes here are quite low. People who move down from the north are sure the yearly rates are actually monthly payments. But we make up for the lower real estate values with lower salaries. It is a double edged sword.

The design of a house makes a huge difference and I think is more important than its size. You can eventually make up for poor design if the house is big enough, but a good layout is essential in a small house. But builders for whatever reason, although I have my ideas, aren't that interested in building well designed small houses.

My maternal grandmother's house was not huge, maybe 1800-2000 sq ft, but the layout was fantastic and the house could probably hold 40 people at a time.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the others--a great post! I especially like how the story comes full circle at the end.

I realize I never gave you the nickel tour of my house. It is a 1950s kit house, but the space works well for large groups. We spend the boom years buying and renovating foreclosures so we could roll enough equity to afford a house close to work.


bearing said...

"But builders for whatever reason, although I have my ideas, aren't that interested in building well designed small houses."

I think it's because buyers don't reward it. You have a limited square footage to work with, and in the small-house market what do people look for? Number of bedrooms, number of baths, features in the kitchen. "Mudroom" doesn't get as much play.

Jenny said...

I guess I take a dimmer view of their motivations.

I think people in the small house market have very limited options and have to take whatever is available. Features in the kitchen isn't even a thing at this price point. The kitchens look as if they are built with the expectation you will never cook in them. And what are your other options if you don't like the three houses you can afford?

If the builder makes the small house too comfortable, then the owner might be inclined to live there long term. This is not in the builder's best interest so "the starter house" was invented which is wretched to live in. The builder knows you will be driven out of this thing soon enough so the next neighborhood over has the "step up house" which is much better than the starter but is still full of design failures. The builder knows you will tire of this eventually so then he builds your "forever" house which is actually functional and probably bigger than you need.

Keep in mind this phenomenon is mostly one in suburbia where the availability of older, well designed houses is practically zero. I have been in many older well designed small houses. I have never been in a newer well designed small spec house. Where have these designs gone?

Also the system is built on the assumption that the housing market will appreciate and the homeowners are advancing in their careers and have more money to spend, neither of which has been the case since I have owned a house.

Jenny said...

Although now that I think about it a little more, maybe it is more reactive to buyer demands than I want to admit. If people actually cooked in their kitchens, there would be more to the kitchen. As it is, home cooking is now seen as a luxury item so luxury homes are the only ones that get functional kitchens.

But I still think builders do make some things uncomfortable on purpose to encourage you to buy again.