Lately, I’ve been lying awake at night listening to the sounds the house makes. Creaks and cracks from the cold winter outside. Drips from water leaking behind the gutter and down around the front door and into the basement. A mystery drip somewhere in (or just outside?) the bathroom. It’s deep winter, one of the worst to hit the Boston area ever. Ice coats the outside of the house, has wormed its way inside storm windows and fills the sill. Snow is piled so high, we can’t see the road or our fence.
The first night my partner, now wife, and I slept in this house, I lay awake listening. I couldn’t remember ever sleeping alone (well, with only her) in a building. We’d come from an apartment in a house with our landlady in the apartment below us and a couple below her. I’d moved from an apartment building where I was one of twelve apartments in one of four buildings. I’d had a super. Before that I’d been living on the second floor of a triple decker with my two cats, a roommate, and neighbors who had five dogs between them. Before that…on back to when I left my parents’ house.
Never just two people in one whole building. It creaked. It groaned. I thanked god we had an alarm. No one could just walk in without a siren going off. If I’d really been alone, I’d have gotten a dog. A really big dog.
Oh, how we longed for that home. We were tired of paying rent. Tired of being left without water because the landlady forgot to change the filter and it clogged and couldn’t make it up to the third floor. Tired of lugging everything up two flights of winding stairs. Listening to the clomp and noise of others.
Buying a house with someone is a sure way to test compatibility. It is one of the most stressful things you can do. It’s a huge cost, over many decades. You want to get it right. You want to agree on what you want and can afford. I wanted more than one bathroom, she wanted a yard for a garden. I wouldn’t go near any property involving a cliff or retaining wall. We happened to house hunt during one of the wettest springs on record. We passed by any Open House where a sump pump hose trailed to the street.
When we pulled up to this one, our mutual first reaction was, Oh how cute! And it had a yard. And one-and-a-half baths. And not a cliff or water feature in sight. At the time, real estate was still in the growing-bubble phase. We knew we had to act fast so we did and we got it. Then came all the paperwork. Reams of pages to sign, initial, read. Applications to file, home inspections to arrange.
Through it all, one thing remained clear—I really loved this woman I was mortgaging, literally, my future with despite the fact that we could not legally wed at the time. Buying a home with her was not frightening, the same way moving in with her had not been. Going on eighteen years and some marriage vows later, I feel the same.
Over the next month, we painted walls and ceilings and her brother polished the hardwood floors. Then we moved in. We bought a washer and dryer. A dishwasher. Everything was shiny and new. Well, 1950s new. But fixable. The crummy water was cleaned up with a new, whole-house water filter. The decrepit oven was replaced with two new ones. We didn’t go whole hog, just updated as needed. An Energy Star refrigerator, replacing the hideous pink countertop with a nice green one.
The longest I’d lived on my own was thirteen years in an apartment I never painted. It wasn’t mine. I never thought I’d be there so long. My mother made the curtains. I probably wouldn’t have bothered. My upstairs neighbor liked to bang away on a manual typewriter late at night. In the room above my bed. When she left, the new neighbor wore tap shoes, or so it sounded. Plus, I could hear her and her boyfriend…never mind.
When we house hunted, location was important. We both had jobs we needed to commute to. Me to Boston by public transportation, her to a nearby town by car. We couldn’t afford to be out in the sticks, where we wanted to be. So we ended up in a city with neighbors whose cigarette smoke drifts through our windows and who talk extremely loudly in a foreign language. Turned out our road is a favorite of motorcyclists. Until the nearby fire station closed, ladder trucks and emergency vehicles roared past with alarming frequency.
But we had a yard. We had a garden. We grew flowers. I sowed and mowed, she pruned and planted. Birds came to our feeders and bird bath. We had a driveway. No more street parking.
I understand that owning a home is the American dream, but sometimes I’d like to wake up from that dream. The first time I felt that was in Year One when we hired a painter. Newbies to this unique responsibility of home ownership, we asked the realtor who sold us the house for a recommendation. She had someone she loved, painted all her houses. Confident, we hired him.
I knew nothing about house painting, but it seemed clear to me that grinding a hole in the shingle siding was not good. When they finished, the front of the house had a rippled effect that was not becoming. Turns out you don’t use a grinder to remove paint. Especially lead paint, but we didn’t know that at the time, though they certainly should have. Thankfully, they replaced the shingles. No harm. Nice new front wall in the end. Whew.
Over the years, we’ve hired plumbers, carpenters, painters, pavers, and fencers (as in fence, not swordplay). And each time the headaches almost outweighed the joy of having a new thing or the relief of repairing an old thing. There’s a low-level, constant flow of stress hormones related to home ownership. We’ve never been totally scammed, like a relative who had a builder take her money and vanish halfway through an addition. But we’ve never been totally satisfied either.
The simple act of updating a toilet meant redoing the floor, which meant redoing the walls, and, apparently, installing an exhaust fan, all of which meant, well redoing practically the whole bathroom.
I’m not talking The Money Pit by any means. We’ve been very lucky. I said to my wife recently, imagine what it’s like to live on the coast and have the ocean come through your living room. Then again, the folks who have that happen year after year rebuild thanks to federal flood insurance paid, by you guessed it, us taxpayers. So don’t get me started on that topic.
There’s just this relentless tension and fear of what could happen. Tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards. We are all so vulnerable.
I know the math says owning a home is worth it. Sure you pay interest for 30-odd years, but you get a tax deduction. And if we are lucky, the house will appreciate in value, just not as fast as it did the first five years we owned it. I think we are about where we were before the Great Recession of 2008. And we were never “under water,” meaning the house value never fell below what we owed.
But staying above water is exhausting. It’s as though the house is slowly decaying, and trying to maintain it is like bailing the Titanic with a Dixie cup. There are days when I want to go back to having a super I can call and say, fix this, please! Forgetting how at the mercy I was to his level of skill and promptness.
I’m calling this anxiety Home Ownership Stress-Elevation Disorder, or HOSED. A middle-class problem, for sure. But stress takes its toll, even low-level stress.
If you rent, and dream of home ownership, be careful what you wish for. If you do own a home, do you ever feel HOSED?
The Money Pit trailer is worth seeing Tom Hanks some 30 years younger.
Some reasons not to buy a home.