Mortgaged for Life
Issue #53, January 2001
My mate and I have been considering home ownership for four years now, ever since we decided to have a child. We were living in Seattle when we talked to our landlord about purchasing the property we were renting. The house had been worth $140,000 when Jack first thought of buying it as a single man, a year earlier. A large bathtub was the best feature of the smallish two-story building, and the landlord said he'd want $180,000 when we asked. The leap in price was daunting, and we hemmed and hawed for a year before saying okay, let's buy. Then the price was $220,000, but the landlord no longer wanted to sell.
Our landlord was a very fair man. We had a good relationship with him. The prices he named were not outrageous, but the housing market in Seattle was. I could hardly imagine finding $1400 a month for a mortgage, let alone $2200. Our rent, for the first floor and basement of the house, hovered around $1000, but we managed that amount by having roommates. Jack thought that we should buy the house and keep the roommates, but for me mortgages and roommates didn't mix. If we were going to buy a home, I wanted to own it, not share it.
We left Seattle and moved to upstate New York, where I come from. Our dream was to find a house for $50,000 and get a mortgage with monthly payments that wouldn't top $500. This dream is not fueled solely by my extreme cheapness, but also by our circumstances. Jack is a dancer and I am a writer. We work constantly, but not often for hire. Fiction and dance are not lucrative endeavors. Luckily, Jack has a skill that pays well. He is a tree surgeon. He is self-employed and works part-time so he has time to dance. We hover at the poverty line, income-wise, but the only federal aid we get is Medicaid for our two-and-a-half year-old son, Francis.
The three of us have been in the post-industrial wasteland for a year and some months now, and we are still renting. Initially we lived in a village, and scouted various possibilities for our living and work arrangements. We looked at run-down farms with curves in their roofs and floors. We looked at a tiny house in the village and investigated zoning regulations to see if we could add outbuildings without raising our taxes too much. We didn't put a bid on a single place because everything seemed too big an undertaking. The farmhouses were $80-100,000, and I didn't relish devoting our lives and cash we don't have to restoring them. The mortgage on the small house in the village would have been manageable, but there was no place for us to work. We'd have to import or build a barn for Jack's dance studio, which could possibly contain a room I could use as an office. I preferred the idea of a writer's hut, though heating it would be difficult and expensive.
Then Troy called to us with its programs that grant $15-20,000 for first-time homeowners. Troy was to the industrial revolution what Seattle is to the dot.com craze. The home of Uncle Sam, the Burden Ironworks and Arrow Shirts, the city had a glorious heyday in the mid-to-late 1800s. At the turn of the century there were 23 theaters in the city and enough workers and scions to support the theaters and their vaudeville performers. I was enchanted with Troy when I was growing up, but as an adult I thought I wanted no part of urban blight — until I realized that I couldn't afford the country.
Now that I'm in a city that's big enough to keep my neighbors out of my mailbox, I'm glad we didn't buy when we were rural. The anonymity of city life appeals to me, as does the proximity to other cities and choices. Troy feels like its potential for renewal, which has been brewing for the last thirty years, might be realized. The Arts Center renovated five storefronts to quadruple its space, and the greater metropolitan weekly voted Troy the best place for artists to live. People we meet sometimes think we are not of the starving artist variety. They think that because we are interested in owning, we have wads of cash to flap. They are disappointed when they hear we came to Troy because it could translate our low-rent habit into a low-mortgage lifestyle.
But other people are supportive of our ideals, especially the organizations that distribute the grants. While these programs are established for people who cannot make the same choices we have about income, we fit the criteria and that is all that counts. I don't feel guilty for taking advantage of the programs. I don't get food stamps because I can feed our family without government aid. But I applied for assistance in home ownership because I refuse to participate in a snake-eating-its-own-tail system of making a living. I make my living by working my thoughts and feelings into prose people read. When I worked full-time I lost the ability to digest my food. I couldn't stomach life with my time committed to work that wasn't my own. Even with the aid we can get toward a down payment, I am terrified that signing a mortgage will make me sacrifice my time to pay for a shell to house my life.
Fifty thousand-dollar houses exist a-plenty in Troy, but none have yet appealed to our needs and esthetics. School districts are a consideration; and I am very sensitive to noise, so busy streets are out. Jack has toyed with configuring a living arrangement that would accommodate his dancing needs, and most houses just aren't wide enough for his wants. So, reluctantly, I've even looked at industrial properties.
Of Time and Fixer-Uppers
I don't want to sink five years into shaping a structure to fit our plans. I want to write and I want Jack to dance. Unless they are architects or heavily endowed by their families, people don't build their dream houses until they're retired. I want to write and I want Jack to dance. He's 36. Time is ticking inside his body, and if he makes the perfect place to rehearse, he may not have the energy or edge to make great work. He may have perfected himself into a corner, not a career.
I have managed, I think, to talk him out of finding a home that will fit a dance studio. Still, we look at homes, and still, I worry that any one of them, no matter how relatively ready to live, will be a project that will distract us from what we want to do. Procrastination is a pox on almost every artist I know, and while we keep the beast at bay by being parents and having the limits of childcare imposed on our time, the temptation to look away from creative work is great.
In each apartment we rent I forbid Jack from customizing because he could spend the rest of his life making every area suitable to its intended activity. He thinks in options. When I look at a shelf I see a shelf. When he looks, he sees how wrong it is for its space, and how it could be raised three inches. I don't want him to perfect our temporary shelters. These are temporary digs, I remind him.
Once we buy a home, I won't have my excuse. I'm afraid I'll lose him to shelving and lighting projects for good. And those are just the interior details. He fantasizes about moving walls, roofs and windows in rentals. Once he is a homeowner, he will want to move those same walls, roofs and windows. I will have to stop him, but my arguments won't be as strong, because I will want the bathroom to have a place for all of our reading materials, and I will want good light in my office. The difficulties of keeping our ambitions on track will increase. Thankfully, unless our finances change dramatically, his dreams will remain at bay. Walls and windows don't move without dollars.
Resisting Death Grips
Beyond the chance that we'll be getting in over our heads by putting a permanent roof over them lies the threat of the word mortgage. The root of the term is 'death grip' or 'death pledge,' and dates to the Middle Ages. Mortgages then came in two kinds: one could be paid off in a lifetime, and one could be taken to the grave. When mortgages first became popular in this country, in the 1930s, they were different than today. People could afford down payments of 20 to 30 percent, and the terms were generally ten years. Now people can put less than 10 percent down. I see signs on buildings in bad neighborhoods that say $500 down, luring people into high interest rates and terms that may well extend into death.
I don't want to be held in that death grip. When I learned the root of the word, I wondered if we should stay out of the housing market and remain renters until our finances are better. If we want to save money, maybe there are easier ways to do it. Sure, we would still be sinking rent into oblivion, but the responsibilities of homeownership are daunting, even with the subsidies we can get.
I look at my friends in Seattle, many of whom bought homes at high prices. When we visit we don't get to see much of people because they are busy earning for their mortgages, or sanding floors, navigating wiring systems, and meeting with heating specialists to develop centralized heat. Our friends were a bunch of arty slackers. None of us were millionaires in the making, and all of us used Microsoft in our jokes. Now that home ownership characterizes that crowd, Microsoft employs some of those jokers. I miss my friends. I lament that they are no longer free to play Boggle until one a.m. But they heard the call of a stable home and I hear it, too.
I will likely overcome my fears of the death grip and sign a mortgage within the next six months. I look forward to having our unsettled-ness resolved by a place that is ours — and trust that the pitfalls of being a homeowner don't swallow my writing alive and slay Jack's dancing. I think my ambition is sufficient to keep us on target, but perhaps I should draft a contract for Jack to sign, a personal death grip, committing a down payment of time to his art and monthly installments, numbered in definite hours. The contract might also limit the time he can spend playing house. But the rules of the game I set may change, say, if Francis is found to have high lead levels in his blood and we have to move out and strip the joint of its poisons. Can I keep the comforts of home from robbing me of my art?
Amy Halloran is a writer living in Troy, New York.