What was your home search like? How was the spousal communication? Were there children whose particular needs and aspirations entered into the mix? Other family? Did you get good help from a realtor? What about deadlocks, and how did you get through them? Did you have to sacrifice something for a down payment? Land for more bedrooms? a view for a shop? Or did you fall in love with a plot of land and decide to build?
Our first home purchase was relatively simple, though we didn’t realize it at the time, ’cause it was the first time, and the big time for us, having lived with family our first two years of marriage, and apartments before that. Even owning a car was a step up for me, having always biked or bussed to school and work. For me the concept was a real mind-blower, to actually own a house. All I’d had to that point was enough to pay for the basics, plus the last of the student loan, and where I come from, a steady income was hard to come by. Yet I always pictured myself in a place of my own, somewhere to set up in and out, put in some fruit trees and so on. Like the place I grew up in.
The first realtor drove us through the cheap but semi-gentile parts of town, showed us what we could afford, not much over $100K. I was easy, and didn’t know any better, was charmed by all the front doors, run-down potential, the idea of having my very own neighbors and a kitchen. But my husband was wiser, felt she was aiming low, so we switched to another realtor, brother of a trusted friend. He helped us figure out our A-list, and got an early line on a fixer-upper barely listed, in a nice green neighborhood. Big fenced yard, starter size, good bones, and “sought after” neighborhood. Not much character–just a ’50s single story ranch, 1260 square feet with no basement. Not the dream house, but plenty of room for us and our little son. We were in within a few months, with a first mortgage. We could barely afford the payments for the first few years, but times got better in software, my man got a company going, and soon we were able to pay the house off and then save for the real dream home. I wanted sun, and lots of it–only vegetable gardeners know how many hours a day that really means. He wanted mountains, trees, and a view, close enough to the freeway for a decent commute. I wasn’t sure those two sets of criteria were compatible, and every time we headed out to the mountain/coast area he loved, all the towering trees just felt oppressive to my Nova Scotia sensibilities. But I hoped for the best, and prayed.
Meanwhile we improved our little ranch-style house–closed in the carport, replaced windows, laid donated carpet over the unfinished floor, installed new kitchen cabinets and flooring. We intended to sell eventually, so we didn’t enlarge, or personalize much. We turned over sod for a big garden, but didn’t plant fruit trees or build a greenhouse. And we kept going back to the house listings periodically. Meanwhile, our second and third child were born, and soon we were feeling cramped. Was it standard American middle class expectations, too much stuff, other kinds of family stress, or did we really need more space? So easy to want, don’t you know, and most of our friends affirmed our desire more space. A few, mostly older folks, said they’d done fine in a small house and we could too. I got creative with organization and kid spaces, planted an apple tree and two more blueberry bushes.
On our own, after poking around along the scenic route again, we found what we thought was the dream–twenty acres of wooded hillside overlooking the Puget Sound, facing full south. A cleared building site, great sun exposure, seasonal creek hidden at the back and decked with clumps of sword ferns and old growth stumps, gorgeous view of the Sound, on a dead end driveway. We bought it, and started making plans and improvements in our spare time. There wasn’t much of that, because–you know how it is–one either has time or money, and my husband was commuting long hours and working long hours, and I was taking care of the house and our three little ones, fourth on the way, as well as doing the business bookkeeping. We brought in soil for a garden, set up a comfortable campsite, made trails, laid a pad for a cabin, worked on the house plans, couldn’t agree, got into tangles over size, details, and whether it was just plain too stressful on our family to build a house. I had heard enough stories from realtors about dream homes built and abandoned because of marital conflict, and wondered if we could handle such a project taking over several years of our lives. Then there would be the jump in property tax from $35 to perhaps over $8000 a year for a nice view home. I put my foot down and we let go of building the dream home for the season. We had some wonderful camping (complete with running water from the well and electricity from the hookup) and birthday party bonfires. We kept looking around half-heartedly for a ready-made, but nothing seemed good enough for the prices. Those were the years of the real estate bubble.
It’s a good thing we did not buy a house, or we would have lost much of its value in 2008-2009. But how I wish I’d planted a whole apple orchard at home, because sixteen years after moving in, we are still in our little ranch, and it has shrunk. First we lost the extra bedroom. Then the sewing room. Eventually all three bedrooms were shared, and the kids kept growing. Two sets of bunk beds were essential, two dressers were a problem. And one bathroom was causing periodic bouts of panic and tension. A year overseas in a four bedroom, two bathroom apartment larger than our house gave some respite, a remodel after that added a bathroom and opened out the main house, I refinished the oak floors, and my husband divided off a bedroom in the garage (which has never really been a garage) for a big bedroom for the girls.
Now we are moving into range of the first launch into college of one of our kids, and are asking ourselves if we should just wait instead of getting a bigger house and later feeling it’s too big of an empty nest. But we also have two daughters with a sustained interest in owning horses, and my husband and I still dream of running a small scale farm. I want to grow more food staples like grains and beans, try sheep dairying, and have enough room for sewing and other creative projects. We both want a woodworking shop. We still have a good eight to ten years of children living with us, and who knows, maybe in-laws will live with us. In any case, we agree that 1260 square feet, even with a garage bedroom added, will not do.
Met with a realtor a few weeks ago to explain our desires and dilemmas, and so she could read between the lines, discern the challenge that we represent, with our overlapping and diverging hopes for the house, and four children with dreams and opinions of their own. Would she take the case? Yes, she was part psychiatrist, she said. We’re hoping she can help us sort through all the primordial soup of our dreams, which have an edge of practicality and urgency now, and help us find what we’re looking for. Meanwhile, we’re saving for 20% down.