House & Home


My sister and her boyfriend have made the monumentous decision to purchase real-estate together.  They’re looking for something in the $100k – $120k range, and are willing to live in less-desirable neighborhoods in a home with high demands for improvements.  They have exactly $20k in savings, which they plan to use entirely for their down payment. 

Frankly, I believe this to be a terrible idea.  Not buying a home, but using every penny that you have to fund your home purchase.  Particularly when buying a home that requires repair.  But when the only way to afford a house is to spend all of your savings, is it then appropriate?

I have had extensive conversations with F, my pseudo-brother-in-law, about this choice they’ve made.  “We need the money to get a loan,” he’ll say.  “But what happens if there’s an emergency for which you need that money?” I’ll protest.  “We’re going to get a credit card for those situations,” F counters.  “But…(gasp)….if you don’t have the money when the emergency comes up………” I pause, trying to catch my breath “……….how are you going to pay the credit card in full when the bill comes?”

To date, he has yet to come up with a good response.

Here are two people that struggle with their finances on a fairly regular basis, and now they plan to stretch themselves even further, with no financial cushion, to realize the dream of owning their own home. 

Meanwhile, in the Mid-West, R’s brother and his wife are preparing to take the mortgage plunge as well.  Not only are they stretching themselves to pay for it, but they’ve also accepted an adjustable-rate term on a portion of their mortgage.  Due to a combination of factors, including low income levels, lack of employment stability, and poor credit, this was the only way they were able to get financed.

R has done his best to dissuade them from buying the house, but they, like my sister and F, are steadfast in their decision. 

I started to wonder why both couples, so abrubtly, decided to buy a house on limited finances, with almost no forethought.  They have not been saving for this goal.  They have not done the legwork to find out how much home they can afford, the burden of property taxes, or the cost of repairs.  They have not spent the last several years evaluating different houses and architectures they like and dislike so that they can confidently make a decision about they type of home they want to live in.  So why, all of a sudden, do they have a burning desire to be homeowners?

Maybe because the time feels so right.  The media, the real-estate industry, the government: they’re all trying to convince us now is the time to buy.  If you don’t buy a house RIGHT NOW you’ll miss the opportunity to strike while the iron is hot.  All of those good deals will slip right between your fingertips, and years from now, when you’re still renting, you’ll look back with regret on your one chance to buy a home.  Don’t miss the boat!

Even I am not immune to these persuasions.  I was recently reading an article about home prices seeing a surprising increase, and momentarily worried that if we didn’t buy a house now, our window of opportunity would close.  And I find myself a bit envious of R’s brother and his wife.  While we have been tentative and indecisive about moving forward with buying a house, they are going for it.  I suppose there is risk with every reward.  But I will not be bullied into making the biggest investment of my life, just because I am afraid it’s now or never.  And maybe that’s true – maybe it is now or never.

But I think I would rather be a financially comfortable renter than a bankrupt owner.

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Not all that long ago, I remember reading about how the paradigm had shifted between the weight tendencies of the rich and of the poor.  While I seem to be unable to relocate said article, the gist of it was this: in the 18th century, a heavier man or woman was considered more attractive.  Their plumpness was indicative of their societal stature, and only the wealthy had some extra meat on their bones.  Meanwhile, the poor and poverty-stricken members of society tended to be quite thin, even malnourished, because of their inability to afford enough food to be gluttonous.  These days, it is more often the well-off members of society leaning on the lean side, while the less fortunate often seem to be a part of the ever-increasing rate of obesity.

The article was an interesting read, and pinpointed several possible reasons for this.  One of them suggested that healthy, fresh food is more expensive and less accessible to those with limited resources.  And with this, I completely agree. 

Each week, R and I review the sale ads for our 3 major grocery stores.  We typically choose the two with the best deals, then plan our menu around them.  One of these stores always makes the list, due mostly to their unbeatable deals on produce.  The problem is, this store is very inconvenient to reach from our home.  The other problem with this store is that the prices on everything else is more than the average supermarket.  We end up driving over 10 miles through a heavily congested traffic artery for well-priced produce.  The reason we do this? 

Fresh, quality produce is expensive.  Too expensive for us to eat as much as we would like, were we to purchase it at the nearby supermarket.

Coming from the almost impossibly eco-friendly NW, we had been hearing murmurs about investing in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).  The idea is that many members of a community will purchase a “share” in a local farm, many months before they see anything from the harvest.  Once the harvest cycle begins, shareholders will receive a box of fresh produce, usually weekly, throughout the growing season.  The farm is provided with a secure market before ever planting the first seed.

We were intrigued.  We even did a little bit of searching, only to find that every single nearby farm had sold out their shares many months before.  When we moved here, R resumed his search and, when he found a farm he liked,  insisted we jump on the bandwagon earlier. 

I was reluctant, at first.  It’s a sizeable investment in an uncertain product.  As “shareholders,” we assume a risk, right along with the farm, and there is a possibility that the harvest will fail to be plentiful.  But once he broke down all the benefits for me, it was hard to say no.

  • The cost of our share is $520 for the two of us.  Whoa!  I know.  But the harvest cycle is 26 weeks, and it ends up costing us only $20/week.  We currently spend quite a bit more at the distant grocery store each week.
  • Did I mention the farm is 100% organic?  The over-$20/week we spend at the store most certainly does not include organic produce.  I guess our cheapness outweighs our desire for toxin-free food.
  • We are supporting a community business, and ultimately helping our own local economy.
  • No longer will we feel compelled to embark on a ten-plus mile journey for fresh, affordable produce, saving us time and gas.
  • Our weekly box of produce is harvested no more that 36 hours before it is ready for pickup.  Imagine how fresh produce tastes when it hasn’t had to endure days worth of extreme refrigeration while in transit to its destination.
  • The CSA sends out a weekly email that includes various recipes, uses, and preservation tips and techniques for the items included in that week’s box.  This came as a huge relief to me, as I had never even heard of some of the crops they are growing!
  • And since I had never heard of some of the crops, I was concerned whether or not I would like it.  Lucky me, the CSA provides a “trade box” at each pickup location (5 of which are in my neigborhood alone!), where members can leave items they don’t like, and take items they do.
  • My final nagging concern was that I could not choose my own produce.  If I wanted corn this week, and my CSA box included only eggplant, my choices would be to a) go to the grocery store and buy some corn, letting the eggplant wither away in my produce drawer, or b) get a little bit more creative with my cooking.  The latter sounds more fun.

We haven’t yet received our first weekly box.  But we have received many messages from the farm, updating us on the status of their crops.  And so far, they all sound like veggies that I can sink my teeth into.  Literally.

For about the last two years, R and I have been weighing our first real-estate purchase.  Back in the NW, we came frighteningly close to spending multiple hundreds of thousands of our hard-earned dollars on a beautiful 1906 craftsman that turned out to have major electrical problems and therefore failed our inspection.

I remember, at the time, feeling so let down and disappointed.  My imagination had run wild with ideas about this house; the decorating, hosting, raising a family….that when the deal fell through, I genuinely believed that we had lost the home we were meant to buy.  In the brilliance of hindsight, letting go of that house now feels like the most intelligent decision we ever made.  We would have been stretching ourselves to make the payment, our lives would have been tied to that house, and its geography, and – while we didn’t know this at the time – both of our jobs were in serious jeopardy. 

R was employed by a supplier within the automotive industry.  Shortly after resigning his position to join me in my hometown, said supplier eliminated more than 35 jobs of the original 75.  Of those positions, over half were a part of R’s former department.

Meanwhile, back at my former employer, the budget was in serious decline as well.  As a retail and manufacturing organization, they had done well for the past several decades.  But their products are exceptionally well made, making them a bit steep in the affordability factor.  Additionally, their main product line is used primarily in home building and remodeling – which, as we all know, is a practice many people discontinued in the midst of this economy.  I recently heard from a former coworker who told me of a round of layoffs that affected over 30% of the entire workforce.  This massive layoff included positions ranging from janitorial work to the executive team members.  Needless to say, the remaining 70% are highly fearful and uncertain of the stability of their jobs.

At the time, we also didn’t realize how strong the pull to return home would be for me.  Had we gone through with the deal, that beautiful house, which I so desparately adored, would have turned into a terrible burden.  We would have been prisoners to the investment of money and time it required.  Perhaps we would have finally given in to our joint craving for a canine companion.  And before we knew it, we would have established the NW as our home.  Which, I should probably confess, R likely may have preferred it.  But I imagine I would have resented it.

Now, back in my hometown, our sense of permanency is strong.  With R’s “green collar” job, and mine in the healthcare industry, we’re also back to feeling pretty secure.  And we’re back to discussing real-estate. 

Let’s just hope it’s not a case of history repeating.