Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Our First Home

After my wife and I became engaged, it took us about a week to settle on a wedding date. Once that was settled, we had about four months to figure out where we were going to live.

Despite being employed in a career position and being in my mid-20s, I was still living at my parents' home. My wife-to-be was in her final year of college and was living with her grandmother. Since neither of us was living on our own, neither of us could just move in with the other.

We began by shopping for apartments. But one day we happened to look at a booklet full of real estate listings. We did some calculations and realized that the monthly payment for some of the entry level homes on the market wouldn't be much different than a monthly rental payment for an apartment that wouldn't be anywhere near as spacious as even a small home.

Of course, being somewhat naive, we failed to calculate things like utility costs, property taxes, and homeowner insurance. But in the end run, it all worked out.

We began by looking at condominiums. We nearly settled on one, but we had some questions and the seller simply didn't respond. So we returned to the real estate listings and found several small homes in the area where we wanted to live that cost only a bit more than the condos at which we had been looking.

The first few of these homes didn't seem right for us. I recall walking through one that was in good shape that was marketed as a "story book" style. It was narrow and tall. While it had many beautiful features, the lengthy staircases were so steep as to make it undesirable.

Finally we looked at a home that was only a block away from where some good friends lived. When we arrived we discovered that the real estate magazine showed the wrong picture for the home. That was actually good, because I didn't much like what I saw in the picture.

The home was only three years old. It was small. It had two bedrooms and one bathroom. Finished space amounted to about 900 square feet. The 400-sq-ft basement could include a family room, bedroom, bathroom, and laundry/utility room. The lot was tiny. The carport shared a wall with the neighbor's home, which was a precise copy of this home, except that the floor plan was flipped.

The price was right because it was a distressed sale. A couple with two young children were divorcing. The husband had already moved out of state. They were way behind on their mortgage payments. They had been trying to sell the home for several months with no success. So they ultimately decided to throw in their appliances. Since we owned no appliances and the price was right, this seemed like the best deal for us.

We soon made an offer on the home and began to learn the ropes of home mortgage financing. I put down some money I had in savings along with money given by my parents as a down payment. And about six weeks later I moved into the home with a month to spare before our wedding. My wife moved in after our honeymoon.

It soon became clear as to why the previous owners had had difficulty selling the home. The home didn't have a problem. The neighborhood did. The neighborhood was pretty much all starter homes of several (small) sizes. There were several basic floor plans. The whole subdivision had been built over a fairly short period during a time of skyrocketing interest rates.

Smaller homes allowed families to afford their first home. But the high interest rates presented difficulties. The only way many families could afford mortgage payments was to accept mortgages that had low interest rates in the first couple of years, with these reduced rates being subsidized by higher rates in later years.

Marketers pushed these loans by suggesting that the families would naturally increase their income over time so as to be able to afford the higher mortgage payments that would necessarily come. If rates fell, they said, the families would be able to refinance to the lower rate. It did work out that way for some families, but not for others.

Many families did not see their income increase. By the time lower rates came along, these people were behind on their continually increasing payments, so they could not qualify to refinance. As my wife and I took walks around the neighborhood we saw home after home vacant and in foreclosure.

This had an impact on the culture in the neighborhood. There were many great people in the area. But the atmosphere of the neighborhood seemed oppressive. It was like a gray pall hanging over the place.

Moreover, we became acquainted with several families that had the same home model as us, but that were crammed too tightly in the place after adding several children. We could see ourselves stuck in a similar condition.

During the time we lived in the neighborhood, our careers were taking off and we were seeing pay increases. So we eventually decided to sell our home and build a new home in another part of the county. We put an ad for our home in the newspaper and were surprised to sell it within a couple of weeks.

The buyers were happy to buy our home and we were happy to sell it. We left the neighborhood and embarked on the adventure of building a new home. We missed some of the friends we had made. But we didn't miss the neighborhood.

I'm glad we started out with a home rather than an apartment. I'm glad that a home became available that suited our needs when we first got married. But I am also glad that we moved from that home before having children.

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