Saturday, March 26, 2011

Why a house?

One of the big "adult" things I've done in my life is purchase a house. It was something I eventually wanted to do (and actually did sooner than I might have otherwise, for various reasons.)

I've actually heard of some investment counselor types advising AGAINST home-buying, as a "bad investment" and such. Well, if you're someone who wants to move somewhere different every five years, I can see that. But not if you're someone like me who plans and hopes to stay put. But still, you hear the "property is a bad investment" from some people.

That's the kind of statement where I respond "But how much money you can make in life doesn't necessarily determine the quality of your life." Maybe I would have been ahead continuing to live in an apartment and to invest the money I spent on my house (though maybe not: I got my house for a comparative bargain, mainly because it needed work, a large part of which I could do myself).

Megan McArdle addresses some of the issues here, briefly. (the comments, I mostly tl:drd, but they may say other things, though they do discuss the mortgage issue, which is sort of a side my parents' day, you saved up money for a generous down payment, THEN got a mortgage and bought a house you could afford. And most mortgages were fixed-rate.).

I can tell you though, when I bought my house, I didn't look at it and go, "wow, in seven years I can sell this and make a bundle!" I looked at it and went, "wow, this is a cute house! And it has hardwood floors like I wanted! And it has lots of windows to let in natural light! And it even has a room I can use as a sewing room. I want to live in this house."

I didn't have tenure at the time I bought the house, so if things had gone badly, I could have had to sell it. Luckily things did not go badly and I still live in that house, nearly ten years later.

I can add a few reasons for owning a house, over and above being able to alter the space. In many parts of the U.S. apartments are, how would you say it, much more the property of the landlord than they seem to be in New York and other large cities - I know I never lived in an apartment where I was permitted to paint the walls the color I wanted. In some, I wasn't even permitted to put up picture hangers - all things hung on the wall had to be hung with blu-tack.

And while I've never exactly had an apartment 'sold from under me' (or go condo, and then I'm scrabbling for a down payment), I have had cases where the landlord changed managing companies from a very laid back one, to a very picky one.

I was told - and this was the precipitating reason to make me buy a house when I did - that I had to move some of the books out of my apartment. Because I had "too many" and apparently it bothered the manager and the HUD person who came in to view it. (I did not receive a rent break under HUD, but some of the apartments did, and mine was an easy one to inspect because it was close to the office). They told me to rent a storage unit from them and put some of my books and bookcases in it. (Before you envision a "Hoarders" kind of situation - I had three, seven-foot-tall bookcases, and two five-foot tall ones. No bookcase was over 2 1/2 feet wide, and there were no books on the floor save for the two next to my bed that I was reading at the time. I also had a few books on a shelf in a closet; they were ones that I was gathering to take to the library's used-book sale).

I was sufficiently offended by that comment - and lacking the energy to do whatever it might take to fight it (surely a landlord cannot so closely micromanage as to determine the legal number of books a tenant may have?), that I decided to go and do a search for a house. (And I was lucky - I found a good one, that I could afford, within a month of searching).

The fact that I always paid my rent before it was due, I never had an insect infestation, and I was a quiet tenant didn't seem to matter - the books were a problem. So whatever. My decision was, if they don't appreciate the tenant they have in me, then let them deal with whoever comes next.

There are other reasons to own a house, though, over and above the whole "no manager breathing down your neck to tell you how you may live" thing.

I never had terrible upstairs neighbors, but I did have a set who figured it was OK to occasionally play first-person shooter games, late into the night, with the volume turned way up. It was rare enough that I decided it wasn't worth the ill-will generated by my clumping up the stairs and pounding on their door, but I will say there were a few nights I didn't sleep as well as I would have liked. And I've heard of real nightmare neighbors, who were loud or rude or left garbage in the common hallway or other problems. People, I've found, just aren't always very good at living in community these days; there's often someone who thinks that everyone's standards are as low as their own, and since they're not offended by a trashbag full of fishbones and sour milk out in the hall, no one else should be. Or that if they think it's fine to get up at 5 am and do jumping jacks to Nickelback turned up to a high volume - that all their neighbors should just tolerate that.

(Granted, people living in close-proximity houses can have that problem too. I had one summer of renters next door to me who partied loud and hard and late into the night before they were evicted. And they trashed their yard. But at least with a's a little easier to get away from the noise).

Also, most of the apartments I've lived in...the appliance situation has been not so great. No washers and dryers, so I get to truck down to the laundrymat and use a machine that God Himself only knows what was in there before. (And yes, I'm germophobic enough that that makes a difference. And no, I can't use bleach in most of the loads). And the last apartment refrigerator I had was harvest gold in color, and was missing one of the internal shelves.

Granted, with apartments, you have Maintenance. Something craps out, you call the office (if it's not the weekend...) and they come and fix it. With a house, you're left trying to find someone capable and trustworthy. (Thank goodness, I finally have found a plumber and HVAC company I can trust, and an electrician who's pretty good. That covers most of the issues as the plumbers are also licensed to work with gas...)

But for me, the main issue is I OWN the place. I can go home at the end of the day and lock the door behind me and I don't have to admit anyone (well, perhaps save for the police, but I don't live my life in such a way that the police come by my house). It's the being-able-to-get-away-from-people thing, which is worth a lot to me.

It's also, in a way, kind of like books. Say you want to read some old novel by Trollope. You can buy a fancy, pricey hardcover edition of it, maybe even with nice illustrations, and spend maybe $40 (I think I got a few old Folio press editions of some of his works for about $20 each). Or you can spend $12 and get a good serviceable Penguin paperback. Or you can hunt around and probably find it for free, either via Project Gutenberg or through a loan from a library, or something.

But the thing is - yes, the fancier editions cost more. But there's more pleasure to be taken from them, IMHO, and if you can afford it, what's wrong with doing something pleasurable once in a while, just for the sake of it? I think that's something that's really turned the heads of certain people I've talked with in this economic downturn, where they've gone super-frugal and almost compulsive about spending as little as possible... Sometimes, for example, taking a hot shower is a real pleasure in life. YES it costs more to heat the water than taking a lukewarm shower would, and yes, taking a long shower costs more in water than turning on the tap, jumping in and getting wet, turning the tap off, lathering up, and turning the tap back on just long enough to wash the soap off.

And while that's great while you're camping, or if there's a major water emergency, or ordinary times, frankly, I would find it a pretty miserable way to live. (YMMV, and I'm not saying against anyone who chooses to shower that way - I just prefer leaving the water on, and taking a little time to stand under the warm water and let it relax my always-too-tight shoulders, for example). But I think a lot of the "frugality" experts you hear now, sometimes it seems like they are pushing what are kind of miserable ways to live...when there are probably other areas where you can sufficiently save money and just be okay.

I don't know. But this is one of those "one size fits all" solutions (saying houses are a bad deal for homeowners) that bugs me, because usually the person making the statement hasn't considered all the different possibilities of life.

I also suspect that by and large, apartments are far nicer - and tenants are given a freer hand with them - in upscale areas of New York and Chicago and L.A. and maybe even places like Seattle and Denver...but for a lot of us living in the little college towns, most of the apartment complexes are really 'transitional' housing, where they're not nice enough for someone to want to stay for very long. At least that's my experience...all the times from the age of 18 to 32 or so that I was living in an apartment, my main thought was, "eventually I'll be done with this gig and will be earning some real money, and I'll be able to afford a nicer place," with the thought that eventually I'd buy a house.

Because that's what I wanted.

And I didn't think anyone could call me foolish for that.


ccr in MA said...

I can't imagine they had a leg to stand on (too many books?!?), but I don't blame you for moving away from that. Yuck!

Of course, I've twice had movers comment on how many books I have, so I'm hardly impartial. But still!

Kate P said...

Yeah, totally flabbergasted over the books issue.

It's true, a lot of financial people are advising people not to buy right now. That's probably not practical for everyone. At the rate my career is going, I probably will never own a house myself, and trust me, stuff like that--and awful neighbors upstairs and weekend partiers next door--are the kinds of things that make me want one even more.

Sheila O'Malley said...

I once was moving into a 5th floor walkup (what was I thinking?) and the poor moving guys were literally almost having heart attacks carrying my boxes of books up those flights. Big hearty guys. All I own is books. And a nice antique dresser with a swivel mirror. But other than that, I don't own anything. Nothing heavier than a box of books. The guys were great about it, and we kept them fully hydrated, passing bottles of water down the stairwell - and one guy, as he heaved the 20th box of books into my living room, said, in a threatening voice, "There had BETTER be some Stephen King books in here."

Best comment of the day. Like: If I'm lugging books around, there had BETTER be some books I like. I was pleased to inform him that I owned every Stephen King book ever written. So he felt better about it.

I had really loud neighbors in my last place. I've been very lucky in this new place. Yes, you sometimes hear the vacuum cleaner but that kind of thing you just have to expect in urban living. For the most part it is totally peaceful.

I envy you that you own though. My apartment building is currently going condo - and I'll probably have to move. I would consider buying except for the fact that there is no parking for the building - so why would I OWN a place where I still have to circle the block 30 times if I come home after 8 p.m.??

But I am in love with my apartment. It suits me. It's big, airy, with extra rooms - so I can finally have the study/library of my dreams. Well, not QUITE my dreams. I'd love a bay window looking out on the crashing ocean ... but for now, it suits me great.