Photo Credit: Brent Stoller
For most things in life, acquisition requires qualification. To get a job, you need relevant experience. To get a driver's license, you have to pass a written and road test. To be the greatest reality TV host ever, you have to be able to explain that when there's only one rose, it's the final rose.
Similar principles apply when purchasing a home. Credit checks, tax returns, loan applications -- these all must be evaluated before anyone hands over any keys. And while such analyses assess your capability of buying a house, they don't address your capacity for owning a house. There's a difference.
Buying is solely about finances. Can you afford it? Will you meet your mortgage?
Owning, however, is about aptitude. Can you care for this house? Can you manage it and keep it upright? And from what I can tell, there's no test that asks these questions. There's no test that determines if you're fit to own a house.
Which is why I'm allowed to own one.
Earlier this year, my wife and I closed on our house in Houston. While she's a previous homeowner, this is my first go-round. And I'm lost. Part of my uneasiness is leftover PTSD from seeing my savings account slashed by a cashier's check, but most of it stems from knowing that everything within those walls is my obligation.
As my own landlord, the respect I've always had for my residences has now mutated into a parental vigilance. I notice things I never would have before, like a chip in the paint or a loosened light fixture. Every time I hit a switch, I'm the nervous little league mother whose kid is up to bat, terrified of what could go wrong.
And as the "man" of the house, I want to fulfill my job description. I want to keep my wife safe, and I want to provide a roof over her head that -- literally and figuratively -- never collapses. I just don't know how.
The home-buying/owning process has been a beating from the start. With a lack of inventory and an excess of shoppers, the Houston real estate market has been absurdly competitive. Houses are under contract within hours of going live. For us, there was no time for hesitation and no time for consideration. Asking price was the floor. Come heavy or don't come at all.
Three times we submitted offers, and three times we were denied. I've been rejected plenty in my life, but never by someone who I was trying to give bankrolls of cash.
Once we finally signed a contract, I assumed the hard part was over. It was not. Multiple inspections revealed a multitude of issues, meaning we had to determine who was going to (pay to) fix them. As we put together our requests for the seller, our guideline was simple: If the roles were reversed, what would we feel responsible to repair?
The seller, conversely, did not walk the metaphorical mile in our shoes. Yes, we were buying the property "as is," so he was under no legal obligation to meet our demands. But just because you can(not) do something doesn't make it right.
It didn't help that we were bargaining from a position of impotence. We could walk away, but where would that leave us? Out the option money, out the house, back to square one. And the seller knew that. He also knew that if we split, there was a line of people anxious to take our spot. We had no leverage; he had no incentive to change that.
Which is why I can't blame him for his handling of the situation. Though there were nights I dreamt of crescent-kicking him at the closing, he made the best decision for himself. And to his credit, he did concede some compensation to help cover the costs.
Beyond that compensation not being enough, the problem with his approach was that it left all the repairs to us. When it comes to how a house works, my knowledge gap measures 2,392 square feet, the exact dimensions of our floorplan. Not only can I not fix anything, I often don't know who to call to get it fixed. Who repairs a laundry room exhaust fan?
I do have one uncle who's an architect and another who's a plumber, and they've helped guide me. Unfortunately, what they haven't been able to do is make anything cheaper. Have things always been this expensive? They sure didn't seem to be when someone else was paying.
And no task is ever complete. The stucco was repaired, but then it had to be painted. The hardwood floors were installed, but their leftover residue had to be cleaned. Mercifully, we've now hit a lull, but how long will that last?
Though the house is in good shape, we bought it at the wrong stage of its lifetime. The air conditioning, the furnace, the roof -- they're all original installs. It's like we're sleeping among ticking time bombs, with explosives wired to our checking account.
These financial concerns are enough to keep me up at night, but it's the emotional burden that accompanies those concerns that's heaviest. I manage by reminding myself that it's all an investment, that theoretically, whenever we sell, these improvements will help us maybe/possibly/hopefully recoup these upfront costs. At the very least, we won't have to pay the buyer to make the repairs themselves.
I also take stock of how fortunate we are -- to have this beautiful house, to have the budgetary wherewithal to cover these issues, to be able to look forward to a wonderful life living here.
Still, when these mind games fail and I'm staring at that unfamiliar ceiling fan, I'm forced to dig deeper to get some sleep. Summoning The Wizard of Oz, the classic that inspired me as a kid, I close my eyes, click my heels together and repeat, "It's just money, it's just money, it's just money."
There's no place like home.