I have a scrapbook of images that falls somewhere between idea and dream. It is a collection of home interiors and exteriors carefully snipped from the pages of a few favorite shelter magazines. As you rifle through the glossy pages, themes become apparent: light, comfort, wood, glass, stone, minimal furnishings, natural colors, bare floors, living spaces that radiate from an open kitchen- all oriented toward the out-of-doors, where sandstone and gravel paths wind among raised bed and butterfly gardens. Brendan and I haunt our favorite neighborhoods on long walks, passing lovely homes for sale. We try them on in our mind's eye, sizing up a west-facing backyard that would be perfect for a garden, a garage that could hold Brendan's growing collection of beer-and wine-making apparatus, a fenced yard for the dogs we long to bring home, and the small room at the front of the house that would make a perfect writing space for me. We adore the closely knit community of Phinney-Greenwood, the old world elegance of Queen Anne, the hipster-chic of Wallingford. We envision ourselves walking to favorite coffee shops, to pubs for Friday night IPAs, running on the paths that surround Green Lake or overlook the Olympics, and making the easy bike commute to our workplaces.
But we never take those next steps: the visit our credit union to talk about financing, the call to a real estate agent, not even the Sunday open house to see what $357,000 buys these days (current median home price in our Ballard neighborhood). Experience curbs our enthusiasm; a desire for freedom supersedes our most fervent nesting instincts.
Because we have been there. Four mortgages. First in Illinois, then twice in Washington state, most recently on New Zealand's South Island. We've been renting since we returned stateside at the end of 2007. And we have no plans for anything grander in the near future.
We field the question "Do you think you'll ever settle down and buy a house?" often enough that we've canned our reply. We give each other that look- a half-smile and a chuckle that's supposed to convey irony. One of us summarizes nearly twenty years of marriage with a gently exhaled "Weeelll...." and it's usually Brendan who says "We've been homeowners. Four times over. Next house we buy will be the last one. And it will have a vineyard, so..." And he trails off. The questioner might think he's kidding. I know he's not, though we haven't quite worked out the details of the vineyard plan, which now include asking Greek's prime minister George Papandreou to allow the European debt deal to proceed so our 401(k)s stop hemorrhaging.
Our previous homes were each modest affairs that needed varying degrees of TLC. We replaced flooring, carpeting, furnaces, plumbing, doors; we sanded, stripped, painted, rototilled, hammered; jacked up one house to repair a foundation, installed a central heating system in another. We landscaped, planted gardens and trees, laid down walkways, and built fences. Our work paid off: homes #1 and #3 each sold within days of entering the market. Home #2 never even had a For Sale sign posted- it was in and out before the ink was dry on the estate agent contract. But we escaped by the skin of our teeth with house #4: Our sweet little bungalow in Cheviot, New Zealand entered the market in mid-2007 as housing bubbles worldwide began to pop and vanish, releasing dreams and life savings into the ether.
Since the housing boom went bust, this nation has had its first real conversations questioning the value the American dream, the one that culminates in home ownership. We're considering that it may not be the best investment in our futures, relative to our incomes and goals. And one cannot escape the central irony of the economic downturn living in Seattle: now that home prices are nearing the reasonable, descending from the stratospheric stupidity of the mid-2000s, credit is tight, incomes are falling, and consumer confidence is low.
After so many years of owning, after the thousands of dollars and buckets of sweat equity poured into restoring and renovating, I no longer equate stability and security with owning a home. If anything, I feel a greater sense of security because we are free from the commitment of a mortgage and the obligation of upkeep. The ability to make a change at nearly a moment's notice is both liberating and reassuring. I feel a greater connection to my career, chosen and pursued for the love of it, not the money. And I feel less afraid to take chances and pursue other goals because our only obligation is a rent check.
But that doesn't mean we don't dream. On the contrary- we have so many! I have a scrapbook full of them as my shelter vision slowly takes shape. But I'm willing to lay a different sort of foundation, to savor the freedom we have now and take time to build our future. Somehow, life at 42 feels far less urgent than it did at 32.
And from our little apartment, we walk to our favorite coffee shops, to the pub for Friday night IPAs, run on the paths that surround Green Lake or overlook the Olympics, and make the easy bike commute to our workplaces. Somebody else mows the lawn.