By Christina Leimer, Next Avenue
At an age when many homeowners are paying off their mortgage, thinking about downsizing or giving up home ownership to rent, I bought my first house. Buying wasn’t my top choice. Housing stability was. Renting no longer offers stability in this crazy housing affordability climate, but a mortgage I’ll pay off when I’m 93? Seems right.
My spouse and I first fell into a rocketing rental market when we moved to Seattle in 1999. We were astonished to see houses open for viewing for 30 minutes on one day only, instead of private showings. At the appointed half-hour, long lines of competitor tenants poured in, practically waving checks in the air.
Moving to the San Francisco Bay Area 15 years later, the rental market was so hot that superb credit and rental histories weren’t enough. Applicants were submitting personal bios including photos and enticing details so the landlord could more selectively choose on whom to bestow the privilege of paying rent and living on his property. Renting had become a popularity contest.
Moving three times in seven years was so exasperating, it pushed me to want to buy a house. I’d never been interested in owning before. We’d left an apartment complex that began substantial automatic annual rental increases and tried renting a house, but that house was sold. So was the next one we rented.
Whether you’re a renter or homeowner, being involuntarily uprooted from your home is emotionally painful and shakes up everything else. You lose daily routines and neighborhood connections. Plus, it’s expensive and no matter how careful belongings are moved, some items get chipped, ripped, broken or lost.
So I no longer cared whether we rented or bought, as long as we could stay — and stay without financial strain.
The Search for Stable HousingIn this screwy housing situation, why even try to be reasonable? If we’ve got to pick up and go again, we thought, let’s untether ourselves from a lease or mortgage for a while and use our normal living expenses to spend a few months each in Lisbon, Paris and Helsinki. We’ll figure out where to land when we get back. If not for the lingering Covid-19 pandemic, we’d probably be temporarily living in Europe now.
Instead, we wondered, if we wanted to buy, could we even get a mortgage at our age? Nothing we read said we couldn’t. It turned out that getting a mortgage was no problem. Figuring out where to move was.
As we scoured a U.S. map, our priorities became cost, closeness to the natural world, high-quality health care and LGBTQ-friendly culture — a chaotic housing market isn’t the only way to lose stability.
“I don’t know where we’ll be,” my spouse said, “but I think we’ll be surrounded by trees.” At that time, this was as far as we could envision our future.
Online real estate listings looked like we could afford to rent or possibly buy in Portland, Oregon, so we trucked our furniture up Interstate 5 and into storage. The plan: live in a short-term, furnished rental while scouting houses. Instead, we sat in a high-rise condo biting our fingernails watching home prices soar by the day. Houses priced at $325,000 became $350,000, then $400,000. Rents were trending up, too.
Soaring Prices Everywhere
Let’s try suburbs, we thought. As far south as Salem. Remote coastal towns. We searched listings in other cities, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and Flagstaff, Arizona;. Home prices were lower, but costs were escalating everywhere.
In this climate, when what you see online can change faster than you can get there to buy, no wonder some people buy sight unseen or forego inspections. Not us, though. We’ve seen too many pretty listing photos of what turn out to be dilapidated houses.
Our anxiety spiked. While we were priced out of buying in Oregon, we could still afford to rent in Portland, but for how long? Homelessness permeates the city, even outside our window. And the scariest thought: What if we can’t find a safe permanent place to live? That possibility had never crossed my mind, ever. Until now.
Following the Unexpected
Sometimes turmoil opens a door you thought was closed. Returning to the rural Southeast Missouri hometown I left at age 20 was never on my bucket list. But when we saw three-bedroom brick homes there for under $200,000, it grabbed our attention.
I’d always loved Cape Girardeau County’s natural beauty. Brown streaked gray and white limestone bluffs edge the Mississippi River. Creeks like veins crisscross the land and immense oaks, hickories, maples and walnuts shade grassy hills. Score two for cost and nature, but our other two priorities — questionable.
We decided to experiment. In a town of 40,000 people, there’s little short-term furnished housing. But we found one unit coming available and took that as a sign of the right next step. With a three-month lease and month-to-month option afterward, we’d look around at houses, check out health care and try to get a sense of LGBTQ acceptance.
Leaving Missouri, Until…
Then winter arrived. Few houses were on the market and prices were rising here, too, though still affordable. We searched. We waited. The calendar turned. Nearing the end of our lease, feeling pressure, we intended to notify the landlord that we planned to stay another two months. But, as if we needed another strike against renting, she contacted us first. We had to vacate. Another tenant was moving in.
Now what?! Should we head to another city for three months? Temp living was a strain. We were tired of chaos. Having left houseplants in California, furniture in Portland and a car in Vancouver, Washington, we’d managed to spread our belongings across four states. We felt stretched and scattered. Interest rates were edging up.
We decided to give up, return to Portland and take our chances renting. Then we saw a house that changed our minds.
Shifting from Renting to Owning
We’d wanted a single level house with trees, water and enough yard for privacy. That’s all we needed and would be the responsible thing to do. So, guess what we got? A three-story colonial — not our style — on nearly an acre of steep, sloping grounds encircled by trees, including an in-ground swimming pool and bordering a lake.
The price was more than we’d planned to spend, but I guess it was meant to be. The terms were manageable, we had our natural world retreat and we closed three days before our lease ended.
Now I spend my mornings outdoors, planting, hoeing, pruning, mowing and pulling spider webs off the house. Nature, it seems, works 24/7. I’ve even found myself in the woods with a chainsaw. Not something I’d have imagined three years ago. But I love the daily immersion in nature.
DIY home repair is another story, though. I’m a writer and researcher, used to sedentary work and dealing with ideas and information. Physical labor and the sheer stubbornness of the material world are tough to manage. Cussing doesn’t straighten bent nails or stop pinched fingers from turning purple, but it relieves my frustration.
On the other hand, after renting for most of my life, it’s still not instinctive to me that this property is mine. When I see something that doesn’t appeal to me — like baby blue walls — there’s a momentary mental pause before I realize, I own it so I can change it. And what a privilege it is to be able to shape our living environment to our own tastes and lifestyle.