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What I Gained by Ditching House-Buying Conventions

Don't skip over these things to consider when buying a house, from someone who's been through it.

Anyone can tell you that buying a house is one of the most important decisions you’ll make in your life. But it’s harder to come by practical advice for how to actually make such a decision. If you find yourself on the precipice of deciding whether or not to buy a place of your own, or feel trepidation at the mere prospect of it, consider this a guide for the perplexed (and stressed) from someone who had very little interest or know-how in the real estate department until I wandered into owning a house in a rather unconventional way.  

Are young people buying houses?

There are conflicting narratives about millennials and homeownership. On the one hand, our generation is living at home with parents longer and at significantly higher rates than previous generations. Add in, too, that more people are choosing to rent rather than buy, opting for the greater mobility and proximity to urban centers that apartments offer. On the other hand, millennials constituted the largest demographic of homebuyers in 2017 at 34 percent of the market. Young people are continuing to buy houses, but how and why (or why not) have changed dramatically since our parents were our age.

Owning a house stood for years as the litmus test of having achieved the American dream. The trouble with homeownership being a dream is, first of all, that inequality makes this dream unattainable for many. And second, dreaming of something tends to not equate to a very clear-eyed approach for how to do it. Nearly 70 percent of millennials regret buying the house they now own. While some of our peers are understandably reluctant to take on the burden of owning a house, others lament having rushed into it.

An unlikely source for home buying advice

I’m the furthest you can get from being a real estate guru, but perhaps it’s precisely for that reason that stories like mine might resonate with others who are daunted by the whole process. My wife and I broke many of the unwritten rules for buying a house: we limited our search to one very particular city block, we moved in the day before our second child was born, and we bought a house in what most real estate agents would dismiss as a “bad” neighborhood (except that we also eschewed using a real estate agent).

While our unconventional approach has certainly brought with it some challenges, I’d solidly count myself among the 30 percent who would make the same decision all over again. Maybe it’s time to call into question some of the conventions we assume we have to follow when it comes to buying a house. Instead of being a symbol that we’ve “arrived” — or on the flip side, the death knell of our carefree youth and independence — maybe it’s time to reimagine what having a house means.

The search for community

Some fastidious municipal recordkeeper charged with the task has probably gone cross-eyed trying to reconcile the books as to what my address really is. I’ve now lived in three different addresses on the same street. My wife and I were fortunate to find a remarkable community of folks in our town who commit themselves to living alongside individuals who recently have or are currently experiencing homelessness.

“Community” has become a defining buzzword of our still-young 21st century, and with good reason: Americans move within the country at among the highest rates in the world, leaving one city for another for college, work, love, or any number of other reasons. Yet, the draw for many of us remains: we long for something to anchor and unite us, no matter where we are.

Traditional four-year colleges — with their surreal density of people in our similar demographic and a supercharged social culture — serves as poor preparation for meeting people and forming relationships beyond graduation. So, when my wife and I found a real sense of community after college among people who shared some deeply held values, we knew we had come across something special.

After my wife and I became parents, we quickly needed more space than our small, one-bedroom apartment (that one bedroom having quickly become our son’s bedroom). We tried various options until we bandied around the idea of buying a house. We were immediately confronted by a dilemma shot-through with a paradox: either leave the little community that we had come to call home, or comb over and over the impossibly scant options on a single city block populated by impossibly immense, beat-up old houses. We opted for the latter.

With six weeks to get the house sufficiently habitable before our second child was due to arrive, I think I often put in as many hours a week working on the house as I did at my day job. My wife went into labor at midnight on the first night we moved in. I’m surprised I can remember anything at all from that dizzying time, but the lessons I learned from it all have only crystalized since then.

Pushing back against convention: the takeaways

For a generation that values the freedom to pick up and move, the financial and geographical commitment of owning a house can seem unappealing and restrictive. In my experience, having a house of our own has actually been liberating.

A house is something of an unfinished canvas that you get to shape as you need and want. From aesthetic touches like paint color and landscaping to the more functional aspects of altering walls and constructing built-in furniture, there is plenty to appeal to the artist as well as the pragmatist in turning a house into a home. Apart from adding potential resale value to the house, sinking one’s own sweat into a place helps us to value the house more, ourselves. More than a possessiveness at having a place of our own, there is a sense of expansiveness that comes from creating a place in which to welcome others.

The second takeaway has been that the curb appeal of a house has very little to do with how a house actually gets lived in and used. There’s an analogy to be made here between homeownership and marriage: What first attracts us to a house (or a person) winds up being very different from what later turns out to really matter.

The street view of our house probably wouldn’t have drawn a second look from me on Zillow.com, but I can’t tell you how often I’ve appreciated having a back staircase or a circular route on the first floor to chase the kids around. Nearly half of the millennials who bought homes last year did so without having stepped foot into their future home, relying instead on video footage and web tours. Given that your house is where you’re going to spend a good chunk of daily life, buying a home is an arena that we’d do well to approach with actual reality in view, rather than virtual reality.

We’ve all heard the truism that real estate is all about location, location, location. In a backward way, I actually agree, seeing as we pinpointed the exact city block where we were willing to buy. But the “location” mantra often trades on unstated biases about which neighborhoods are “good” and which ones are “bad,” which too frequently is code for the skin color of the majority of an area’s occupants. Racial disparity and segregation remains pervasive in our country, and perhaps in few places as powerfully as one’s zip code. Resist the facile narratives repeated about our cities’ diverse geographies by comparing actual crime maps and taking time to meet potential neighbors.

But one bit of conventional wisdom turns out to be true: home is where the heart is. It doesn’t take owning a house to have a home. There are as many reasons to not purchase a house as there are ways to create a home. And ultimately, the most important thing about where we live isn’t who owns it or how beautiful it is: Home is where we rest in the presence of loved ones and God. Finding space for those relationships is the only investment worth making.

Buying and inhabiting a home are financially and physically taxing enterprises. Before launching, it’s important to know what the “rules” are. There is a lot of accumulated wisdom and know-how that can make the going a bit smoother. But knowing the rules can also help you pick which ones you want to break.

Grotto quote graphic about things to consider when buying a house: "Home is where we rest in the presence of loved ones and God. Finding space for those relationships is the only investment worth making."

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