For most things in life, acquisition requires qualification. To get a job, you need a resume with relevant experience. To get a driver’s license, you have to pass a written and road test. To build a multimillion-dollar TV franchise, you need a father who represented O.J. and a documented relationship with Ray J.
Similar principles apply when purchasing a home. Credit checks, tax returns, loan applications—these all have to be run and reviewed and evaluated before anyone hands over the keys. And while such analyzes assess your capability of buying a house, they don’t address your capacity for owning a house. There’s a difference.
Buying is simply about finances. Can you afford to buy this property? Are you able to make a down payment? Will you meet your mortgage?
Owning, on the other hand, is about competence. Can you manage this property? Can you look after it and care for it and keep it upright?
And from what I can tell, there’s no test that considers the latter. There’s no test that measures your smarts and knowledge, your acumen and wherewithal to determine whether or not you are fit to be in charge of a house. Which is why I’m allowed to own one.
Almost two months ago, my wife and I closed on our place in Houston. While she’s a previous homeowner, this is my first go-round. And I’m lost. I can’t seem to reconcile that there’s this thing out there that’s entirely dependent on me. Part of my uneasiness is leftover PTSD from seeing my savings account slashed by a cashier’s check. But, a lot of it stems from the realization that everything within those walls—every appliance, every floorboard, every jacuzzi tub motor—is my obligation. If something goes wrong, if something is in need, it’s all eyes on me.
This must be what Webster’s defines as responsibility. Until now, I’ve limited my quota of it to what I could undoubtedly manage. But it can’t be avoided anymore. The other day, I saw that the bedroom blinds’ strings were clumped like a ball of yarn, rendering the shutters un-closeable. I’ve always left knot-related riddles for those who at least made Cub Scouts. So, I kept walking—until it registered: Either I untangle these cords, or I broadcast to the neighbors my preference for boxer shorts.
I’ve always been respectful of my residences, no matter the landlord. But since I’ve become my own, that respect has mutated into a sort of parental vigilance. My senses have heightened, my awareness now more acute. I notice things I never would have before, like a chip in the wall paint or a loosening light fixture. Every time I hit a switch, be it the garage opener or the garbage disposal, I’m like 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 to the fullest. I want to keep my wife safe, and I want to provide a roof over her head that (literally and figuratively) never collapses. I’m just not sure I 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 is absurdly competitive and has been for a while. Houses go under contract within hours of going live. There’s no time for contemplation, and there’s no room for hesitation. Asking price is the floor. Come heavy, or don’t come at all.
For me, this invoked an urgency that bordered on panic. I’d walk around a house, point out a few things to my wife, and… what? We have to submit an offer? This second? I took my first step on this property eight minutes ago, and now we have to decide if we’re going to make it the biggest investment of our lives? Decoding the different variations of Snickers at 7-Eleven demands more time than this.
Like anything, though, the more you do it, the more comfortable you become. Eventually, seeing houses became like going on blind dates—once the door opened, a few minutes was all it took for me to know my answer.
Unfortunately, that clarity didn’t expedite our search. Three times we submitted offers, and three times we came up empty. I’ve been rejected plenty, but never by someone who I was trying to give bankrolls of cash. In hindsight, the only reason we got the house we bought was because it was roughly 54 feet west of the first place we tried to buy, in the same community of townhomes. We knew what that had sold for, and therefore, we knew what ours was worth.
Once we signed the contract, I assumed the hard part was over. It was not. Instead of getting to celebrate our bidding war victory, it was now time to figure out all that was wrong with the house, and who was going to (pay to) fix it. The fun had just begun.
In a “CYA” display worthy of corporate America, we had multiple inspections conducted to check the house from top to bottom. Not surprisingly, a litany of issues was uncovered. While we didn’t expect all of them to be corrected, we did expect the seller to do what was fair. And as we put together our list of repair requests, our guideline was simple: “If the roles were reversed, what would we feel responsible to fix?”
The seller, conversely, did not walk the metaphorical mile in our shoes. Or if he did, his internal wiring is different from mine. Yes, technically 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. If, for instance, the house comes with a water heater, then the water heater should be in proper working condition. And if it’s not, to me, the seller should take responsibility for it.
Complicating matters was the fact that we were bargaining from anything but a position of strength. We were like a new inmate with no protection and a fresh bar of soap. Sure, 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 waiting to take our spot. We had no leverage; he had no incentive to change that.
Which is why I can’t blame him for how he handled the situation. It wasn’t how I would’ve done it, and there were times I dreamt of crescent-kicking him at the closing, but he ultimately made a business decision. And to his credit, he did concede some compensation to help with the costs.
Outside of 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, “Household Hints for Dummies” exceeds my reading comprehension level. I’m the least handy person in Texas, just like my father, and my father’s father before me. My knowledge gap measures 2,392 square feet, the exact dimensions of our home. 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? Other than “not me,” I have no clue.
Thankfully, I have one uncle who’s an architect and another who’s a plumber, and they’ve helped guide me through the sketchy underworld of the service vendor. But unfortunately, they can’t make things any cheaper. Have things always been this expensive? They sure didn’t seem to be when someone else was paying for them. We are hemorrhaging money right now, and there’s no end in sight. It’s to the point where any quote we get that’s only three digits long is cause for cracking a Heineken I can’t afford.
And no task is ever complete. The stucco was repaired, but now it has to be painted. The hardwood floors were installed, but they left a residue that has to be cleaned. I desperately want to get things done, to feel like we’re pushing forward, but every item that gets crossed off the to-do list gets balanced by a new addition. It’s an exercise in lateral movement.
But contrary to the previous seven paragraphs, the house is actually in good shape overall. The problem, though, is that it was built in 2003, meaning we bought it at the wrong stage of its lifetime. The air conditioning, the furnace, the water heater, the roof—they’re all original, so the sand in their hourglasses is running thin. It’s like we’re sleeping among ticking time bombs, with the explosives wired to the chest of our checking account.
The financial concerns are enough to keep me up at night, but it’s the emotional burden beneath those concerns that’s the heaviest. I try to manage by reminding myself that it’s all an investment, that while the money is flowing like water, it’s not from making it rain at Spearmint Rhino. (Sadly.) Whenever we sell, these improvements will have theoretically increased the value of the house, and we’ll maybe/possibly/hopefully recoup a portion of the 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 resources to cover the current issues, to be able to look forward to a wonderful life living here. That cannot be overstated, and I refuse to take it for granted.
Still, when both of those mind games fail, and I’m staring up at that unfamiliar ceiling fan, I’m forced to dig a little deeper to relax and get some sleep. Summoning “The Wizard of Oz,” the VHS classic I turned to for inspiration 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.
Photo: Flickr/ Hindrik Sijens