How to Buy A House
Let me begin by saying that Luke and I were not planning on buying a house. At some point last year, I realized that I had to delete Tinder because it was too much of an emotional commitment, so I downloaded Zillow and Redfin — house-buying apps — as a replacement. I wanted an activity before bed where I got to lie around and quietly judge something. Judging a house is not quite as good as judging a person, but, I figured, it would be less of an EMOTIONAL minefield. I didn’t anticipate ever making any moves on a house. House-buying was in my five-year plan, but it was like, the finale of the plan. It was not meant to be for this year.
But then, of course, I happened upon a listing that disarmed me. It was a giant old Victorian house in Rogers Park with a cupola and a huge front yard and a huge back yard. The rooms were all painted unusual colors. There were big palm plants in the dining room. AND, for reasons I couldn’t begin to understand, it was really cheap. (Cheap for a house, that is; not cheap in the generic sense.) I fell asleep and dreamed about it; I dreamed about having hundreds of children who all ran around in the labyrinthine halls of this house that I had not yet seen and couldn’t begin to conceptualize. TBH, it was a stressful dream. But when I woke up, the house was still on my mind.
I showed the house to Luke. “Yeah, it’s cool. Someday we’ll live there,” he said. This was the kind of typically adorable thing Luke said every time I showed him a house I sort of liked. Now, however, this response was annoying. THIS HOUSE WILL NOT BE AVAILABLE SOMEDAY! I thought. WE MUST ACT ON THIS HOUSE AT ONCE!
I figured by the next day I would stop thinking about it.
But I did not. I sent the listing to my friend Kat, who lived in Rogers Park. I sent the listing to my sister, who recently bought a house. And then finally, I sent the listing to my mom, along with a note: “I found a house I really like.” And she told me that she and my dad would help me make it happen if we decided to make an offer.
“Ha ha,” I responded. “Someday.”
But when I told Luke, he said, “Well, maybe we should go take a look at it!”
“No,” I said. “It’s not the time.”
“I mean, we can just look. I’ve always wanted to go look at a house for sale. It’ll just be a little outing!”
“Really? Do you think we should look?”
“Why not?” And so I clicked the button on the Redfin listing that said, “Make an appointment to see this house!” A minute later, I got an email telling me that Rick* would meet us at the house at 2 p.m. the next day.
The next day, I came up with a list of 30 reasons why we shouldn’t even bother to go to the showing. Because, mainly, what if we fell in love with the house? Then we’d be stuck. We’d either have to try to buy it, or we would have to release it back into the wild. Both options sounded terrible. We could just stay home and eat snacks and drink milkshakes.
But Luke wanted to go, and who knows, he said, maybe it would all work out. He said, “There is a 1 percent chance the stars will all align and this will be perfect for us, somehow, in every way.”
It is time for me to stop, because you must know by now that over the course of four months, we DID buy the house, and we DID move there, and it all DID — sort of — work out. But it was not because the stars aligned. The stars did not align at all. So here are some things I wish I had known when I stood at Luke’s desk and told him that maybe we shouldn’t go see the house. I wish I had known them not because I wish things had ended up differently, but because I would have packed an emotional knapsack and prepared for the fucking life journey that I’m still stuck on with a little more intention and grit.
- The Ricks of the world will connect you with the other Ricks of the world, and the Ricks are powerful. I mean, when you schedule a home tour with a Redfin housing agent (whose name will be Rick, or some iteration thereof, see footnote), he will know a bunch of guys who you are going to “need” to be in touch with in order to buy the house. It seems like you really don’t have a choice, and you must settle inside the Network of Ricks, because that is the only path there is. Rick the agent knows Rick the loan officer, and he knows Rick the attorney, and he knows Rick the house inspector. He tells you that you’ve got to hurry up and make an offer, because someone else could snatch the property right up, and so you better call his colleague Rick right now and set up the next thing.
- We heard a lot of stories about people buying properties in Portland and having to write pages-long letters to compete with the 40 other housing offers on the table. I would like to note that if you are bidding on a fixer-upper in Chicago, there will not be 40 other offers. Don’t go to sleep being like, “This is all fine. We probably won’t even get our offer accepted, anyway.”
- I don’t 100 percent know how to put this next thing, because it will seem very obvious, and I may out myself as being naive when I write it, but I feel I must write it anyway: HOUSES ARE SO MUCH MORE EXPENSIVE THAN YOU THINK THEY ARE. I mean, yes, they cost a quarter of a million dollars (if you’re lucky), and that seems like a lot of money. But you and I both know you just need to put down a down payment. The thing is, the down payment is one of like 45 payments you have to make before you buy the house. You have to pay all the Ricks, for example. There are all these hidden extras. We ultimately needed to have about $10,000 more than we initially believed we would need to have. And so this next point:
- Our parents helped us. We borrowed money from our parents and we accepted small donations from our parents even after we had borrowed the money. I felt DEEP shame about this. I make a big deal about being financially independent and working for all that I have. But here I was, accepting (a lot of) money from my parents, like the entitled white Millennial everyone assumes I must be. I had several friends my age who’d bought houses, and it did not seem like they had needed to call on their parents to do this. I was befuddled as to how I had ended up such a failure in my thirties. I worked 80-hour weeks for almost a decade, and I did not have a nest egg with which to buy a house. Here is the secret I learned: Most people my age ask their parents for help. All the friends I’d assumed had done it on their own had asked their parents for some kind of help. And we are ALL ASHAMED ABOUT THIS. And so everyone goes around feeling like a huge failure because the system is set up to make us feel that way. If you are in your early 30s and not in tech startups or finance, you will probably need help buying your house. Which brings me to this:
- This process requires a whole lot of class privilege. I won the lottery of life and enjoy a good deal of privilege, and I am aware of it. That doesn’t make the situation good or fair. I don’t know how you would go through this process if you didn’t have an emotional and financial support network, and the ugly reality of the world is that most people do not. I am sad about this, and so should be you.
When we went on the house tour, Luke and I understood immediately why this house was listed at such a low price. This was a fixer-upper. It was the kind of house They warn you against buying — especially if you’re a first-time homebuyer, especially if you’re on the younger side. Walking around the unfinished basement, I knew we didn’t want the house. It would be decades of work. We’d never be done. Every room would have to be totally reconstructed at some point.
We’d heard from the Chicago birding network that there was a snowy owl at a cemetery nearby, so after we said goodbye to Rick, we got on our bikes to seek the snowy owl. The whole ride to the cemetery I thought about how relieved I was that we wouldn’t buy the house. Someday we’d buy a house and someday we’d live in Rogers Park and someday someday someday — it was all in this wonderful future where anything could happen. I was ready to release the house.
But when we got off our bikes and headed into the cemetery, Luke said, “I loved that house. It’s my dream house. It’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
And I was reminded of one of the things I love most about Luke: his beautiful imagination and his openness to the possibilities in worlds where possibilities seem so small. I didn’t like the house because there were so many projects to take on that there was no end in sight; Luke loved the house for the exact same reason.
Let me add here that Luke and I go out looking for owls a LOT. It’s a major hobby of ours. We have gone looking for them hundreds of times, and we have only ever seen three. But if there was always an owl, it wouldn’t be any fun. Part of the purpose is to be hopeful, and the enjoy the meandering. We walked through the cemetery for a full hour; the owl never came.
So we bought the house. We bought the house and all its ghosts and promises and problems. On the day we were supposed to sign, the biggest winter storm of our entire time in Chicago hit the city — inches of snow became feet of snow, and we couldn’t dig our neighbor’s car out to go to the closing. We took the bus and slogged our way through the weather; we were panting by the time we got to the house. It was perfect, sort of. The stars had done the opposite of align: they’d conspired to make actually buying that house nearly impossible.
But we bought it anyway. And now, we brace ourselves for the messy, beautiful, mysterious, interesting rest of it.
*No one’s name was actually Rick, but everyone’s name was something LIKE Rick, you know? Like, every one of these guys had the exact same name. And they were all single-syllable-white-guy-names, such as Rick.