My Residence, Myself

Reflections on getting slaughtered in the housing market

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We laid a marble floor with no thought whatsoever. It was as if the Clampetts had moved into Green Valley Ranch. We bought when the market was sky high; we simply couldn’t wait—no matter that we had waited for two years while it crept up. May of 2004 seemed perfect. It was as if houses were about to go the way of good taste; people were bidding over list, lining up at model homes in the mornings as if for a concert. And somehow, despite our possession of average-size brains, this caused us to think, Let’s buy.

And so we did. A teeny house on a teeny lot, with teeny bedrooms and white stucco, matching every other house in the neighborhood. Ten thousand similar stories were happening all over the Valley. At least.

I loved it. I loved it as much as you can love anything you’ve just ruined your financial future for; I resented it immediately—typical buyer’s remorse. And yet I had no idea the depth of resentment I would eventually be capable of.

Before ever moving into this 4-year-old house, we shopped for new flooring, because if there was one thing I knew—and there was precisely one—it was that I didn’t want carpet in the living room. Rip that crap out! I bellowed, chest-beating new homeowner that I was. Marble. We will have marble in our three-bedroom, two-bath house; our house that didn’t even have a fireplace; our house with precisely 1,231 square feet of living space. We will live in a giant marble bathroom. How Vegas.

Although my misgivings were immediate, they were secret. I, along with pretty much everybody I knew, peacocked about being a homeowner. Many of my friends sold houses they’d bought when the market made sense in order to buy bigger, prettier, nonsensical houses for way more money. Because they could. And somehow it seemed smart. Like marble. Some of my friends bought more than one—which made them seem not only wealthy and successful, but savvy. They had a real estate portfolio. People’s identities became associated with their homes: Were they owners? Did they trade up? Were they remodeling? All of this said that a person was solid, responsible, wise. We held our chins up. Geniuses.

We were actually idiots, of course. The worst kind—vain, undereducated idiots. Our identities were indeed associated with our homes: overvalued. When the bottom fell out, we had to consider not only the blow to our finances but to our self-esteem. Were we foolish or victims—or perhaps foolish victims? This became a nationwide concern, deep down, in the gut of our identity. Were we, as Americans, really the bloated ignoramuses the world accused us of being? It began stewing. It was an argument we didn’t clamor to take up.

The descent of my home-owning persona started in 2006. I would get these mailers from a real estate agent that showed home values in my neighborhood for the same model I’d marbleized. Their sale prices started hovering around my purchase price rather than continuing to skyrocket the way they were supposed to on Planet Vegas. I remember thinking, Wow, I would barely make anything if I sold now. A few months later, I said things like, I’ll ride out the bubble, and then when the values dropped six figures below my purchase price, I stopped talking about being a homeowner. I commenced a deep fret. I began loathing my decision to buy, and some of that loathing seeped into my self-evaluation: Holy shit, I really am an idiot!

Friends similarly reduced their display of tail feathers. We were broke—moments after becoming rich with real estate portfolios—and worse, we were humiliated. I would open the door of my $300,000 chicken-wire-and-mud hovel, click my heels across that Beverly Hillbillies floor, and try to divorce myself from the aforementioned association between home-owning status and personal identity. It was not an easy bit of self-help. The household income shrank; the payments became too much.

After coming to terms with my financial ignorance, in 2010, I called a real estate agent, precisely five years too late. She treated me with kid gloves—like when a frail person falls down and you don’t want to laugh at her. She had done this many times recently with countless underwater homeowners. I wrestled with the moral hurdles of short-selling, of failing to pay back a loan in full. Now I was not only intellectually deficient, but morally defunct. So were my friends. We were not the jet-setting successes of our hilarious imaginations, but we were perfectly capable of starting over. The recalibration of both economy and ego.

I am a renter now. I have never been so happy to be a renter. I pay on time. In full. I smile whenever I see marble. I travel lighter. For many of us, downsizing has come with reconfiguring our vanity as well as the American Dream. That’s some worthwhile remodeling.

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