When I was in my late twenties, my ex-husband and I were homeowners. My parents warned us that we were throwing money away by renting, and I believed them. I never wanted a house, but I allowed my parents to convince me that it was a good investment. At the time, I wasn’t thinking about investments; I was trying to book an audition for Melrose Place. I was disinterested in anything domestic and blinded to anything not in service of my goal. Let the record show that the “ex” in ex-husband is how that little adventure ended. I’ve rented ever since.
That’s a lie.
Let the record show that the “ex” in ex-husband is how that little adventure ended.
I built a house with my ex-boyfriend over ten years ago. Again, let the record show that the “ex” in ex-boyfriend is how that venture ended. I’m sensing a pattern. The house was his dream, and because my love for him was so strong, I went along for the ride. It wasn’t all horrible, but after 354 trips to Home Depot and Anderson Windows, my conclusion was the same; I don’t want to own a house. I want to make a phone call, and two hours later, my toilet is working again.
Cut to: I’m house hunting for the first time as a single 50-something woman, exploring the idea to see if I feel differently, now that I have only myself to answer to.
A friend recommended her real estate agent, Kelly, who started by asking, “What style of home are you looking for?”
I froze. Was I only allowed one? Was my answer legally binding? I cleared my throat. “I’d rather not close any doors.”
House Hunting 101
Before I left my apartment in New York to meet Kelly, I grabbed a notebook, so I could jot down questions that might arise. I was anticipating a full notebook by day’s end.
I was looking at houses outside the city, testing the waters to see if home ownership was a fit. The street leading to the first house was rocky and littered with potholes. I’d have to trade in my Mini Cooper for a pick-up truck—and I didn’t want to. I love my Mini.
Kelly was waiting outside what Zillow called the “renovated and super chic” dwelling. She was quite young, like, right out of the Girl Scouts, young. We exchanged pleasantries. Her voice was perky yet stern, letting me know that she was both capable and approachable, but it only turned me off. How experienced could she be? I’m a stickler for professionalism, and her sing-song cadence cast doubt.
“Wow, okay, you really know what you want,” the realtor said.
When we walked inside, it took me precisely one minute to conclude that this home is neither renovated nor chic, let alone super chic. My face registered disappointment, and Kelly tried drawing my attention to the sustainable bamboo floors. They were lovely, but it didn’t distract me from the matchbook-size bedrooms and flimsy plastic doors. I recalled a line that my mom uses: you can’t polish a turd.
“There’s a hot tub on the deck,” Kelly shrieked as if she’s hiding a bathing suit under her summer dress, ready to jump in. To me, a hot tub means one thing—yeast infection.
“Okay, we can go,” I told Kelly.
Her eyes bugged. “Wow, okay, you really know what you want.” Yes, I thought. It’s my reward for oodles of bad decisions and poor choices throughout the decades.
The second house was a mid-century A-frame. It looked enticing outside, but it became a dark cave as soon as we stepped into the entryway. I walked up the Medieval-esque wrought-iron staircase to the sleeping loft, which was nifty if you were shorter than five feet. I am not. I gingerly walked back down and met Kelly in the kitchen.
The only cosmetic alteration I was willing to make was a possible neck lift.
“It’s all just cosmetic,” she said, glancing about the room. “You can swap out the backsplash and slap on a fresh coat of paint.”
I wanted to slap her. The only cosmetic alteration I was willing to make was a possible neck lift. I was not replacing kitchen cabinets or the chartreuse bathtub from 1956. I was looking for a turnkey. I flash-backed to the hours I’d spent in Fergusons discussing HVACs, first with my ex-husband and then again years later with my ex-boyfriend. The resentment that I felt back then, I can feel now.
It was a crisp, humidity-free day, and I was singing along to Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin” as I followed Kelly up and around winding, isolated roads. Suddenly, her SUV swerved hard to the right, kicking up dirt, her bumper nearly kissing a wood fence. The car reflexively righted itself and continued down the road as if nothing happened. She’s texting and driving, I thought. Instead of tying myself in a knot, I laughed. Kelly didn’t need me to lecture her once we arrived at our destination—if she did arrive. I was not the hall monitor. My limited bandwidth forced me to be prudent when it came to where and how I use it—a welcome sign of experience and age.
The Real Estate Bully
We pulled into the driveway of a sweet country home with a wraparound porch and heritage trees marking the perimeter. Kelly said, cheerily, “I love this house. It’s so adorable. I should’ve bought it when I had the chance. If you’re interested, my advice is to make an offer.”
I was an assertive, instinct-trusting machine.
After the fourth time, I only heard the subtext: If I can’t have this home, then you must! I understood that the housing market was on fire and had low inventory, but Kelly was teetering on bullying. I knew bullying, having endured it because of my (then) large nose in high school, sentencing me to decades of hiding behind ill-advised bangs. Kelly pointed to a Victorian dollhouse in the backyard, touting its craftsmanship. She sounded ridiculous using it as a selling point.
“Thank you, but for a myriad of reasons,” I said, “not the least of which is the single bathroom, I’m passing.” I was an assertive, instinct-trusting machine, giving zero fucks about what Kelly thought. My confidence came as a surprise, and I wondered if I’ve learned my lesson.
Next, we looked at a contemporary structure designed by a celebrity architect that was nestled in a forest with a creek in the backyard. Looking out the back windows, I noticed a large tree dangling by a single root hanging over the water. I turned to the seller’s broker. “That’s a lot of erosion.”
Kelly glared at me as if my simple observation was idiotic or premature, or both.
“Oh, we can take the tree down,” the agent replied.
I sighed. “I don’t want to cut down more trees.”
“It’s okay; there are so many,” Girl Scout Kelly said. “Don’t worry. When we get close, I’ll find you a land surveyor.”
I turned and headed for the front door.
To Own or Not to Own?
After five open houses in three different towns, in two separate counties, I collapsed on my couch in my apartment, exhausted. Traveling solo around the world seemed effortless compared to this adventure. What’s with all the questions? Septic or well? Gas or propane? Fifteen- or thirty-year mortgage? I also wasn’t expecting my assertiveness to be tested while traipsing through strangers’ bedrooms in white booties and a mask.
However, the experience has allowed me to see how quiet I’d been in the past, suppressing desires while listening to others’ opinions about my needs. It seems that I’ve found my voice.
I’m not convinced that I’m homeowner material, but I do know that my search can be a blank slate where I can affirm and practice articulating my preferences. Writing this part of my story has the advantage of awareness and, fingers crossed, wisdom. Trusting in myself and the wherewithal to know when to walk away—be it a house, job, or relationship—is exquisitely empowering, scary, and fun.