The weirdest thing about the prospect of buying your first house – especially in later life – is the way it changes your relationship with money. I have always taken pride in my superior and utter disregard for the material world and my ability to spin a fairly comfortable life out of little more than freelance gossamer (albeit deeply fortified by family handouts). Besides, in order to get money you have to learn how to do something useful, which would’ve significantly cut into my slacking time, which started long before slacking had even been invented. I liked to boast that experience was my money in the bank. Why, after all, sit enslaved in a cubicle when there were foreign countries and thousands of miles of interstate highway to explore? (Little wonder my friends try to keep their coming-of-age children away from me.)
But when it comes to looking for a house, cool holds no cachet. Where you’ve been and what you’ve done mean nothing, and experience won’t buy you points on a loan. And, worse, cool, experienced people without substantial means must face the fact they cannot always have the house they deserve.
Deserve? Well, frankly, yes. I just don’t think it’s right that some cubicle-slaving mook from Boston can sashay up here and plunk down 300 or 400 grand for a grandma’s house on the Hill and price me off my beloved peninsula. But of course I wasn’t thinking about any of that when I was sashaying off to Europe or cross-country, which is just the thing my friends with coming-of-age children love to hear me say. Because it’s one thing to have this sort of revelation when you’re young, but when friends your age are counseling their kids about buying theirfirst homes and you’re eavesdropping for hints, your smug “I’m above moneygrubbing” snobbery will come back to bite you in the bum.
The funny thing, though, is that I found and wed a man who more or less shared my philosophy about finances. John and I did not have the Money Talk before we got married – mainly because neither of us ever thought to. I simply trusted everything would work out. We were both fiscally conservative. He’s of Irish/Lutheran heritage – the kind of guy who’ll sport everyone in the bar drinks but forget about himself. I’m a Yankee – frugal to the point of penny-pinching parsimony – who much prefers mooching beer than buying it.
Neither of us carried credit card debt. He’d paid off his school loans; my parents had long ago taken care of mine. We both drove “classic” cars – he a dyed-in-the-wool VW man; I, a Honda girl. Neither of us was interested in clothes, jewels, window treatments, hot tubs, electric potpourri burners, flat-screen TVs or any other future landfill crap. As long as we had a nice meal out every so often, didn’t have to drink cheap beer or wine and were free to take off adventuring when we wanted, we were happy. Besides, we did have a plan for the future, although it involved Oprah’s book club, The Times bestseller list and a movie deal. (And in case that plan didn’t pan out for some reason, I could work until I croaked.) That, and the occasional lottery ticket, rounded out our financial strategy.
But that was before we decided we wanted a house. Suddenly, money took on a whole new meaning. It represented how much house we could afford and how much distance we could put between ourselves and the fray.
It started with making an appointment with a mortgage broker and pulling our records together – a fairly brief task, fraught with anxiety. Being in your forties and never having had a credit report run is enough to make even non-neurotic types worry. I went into overdrive. What about that time I fainted on a container ship and cracked my head open – did I ever pay that emergency room bill? And what about that passport stolen in 1982? Was there a mini (or uber) me running around in Manolo Blahniks charging up wastrel spa days and buying Burberry underpants for her Labradoodle, ruining my good name? And why did I have to be a stupid self-employed writer anyway? Why couldn’t I suck it up like the rest of the world and have a real job?
And what about John? How well did I really know him? OK, so my best friend and his sister had fixed us up. He grew up in the next town over from mine. We had people in common. But that didn’t mean he might not have a little gambling problem we hadn’t discussed – or an ex-wife. Maybe there was a John Jr. lurking in his shadowy past, just waiting to plant his DNA on our front doorstep the minute we signed the closing papers. (You know how you sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and find your spouse staring at you? It’s usually best not to ask what they’re thinking.)
Well, I needn’t have fretted so. Because of our modest lifestyles and the fact we had 20 percent to put down, we received an A-plus credit rating from our broker. An A-plus. I – an English-major, freelance-writer type – had never received an A on anything that had to do with numbers, but now I loved them. I loved our credit rating. I loved our upstandingness. And I wanted to sing it from the rooftops.
I found a payphone and called John to report the news. The traffic was loud. I was shouting “We got an A-plus! We got an A-plus!”, jumping up and down on the side of the road in my going-to-get-our-credit-rating business suit – all cool and snotty disdain for money down the tubes. I was ready to get in the game.
That was June, 2002. Had it been any other couple, things probably would’ve started to happen pretty quickly at that point. We, on the other hand, decided to savor this morsel and let it digest for a while – like four months.
In the meantime, Portland housing prices continued to skyrocket.
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