In the market

“Even if you only have a thousand dollars, buy a house now,” was one of the first things a Durangoan told me when my boyfriend, Bryan, and I had moved here a couple of years ago. It’s a sentiment I’ve heard again and again in the years since: Buy a house today, or you’ll be priced out of the market tomorrow. (And by the way, don’t get a condo or townhome or mobile or modular because they don’t appreciate as much. And be in town – that’s where the real potential is.)

I’ve heard the statistics about home values jumping 15 percent every year for the past 10 years. I’ve heard the stories from the lucky ones who bought homes years ago for less than $100,000 and are selling at huge profits. So finally, after going to a party where a banker ended up shrieking, “Buy a house now! Buy now!” we decided to think about making the plunge.

But it doesn’t take long for greed to set in. All it took was cruising the MLS database and a few visits to to find the house on Third Avenue. So before we even talked to a lender, I called a Realtor and told him he had to get us that dream house. “Wow, I just sold a house on Third,” he said. “It’s adobe and . . .” it just so happened to be our dream house.

But that was OK, because after the fact we heard back from our mortgage broker that the dream house was exactly that. We were pre-approved for a home in the price range of what one friend likes to refer to as the “shit-breather” category.

Nevertheless, our fearless Realtor renewed our optimism – a house had just come on the market that was the cheapest in Durango at $175,000.

“It needs a lot of work, but try to see it through a different pair of glasses,” he told us.

As we arrived for our showing, greeted by two surly carpet layers, we could see there definitely would be more work to be done in the former college rental – like knocking out a wall to make it possible to sit on the toilet. I felt daunted by the prospects, but when a friend told me if I didn’t put a bid on it she would, we signed on the dotted line, kissed an “earnest money” check for $3,500 good-bye and waited with baited breath for the next day’s deadline.

We made the first offer, so we felt confident. But the noon deadline rolled around, and the seller was MIA. I repeatedly and neurotically called our Realtor, who calmly assured me that he’d call the minute he knew anything. And he did. Later that night, he tracked us down at a baby shower and asked, “Are you sitting down?” I grabbed Bryan’s leg in hopeful anticipation, but instead heard that a “prominent businessman” in town had swooped in with a cash offer for the listing price, and the seller was going to take it. (Lesson No. 1: Always offer the listing price.) Who has $175,000 cash? Apparently rich folks who want to invest in a fixer-upper, make quick improvements and sell it a few months later for a tidy profit. It doesn’t leave a lot of room for a strapped young couple trying to buy their first home.

Meanwhile, we’d told everyone we know that we’d made an offer on a house, so the advice and phone calls kept rolling in. Relatives on either coast couldn’t believe that homes in our little town were so expensive (“So-and-so’s house in Boston cost $200,000, and it’s practically a mansion.”) Our friends with Durango mortgages were thrilled to have someone else about to be as financially crippled as them, and our friends who rent were sent into a panic that they were getting left out of the market. My vision of bidding wars with close friends over the town’s limited shit-breather supply was less than relaxing.

To clear our heads, we went to a homebuyers’ seminar at a local bank. We learned that we needed even more money than we thought to cover closing costs – an appraiser, an inspector, taxes, whatever. We also learned that because we’d be making a down payment of 5 percent instead of 20 percent, we’d have to pay an extra hundred bucks a month for mortgage insurance. (Great idea, tax the poor.) We learned about different loans – conveniently available at that very bank, and four or five mortgage brokers were on hand in case we had any “questions.” The branch manager also was there, and I appreciated her blatant honesty: “I want your deposits.”

I called a close friend/homeowner in Washington state, and she listened sympathetically. “Don’t look at houses you can’t afford,” she offered. “We did that, and we’d fall in love with the house and try to figure out a way we could afford it, but face it: You can’t afford it.”

Naturally, the next day we went to see a house we couldn’t afford. It was tiny, but close to the office and wouldn’t need a lot of repairs. Sure it needed a fence, but our Realtor clapped Bryan on the back and said, “No problem! You buy the beer, and I’ll come over, and the two of us will put up a fence some weekend.” I fell in love with the house and remembered the advice someone had given me: “Don’t be afraid to stretch yourself too thin.” So we’d give up pizza and concerts and nephews’ birthday presents – we could make this happen, couldn’t we?

So we made an offer $20,000 under the listing price – the only way we could afford the place. But the seller refused to budge. I wanted to write “You’re greedy” on toilet paper and have a really fun t.p. session that night, but Bryan assured me they would know it was us.

Then came the final blow: A house a friend knew of that was a real steal – only $215,000 for a 750-square-foot, asbestos-shingled home. “That’s even smaller than our condo,” I moaned to Bryan. And that’s when we had our moment of clarity. The condo we had been renting was for sale. Our mortgage payments would be less than our rent. And the prospect of not having to move was very appealing. Our nephews would still get birthday presents, and we’d get to go to concerts, eat pizza, buy camping toys and have a life outside of homeownership. Sure we’d have to share walls, but at least we could paint them.

We have a magnet on our fridge with a Henry Miller quote that I love: “The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware.” Now that we’ve survived the real estate game, I’ve realized how close we came to betraying that sentiment. I’m actually glad that our offers weren’t accepted because we wouldn’t have been able to live in the way that is vitally important to us. Each time we’d lose a house, somebody would say, “Everything happens for a reason,” and I’d want to hit them. But it turns out they were right, because we’ve found a way to be able to live in Durango and enjoy it at the same time.

– Jen Reeder



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