Determination, Home

Ready, Go, Set

The paperwork is not hard. Neither is combing through the matted threads of text filling 72 pages of contract. The paying is not hard, though willing the fingers to let go of the cash takes a little prompting. The saving is not hard. That is simply a daily commitment to a higher degree of deprivation, and in any event, not doing is always easier than becoming or achieving. The moving itself isn’t even hard. It’s just sort, pack, schlep, unpack, sort.
This is the secret that mountain climbers keep. Those who don’t hike marvel at the fortitude required to summit Pike’s Peak. Of course it takes strength, training, and determination. But it is not hard. In fact, it is the simplest thing in the world. Zen simple. You go forward. You go up. You put one foot down and then lift the other.
The steps are not the challenge.
The decisions? Now those are hard.
To scale that peak on that date, to re-organize commitments, to gear up and pack right and make time every day to train, these choices require a trickier sort of grit. Every assessment is complex. Someone always throws a monkey wrench in the plan. The weather forecast looks grim or an Achilles is torn or a hiking partner starts to hem and haw. It’s time to calculate risks and weigh options. To re-draw the map.
It’s the decisions that take grit.
This week, a co-worker mentioned that she and her husband are looking to buy a home for the first time. “We’re still shoe-shopping,” she said. “It’s kind of fun.” The beginning is just browsing. Try it on, imagine life in those four walls, stash the picture, let go. Then the just-looking begins to draw ever tightening circles around the realm of the possible. The window shopper returns to this place or that and walks the neighborhood. A call goes in to the agent, “Just to get a little more info.”
Now things get serious. The would-be buyer is suddenly You.
Cue the decisions.
How much can you afford? Between commute, schools, size, price, amenities, noise, layout, storage, neighbors, construction, and condition, what are your priorities? What is the relative value of feature, and what combinations are acceptable? Does dream trump reality or the other way around?
You see a place you really like but low ceilings or high taxes give you pause. Do you make the offer? Do you sign the dotted line? You take a few days to cogitate. Now it’s under contract with someone else. You missed your chance. You keep looking.
The pace picks up. The decisions get harder.
Are you really ready to buy? What’s the right thing for now and for the maybe-future? You see another place. Walking through the door makes you swoon. It’s more money for less space in the right place, or less money for more space in the wrong place. The agent takes your offer and your check for earnest money. Waiting, still looking elsewhere. Counter offer. Higher, no contingencies, three days to decide.
Hold or fold?
If you’re in, brace yourself. The inspection, negotiations, loan application, and HOA documents fly at you like a freak hailstorm, bam bam bam. Every time you turn around, a decision blindsides you. People you’ve never met call you up and demand your life savings. The clock won’t wait and the storm won’t relent. In a process like this in a market like this, people who need quiet time to think are out of luck. Adapt or die.
Lisa Sturtevant stopped me in the hall at work the other day. Chatting about my condo search, she said, “This area is weird. Nowhere else in the country is experiencing a feeding frenzy like this.” The inventory at the more affordable end is at a record low while demand is at a record high. This sends prices to the top of Mt. McKinley and shrinks time frames to barely a blink. As a part of the Center for Regional Analysis, she knows her stuff. A few of Lisa’s articles on the DC area housing market are here and here.
Home buying in the greater Washington region means making momentous decisions very quickly with little information against cutthroat competition. Forget climbing Mt. Shasta. This is landing behind the wheel of an F1 McLaren on the final lap of the Grand Prix the day after you’ve gotten your license.
All those mountains don’t prepare you for this kind of hard. It’s everything at stake and right now. Think fast and keep those reflexes honed to a fine point.
Terrifying? Absolutely. Too much? Probably.
But, oh, my. The rush!

Determination, Home

In Action

Chaotic action is preferable to orderly inaction.
– Will Rogers

After two hours on the phone with a loan officer, I’m in. Approval! At long last, the gods have given the nod which has always eluded me. It was not just sleight of hand and self-deception. Those blackened pennies dropped into the jar have turned into something tangible after all. The cash is tight but it is sufficient. For the purposes of this one stunning undertaking, we have enough.
How princely of them, yes? To allow me to pay them more money in interest alone than I’ve ever seen in my life? Still, a loan of this sort is no small favor.
Thirty days. That’s it. With fingers crossed and a calendar packed tighter than an orange line train at rush hour, we’ve scheduled the closing for April 3. In the meantime, everything and more clamor for attention. The inspection is scheduled for Thursday when the region is on track to be trapped under 10 inches of snow. The appraisal follows on its heels and then the condo association hauls out HOA documents. That tome will land in my hands right when I’m boarding a plane for Florida for a three day student affairs conference. I’ll have exactly 72 hours to comb through meeting minutes, addenda, and financial statements before I’m locked in for good.
Did I mention that I am also a single mom with a job, a dog, and a rising tide of laundry in the hallway? And that I scared out of my mind? This is a staggering chunk of change to buy a home that looks nothing like I ever imagined settling me into a life that I never planned.
Time expands to fill the need, I hear. And the press of those needs keeps the terror at bay. The roadside rest area where Bug and I stopped to catch our breath was only just that. We cleared our heads. We refilled the tank. We established a manageable routine. It’s been comfortable. Orderly. Safe.
Idling in neutral is certainly exactly those things. Unsustainable too. Not to mention dull as dirt.
So now, action. And all the dangers of putting this beast into gear and edging our way back onto the open road.
Off we go!

Determination, Divorce

In the Stocks

For once, little stubs of green
numerals wink
they could buy me out
of this hunched perch.
It is just me here, me and my accounting
of the meager spoils I seized
when I fled. The penalty
for desertion could be far worse.
I tally the fortune
of this accident of birth.

Iced rain falls and
in town, surely
a band warms up.

The remaining stocks
sway like burnt timbers
against scouring wind but still
stand, their earnings enough
for one eighth of a used car
one hundredth of a used house
one year of heat and power

a one-way ticket
out of here.

The charred posts
have never flowered no matter how
much they drink.
Ah well. No need to fret.
I grow thinner by the day and
night is falling. Under me
the stunted sprouts are, yes,
still green. Chance being
so capricious (what a marvel that must be!)
I decide this will do. It is enough.
I stretch my shoulders. I arrange
my spine. I pad my wrists
with cash for spring


Happy 100 Days: 69

Safety. Such a tricky concept. I walk the streets and back greens of these townhouse complexes, asking, Is it a safe neighborhood? That idea is tangled up in so many class and race patterns, I can barely tease out my gut feeling. I never expected to land in the working class as a single parent. Suddenly, I have to face considerations of safety as I weigh affordability, quality of life, resale value and everything else related to buying a home.
The prejudices roil under the surface every time I walk through a neighborhood.
Is “safe” code for “white”?
Yesterday, I zipped out to a townhouse development at the western edge of the county. It sits right up against uber expensive new houses, the cushy county library, a recently built shopping center. It seemed like a lovely location. But when I got out of the car, something didn’t sit right with me. Is it a safe neighborhood? The houses seemed bare faced and a little bedraggled. I noticed men. Lots and lots of men. Most of these guys were white guys. It was early enough in the evening that I was surprised to see so many men home. They were in tank tops, jeans. They smoked. To a man, they walked dogs. One guy had four pit bulls lunging at the end of the leash. Nothing against pit bulls, but four?
The demographic was unsettling enough that I barely had to look at the house to know I didn’t want to live there. While I was a little ashamed of my surging prejudice, I was not ashamed enough to reconsider (it didn’t hurt that the house was a junk heap).
Today, a townhouse up north listed a little before noon. The asking price is $155,000. This is nearly $90,000 less than most comparably sized townhouses in the county, so up goes the red flag. What could be wrong with this place?
Also, what might be right? In a year or three, the new metro line out to Dulles airport will have a station just two miles from this address. Not only will that mean a better commuting option for me, it means the value of this property is going nowhere but skyward.
My agent gently suggests I may not be crazy about the neighborhood. She doesn’t say more because she is in a meeting and won’t be free until about 6:30pm. I do a little sleuthing on my own. I know from the map that this is an area some do not consider “safe.” In a different chapter of my life, I would have walked on the other side of the street.
That was then.
As for now, am I willing to let my biases blind me to a potentially great opportunity? Someone is going to live there, I tell myself. Why not me?
Is “safe” code for “middle class”? For “a majority of the people look like me”?
By 4:00pm, the selling agent already has an offer. The clock is ticking. I hit the road to go see for myself. I follow the same route I would it if I were to live in this new place so that I can see how much time I will be sitting in my car. I turn off the main road and pass the Turkish restaurant I like (this place would be walking distance from home!) I also pass the Taco Bell, the half-empty clothing store parking garage, and the 7-Eleven. All of these would be between me and the Turkish restaurant.
I arrive a little after 4:30. I start to walk. Is it a safe neighborhood? The units are small. All are ground level entries with two stories. The complex is few years older than I am. An elementary school is close enough that I can hear the whistles trilling at soccer practice. Leaves whisk across the green spaces dividing the rows of houses. Kids, kids, kids. Little toddlers wobble on bikes. Small gangs of teenage boys stroll past, chattering with each other. Moms with babies stand in doorways. A group of children on play equipment so close to the unit for sale that I can stand on the doorstep and see the expressions on their faces.
I see graffiti on the plastic slide. I see harvest wreaths. I see screens with holes. I see a woman who has pulled a chair out onto her front porch and is reading a book in the afternoon light. I see cars as old as mine sporting plenty of rust. I see the mail carrier walking from door to door with his satchel. I see a man standing on his threshold painting the trim.
I greet everyone I pass. I say hello. I ask about the neighborhood. Everyone is smiling, eager to talk, gushing about how much they love it here. Most tell me they own their homes and have for a few years and don’t want to go anywhere else. They say it’s quiet, that it’s great for kids, that the schools are pretty good.
I walk more. I see the open back patios cluttered with bicycles, deck furniture, grills. Nothing is fancy. A little of it looks salvaged. Nothing is locked up.
Open back patios as far as the eye can see, and nothing is locked up.
As an exercise to check my assumptions, I take my cell phone, keys, and wallet, leaving my bag behind. It is 5:30 now and traffic is thick on the outer streets. I walk with my bulging billfold in plain view, my cellphone loose in my grip. I am in a sundress in the unseasonably summery October evening. I am a woman walking alone in the dying light, money and gadgets out for the taking. I stroll past the teens loitering in the 7-Eleven parking lot, the folks hanging out at the bus stop near the parking garage. I walk all the way out to the main road, into the shopping center. I pass the ABC store. More young men on bikes rattle past. I go into the supermarket, buy a few things, and make the whole trek back. How does it feel? Safe? Mostly. No one hassles me, no one offers up more than an assessing gaze.
While I wait for my agent, I see other potential buyers come, walk through, leave. A little girl follows me around the neighborhood telling me all about who lives where and what she doesn’t like (she is not allowed to celebrate Halloween, but she may get a pumpkin anyway). People peek out their curtains or even step outside to see what I’m up to, hanging about. They watch the front door of the place with the realty sign. I ask a woman who has come out to look me over if she likes living here. She is holding a baby who grins and lunges for me. We all laugh together. I ask again about how she likes it here, but she does not answer. The little girl who is following me around translates the question into Spanish. The woman lights up. “Aqui? Si! Si!” She offers up a flood of words I can’t translate but still understand. She is happy here. She loves it here.
My agent arrives and we walk through. It is tiny inside, but it is not just a unit. It is a home. I love its bright kitchen, its compact three (!) bedrooms, and the gas range. It is old and lived in, but it is light and clean. It has been cared for. The people leaving have not moved out, so I can see how they have filled its closets and arranged their tchotchkes. A flock of angels nests in the spare room. Even with the clutter, I like the feel.
My agent and I talk strategy. The seller will see the offers on the table tomorrow night. This place will be under contract less than 48 hours after it listed. The list price is a steal, and she explains that there is no way this house will go for that. It will likely sell for $20,000-25,000 more. I need to consider offering much more than the asking price if I even want to be considered. She shows me the comparable home sales in the neighborhood. Another one with only a whisker more square footage sold for $231,000 a few weeks back.
We stand out back in the dimming light. I can still hear the distant hollers from the school ball field. My little six-year-old shadow is still running around without a parent in sight. The South Asian families dressed in gilded layers whose foreheads are anointed red paint stroll between their three different houses. One of the young women waves to me across the green. I ask my agent what her gut feeling is on the neighborhood.
“I haven’t sold here in several years,” she says. “At first, I thought you might be disappointed. But I could tell as soon as I pulled in that it’s changed.”
“For the better. Definitely.” She nods.
We sign a buyer-broker agreement. We make plans to talk in the morning. The fellows whose parking space I have stolen for the afternoon give me a quick honk and then gesture apologetically as I hop in my car to leave. I wave goodbye to the woman with the giggling baby, to the men who have watched from their second floor windows.
During the two and a half hours I spend in the neighborhood, the only other white person I see is my real estate agent. It is odd to notice the swirl of feelings about being on the leading edge of gentrification. If I can swing this, I can give my son a home in a real neighborhood with green space, attentive neighbors, room to grow. With a monthly payment that allows for small savings, increasing property value, and walkable commerce, I might actually provide us a decent quality of life while also building a college fund for Bug.
Is it a safe neighborhood?
Perhaps safe is this: Can we live well here and build a strong foundation?
Then hell yes. It is safe.


Homeward Bound

My parents were the age I am now when they bought their first real house. We had lived in several apartments and a townhouse during my earliest years, but it was not until we moved onto that corner lot that I found my Tara, epic and tortured and almost breathing with coming-of-age angst. It had three bedrooms and big trees for climbing in the yard. The neighborhood boasted all the accessibility and leafy quietness of one of those rarified zip codes everyone knows is the perfect place to raise a child.
The house is still there, squatting on prime real estate wedged between the Beltway and the red line in Bethesda. I drive by it sometimes and feel my stomach clench in a fit of nostalgia and hunger. Inhabiting one of those doomed swaths of DMV land where swollen mini castles erupt from the still-warm remains of modest post-war bungalows, the house may be seeing its final days.
Drive-bys are just one symptom of my unchecked covetousness. The dear people closest to me gently suggest that I am a bit obsessed with money. Fear about Bug’s and my financial situation clings to me like some kind of unpleasant aroma. The jokes I crack at lunches with co-workers about our salaries are usually too loud and too close to the bone. I find it hard to control myself. The paychecks come in twice a month. They are adequate for here and now. Here and now, however, is not adequate for up and out.
The exasperation of the dear ones has long since eclipsed indulgence. No one wants to hear (again!) how tight things are, how frightened I am, how tough it is occupying this point on the financial spectrum. Someone out there is happy with less than what you have, they remind me. Someone out there is unhappy with more.
What if you already have enough?
I have a sweet tooth for drama. This is not news to anyone. Low-dose panic is my drug of choice. In a rare show of equanimity, I am taking their words under consideration. Is fear feeding the anxiety? Have I lost perspective? Perhaps the dear ones are right. It might be the case that I am so caught in this loop of defeat that I am unable to see how far my finances can stretch. Is all this quivering anxiety just me being a little hooked on the flavor of my own misery?
If my paycheck is sufficient to support Bug and me in our own place, I might actually have to get off my frightened ass and make the leap. I claim I ache for a home. A Place of Our Own is my official Red Ryder carbon action 200 shot range model air rifle. But maybe I don’t entirely trust myself to manage alone. If I wake up to find that possibility under the tree, will I shoot my eye out? Having enough would, after all, mean the end of this recuperative chapter in the suffocating security of my parents’ nest. Might it be that the truth of my terror is not in being stuck but in becoming unstuck?
Clearly, it is time to take an honest accounting.
I am a stranger to neither fiscal prudence nor a precise ledger. In all the years Tee and I were living together, I kept us on a noose of a budget. A single YMCA camp income supported our family of three, covering everything from staggering health insurance premiums to dog chow. One of my many jobs as the captain of the domestic ship was to scrimp, save, and track every penny. I made the baby food, hung the cloth diapers on the line, and hand-crafted the holiday decor. We traveled only to visit family. We ate in. Every single month for five years, I reconciled the budget. By some kind of financial sleight-of-hand (and more than our share of help from the ‘rents), we lived just a hair above the poverty line without ever feeling the pinch. We were actually comfortable. Never in all that time did I carry anything like the sickening panic weighing on me now, even though my current income more than the Y ever paid Tee.
This week, I bit the bullet and sat down with my Excel spreadsheet and a pile of bills. I mapped out the year ahead with Bug’s transition to kindergarten and the corresponding reduction in childcare costs. The budget contains 27 items spread out over 12 months. I tried to keep it austere but realistic, including meager numbers for dining out and clothing along with slim grocery expenses. The thin trickles into retirement and Bug’s college fund were saved from the axe. Cable and wifi were slashed along with any travel pricier than a day trip.
In the end, I tallied up the numbers. If I move out of my parents’ house in the next year, I will have enough money for a two-bedroom apartment. In Peoria. As for a location in Fairfax, Arlington, Loudon county? I cannot even afford a studio, let alone a condo or a townhouse in which my son can have a room of his own. Understand this: I hold an administrative faculty post at George Mason University. The position requires a master’s degree and carries an assistant director title. After bare-bones living expenses, the salary leaves me a mere $900 a month for rent, taxes, and utilities in an area where a bottom-end two-bedroom apartment is $1800 a month, before utilities.
They say public service is noble. Where can I trade in all this nobility for a little dignity?
This is not a woman who is eating her own tail in a solipsistic frenzy over money. My perception is not skewed, and objects are not appearing bigger because I am viewing them through the side mirrors. The situation is, in fact, just as dire as I had thought. The number gazes right at me with its italicized crimson smirk. It will not diminish unless I cut out things like trips to the dentist. Or Christmas.
The number is real. Also, it is not. For now, Bug and I are secure in this way-station, parked in a house which does not eat my earnings for an appetizer and then come slathering after my savings for the main course. The number is just this: a sign of how much further I have to go and how different life is going to look for my son growing up than it did for me.
The dear ones guide me away from my talk of financial trouble not because the trouble is false, but because they are helpless to ease the burden. We would all like to believe poverty is a state of mind and that overcoming it just takes hard work and a positive attitude. I am guilty of this half turn from uncomfortable truths. During the three years I spent working in a shelter for homeless families, I was a dogged cheerleader. I advocated for the guests to keep plugging away, and never ceased maintaining that the right combination of social programs and part-time jobs and bus vouchers could move a family into permanent housing. The fact of the recidivism rate – a number I cannot recall, but whose smirk had fangs much redder than my little spreadsheet figure – was hard to look in the eye.
Nonetheless, one has to believe against the evidence. What the dear ones are really saying is that the only alternative to faith is despair, and that is a sure exit ramp to ruin.
I can’t own a house any time in the foreseeable future, but I can own this: $900 a month free and clear is not chump change. Draw at random any one from among the 7 billion, and odds are she lives for a year on less than my monthly surplus. The generosity of my parents combined with that minor excess keep us from sinking down under the poverty line. I know better than to wallow. We are rich. We have trees in the yard, and Bug does have a room of his own.
A $900 rope is in my grip. I cannot see how far it stretches over the cliff face, but I know the only direction of travel is up. How I use my muscle to put that cash to use will determine how high we can climb. I clip one strand of it into a savings account to tether us to an embryonic down payment. A fraction hooks into Bug’s 529 plan so he is not choked by college debt in 15 years. Another thread harnesses us to a retirement account. With these small outlays tied on and my kid strapped firmly to my back, I climb.
I picture what is waiting just up over the lip of the rock. It is just out of sight, but it is there, the door open, a tall glass of something over ice waiting on the porch rail. I picture my son at the age I am now standing on the front step, watching for his retired and nimble mama to pop up for a visit. I picture home, and up we go.


In the Bank

Personal finance gurus say the secret to amassing great wealth is to Pay Yourself First. Before you take care of your auto loan or head to the mall or supermarket, you put a chunk of change where it can earn interest. It helps if you have to jump through some hoops to get your hands on it.
Getting rich may or may not be in the cards for the 99%, but the psychological effects are as compelling as the financial ones. Conceiving of you – your very own self, your well-being, and your future security – as being more important than a restaurant owner or oil executive can do wonders for your momentum. The icing is that at the end of a decade or three, you have a nice little cushion for doing the things you really want, not just having things that slake the fleeting thirst.
When Tee and I were married and living on one income, we managed to siphon into a savings account a bit off the top of every paycheck. We found ways to save (I can make my own baby food! I can also cut hair!) and discovered that our quality of life did not suffer. The small bank balance we cultivated allowed us to split without either of us going into arrears. Even in my currently strained financial circumstances, I have continued to drop one chunk of my meager income into retirement every month, and another into a savings account. Both bits are paltry, but the habit of treating Shannon, Inc. as a creditor has stuck. It helps me breathe easier to know Bug and I have enough in reserve to survive the next disaster transition.
Where do you find these few bucks? I will not insult your intelligence with another collection of tips. You can barely turn around without bumping into another ten-point bullet list for plumping the piggy bank (Turn down the heat! Pack your lunch!) All the advice columns re-package the same simple counsel: Don’t squander the pennies on junk. They add up to real money.
Pay Yourself First!
Piquing my curiosity lately is the notion of what happens when this principle expands beyond the wallet. Maybe money is not the only currency that matters. Every so often, you have to stop and ask yourself, “What is really valuable?” Besides cash, what other resources can you invest in your well-being, to be able to do the things you really want to do in the future? To be the person you really want to be?
I had lunch with a colleague today who just told me she just received a significant promotion. She is moving from supervising one department to overseeing three. It is a new position, and she will be building it as she goes. The exciting opportunity gives her the chance to test the waters in two areas she has not supervised before, forcing her to learn new skills to navigate murky waters. It will give her a giant headache, and it may prove to be a disaster.
She took the promotion for not one cent more in pay. No raise for doing two whole new jobs? Is she crazy?  I asked her if she would have kept her previous position if they had offered her more money to stay. Her immediate answer?
“Not a chance.”
She is too curious, too excited, too ready to see where this might lead.
Open doors? A sense of professional adventure? Challenge and responsibility? These are currency.
Health and fitness?
Family and friends?
Peace and quiet?
All are currency. So is a safe and thriving neighborhood. So is a sense of contributing to a greater good. So is freedom, in all its manifestations. Even (ahem) love.
Your list is going to be different from mine. Only you know what you amass readily and what you waste. What things must you bank, every month or every day, in order to keep the system oiled and moving towards your best self?
For me, and I suspect for many others, the most precious currency is time.
Time is the Crown Jewels in terms of pure value. Like many parents, my most prized commodity – and my most overdrawn account – is the sliver of the week I have to myself. (Of course, the time with my kid is an investment in its own way, but stick with me here. . .) Between the office, the chores, the kiddo, the dog and the errands, these teeny tiny silvery, slippery strands of time drift around me, loose and hard to catch. I fritter them away for a whole host of feeble reasons (I’m tired! I don’t know where to begin!). Far too rarely, I weave these threads together into something moderately substantial, like an afternoon hike or a night making art with friends.
Time, as much as or even more than money, is what I can use to build a nest egg for my own rich life if I Pay Myself First.
Like the Better Homes and Gardens ten-point inventory for saving $2012 in 2012, a gal has to look at where she wastes time in order to sock more of it away. (Facebook, anyone?) I am not talking about idleness. Creative loafing is a noble art, and quiet stretches of unscheduled time nourish the mind and body. I am talking about the noise and clutter, the ways I lose time to activities that sap me while offering nothing in return. Besides the several-times-a-day detour into social media to check status updates that have little to do with things about which I care, I also find that I peruse the Groupon and Living Social deals that appear in my inbox five times a day, and jump every time the phone pings.
Like the financial gurus, I offer the same simple counsel here: Don’t squander the minutes on junk. They add up to real time.
The past few weeks, I have decided to Pay Myself First. Instead of letting those loose moments drift away, I have been practicing tucking them into places that hunger for them. It is turning out to be a fun and fascinating project. In my next post, I will write more on how it is unfolding. For now, though, time’s-a-wasting and the other work calls.