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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.”
 
“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.
 

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Happy 100 Days: 71

For two years, the restrictions have been a willful suppression of pleasure. The diet was imposed by uncertainty. Not knowing how long this journey through the desert would be, not knowing how long the provisions would hold out, required strict limitations on expenditure. That control became so second-nature that it barely required thought. It did, however, require a denial of sensation and a refusal to acknowledge desire or even pleasure except in the dark moments.
 
Today, a small but noticeable shift occurred. I was able to forgo grabbing lunch out not because I wouldn’t let myself, but because I didn’t want it. Same went for parking that 3/4 mile from the metro and crossing the distance on foot. I was excited to walk and to save that $4.50.
 
For the first time, I know exactly where my spare change is going.
 
The condos and townhouses I checked out in the past couple days are within my price range (more or less) and at least one looked just about right for Bug and me. In Northern Virginia’s hot real estate market, simply finding places to see is no small chore. I have visited eight homes on the furthest outer reaches of my commute, and that’s all she wrote. Those are the only properties listed. Can you believe it? Only eight two bedroom properties under $220,000 whose condo fees are in the vicinity of manageable are for sale anywhere in two of the largest counties in the state. And only one of those is both affordable and not a roach motel.
 
It boggles the mind.
 
At some point, I have to stop letting my memory wander around the lovely four-bedroom cottage on Lake George that Tee, Bug and I inhabited rent-free a little over two years ago. Or the three-bedroom split-level sitting on the hill overlooking Four Mile Creek in the middle of Pike National Forest in Colorado, when our nearest neighbor was a half mile away and we also paid no rent. No, no use picking at the scabs. Camp was a magical, bizarre chapter in my life. It is the past. This is the here and now.
 
Here, now: the one condo that has captured my attention. I can afford it and still have a little money left to buy a couch sometime in the next five years.
 
The place is tiny. It sits underneath a larger townhouse in a crowded community. But it is cute and it backs up to a small playground. It has a fireplace and room for a table in the kitchen. A deck just big enough for a grill and two camp chairs. New kitchen appliances. A bedroom each for my boy and me.
 
I returned to the neighborhood tonight after work. The commute is tough, but it is not as bad as I had feared. Also, it sits on a bus line that feeds my metro stop. So far, so good.
 
I walked alone through its cul-de-sacs and back lots in the dark. I saw families inside their kitchens eating meals. A couple leaning close on the front steps. Halloween decorations. Harvest wreaths on glass doors. Mums along walkways. I saw a few folks walking dogs, and a few women, like me, strolling alone in the dark even without dogs. I heard only the faintest traffic hum even though rush hour was roaring along one of the busiest arteries in the region just a block and a half away. I saw people driving with care through the neighborhood. I saw tennis courts. A community room. A pool covered for winter within walking distance along back sidewalks.
 
I saw places Bug could ride his bike. I saw a patch of soil where I could plant my own mums.
 
I am not sold yet. I have not fallen in love, but that’s no surprise. My romantic capabilities have always been a bit stunted. In matters of the heart and, it appears, the estate, I tend to delay immersion until I have a good handle on depth and currents. I am learning to see the possibilities here, though, and to feel the swell of pride in knowing I could do this on my own.
 
When I met with the real estate agent, I had my questions printed in bullets and ready to fire. She answered them all, agreeing to send me copies of contract templates and a few other items so I can be ready to rock when it’s time to put an offer down. Places we are seeing are only on the market 4 days, 5, before they are under contract and gone gone gone. One property that was listed Friday was already under contract by this morning. We have to move. It’s exciting, especially for someone like me who wants to read everything and ask every question.
 
That means I sit on the metro and read. I curl up on the living room couch and read. I have worked my way through three books on first-time home buying, one for condos and townhomes in particular. I understand concepts that were indecipherable even a week ago. Earnest money. Title insurance. Inspection contingency. I am learning what to ask. I was on the phone again with my loan officer today asking for further clarification on how HOA dues and condo fees affect the pre-approval.
 
So much to define, to absorb, to sort. So much to learn!
 
I can see that if I do this. . . no, when I do this, my lifestyle is going to look quite different. But before that, first this: a single mom living on an university administrator’s salary can own a home! She is not helpless or stuck. She can provide for herself and her child while also building a life that is sustainable for the long haul. She even may even be able to replace the cabinets one day and pull up that rotting deck and build something sturdier.
 
That’s why it was so easy to bring my lunch and walk the mile to the metro. It didn’t require an ounce of self-restraint. The pleasure is not in the immediate quenching of a passing thirst. The pleasure is in walking steadily towards the mirage, and watching with shivering disbelief as it moves closer, grows larger, and resolves into clear relief.
 
Yes, it is an oasis after all. Yes. It is real.