Determination, Friends, Home

S Avenue Crew

I want to say I’ve never done anything like this before. Trying to buy this home is the toughest undertaking of my life. Or, so it seems when I am in the throes of it. After hustling like a horse trader, I managed to get the loan officer to talk to the realtor to talk to the seller’s agent to start all working with me again. After being sure we were just beyond losing, we turned it all around and were just days away from closing.
Then wham. Today, my bank slammed the book shut for the last time. Not (just) because they’re scoundrels who serve The Man but also because central stairs in the condo complex are under repair. Without a property manager forthcoming enough to provide documentation of the extent of the damage, my bank couldn’t approve the loan. It’s sensible. It’s cautious.
It sucks.
So here I am six (SIX!) months into this short sale, thinking to myself, “This is the hardest *&$% thing I’ve ever done. Harder than parenting. Harder than the divorce! I’m not up to the task!” Etc. and all that jazz.
All of that internal chatter? Total B.S.
At 22 years old, about a century ago, I lived in a housing cooperative in Vermont. Just about the time I moved in, the 5-year deadline on the financial support from the local land trust came screaming in at us. We had two dozen residents in two buildings about to be hit with an interest rate hike of several percentage points. We were all living on a shoestring. The cost of home ownership, food, utilities, maintenance, insurance, and every other little thing was shared among a band of bohemians and revolutionaries. Without the gap support from the land trust, that house would have been back on the market and in the hands of yet another city landlord.
Not a chance. We were a posse and this was our block. We went to work. Buckling ourselves in, we powered through days-long meetings with federations and experts, poring over legal documents and funding application guidelines. We dug and dug deeper still to find pockets of money or ideas. We tried allying ourselves with the Canadian co-op associations, the local credit union, members of the Progressive party, Congressman Bernie Sanders. Anything and everything. Giant three-ring binders littered our floors and we flipped through them in twos, threes, until the wee hours.
We went to the state capitol building. We lobbied, we bent and twisted. We re-wrote our bylaws and changed our mission.
And we swaggered home with our suitcase of money.
It required significant adaptation. Our co-op residency requirements had to change to designate a certain percentage of the units as low-income housing. We alienated some of our more off-the-grid members (who am I kidding? That was everyone) by kicking ourselves up to a professionally run property with an application process involving tax documentation and pay stubs. Everyone grumbled. We pushed through agonizing consensus-based meetings to ensure that the whole of the community could live with the concessions.
We saved our home.
Somehow in all of that, we also scored a major grant to make massive structural repairs. New roof, new porch, new beginning.
Maybe the only difference now is that I’m putting all of that grit into a place for my very own self. It is weirdly disorienting. All this effort, not for any identifiable community good but just for my son and dog and me to have a place to shake off? If it’s only for us, can I command the determination? The resources? The support? Gerry Connolly ain’t taking a meeting with yours truly. This is my game now. My block.
And where’s my posse now?
It turns out it is right here. My realtor and I have become thick as thieves in the last six months. As soon as I got the bad word, she was back in the driver’s seat with her foot to the floor and zeroing in on other banks with more flexible standards for collateral soundness. My erstwhile lender has answered half a dozen calls from me today even though she’s not making anything off of me anymore. She just keeps sending on over the documentation and details I will need for working with someone else.
And this is just the beginning.
There’s the firecracker of a guy I’m seeing who’s not only helped me think through every step of this latest kerfuffle but is also just waiting for me to say “go” so he can take his circular saw and hard hat over to the site and get this damned thing fixed.
There’s the assortment of friends strewn from Mexico to Toronto sending me links to housing sites, mortgage brokers, credit unions. They also pile oh encouragement and perspective.
There’s my boss who has given me the freedom to take off on a moment’s notice, as well as all the assembled co-workers who have picked up the slack whenever I’ve disappeared to douse another real estate fire.
There are my folks. Willing to work it, work it, work it in whatever way it has to be worked. Do I need cash? A co-signer? More time? An ear? Granted, they have a dog in this fight. If fish and houseguests start to smell after three days, what happens when you approach three years? In any event, their support is beyond generous.
There are all the new friends in my community who tell me their stories, listen to mine, ferry me around to shop for knock-off furniture, offer to come help paint and move, offer me names and ideas, and just provide the much-needed release from the intensity of it all.
And there’s my son. “Mommy, you can have the $44 in my bank account to help you buy your house.”
This posse is tight and tough. Because of it, I can’t wallow in my dank alley of defeat for more than one hiccup before someone shoves me back out onto street. That suitcase of money is sitting right there in plain sight. “Get on out there, girl! Do what you gotta do. Tell me where you need me, and let’s get to work.”
This fight ain’t over. My little dream has just taken a hit and is coughing in the dust, but we’re all closing in. Minutes ago, a text arrived from the realtor. We’ve got a backup bank willing to overlook a few questionable details and move with utmost haste to close the deal. Now, on to the seller’s gal who is also in this crew, trying to squeeze out a couple of extra weeks. All of us, defending the block. My block.
Consensus and compromise and hustle as we close in on high noon.

Career, Home

Welcome to Munchkinland

“If we walk far enough,” says Dorothy, “we shall sometime come to someplace.”

-L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

I had not entertained the possibility of defeat. In the six months since making an offer on the one condo we could make our own, I had only allowed Yes and its ilk to join me on this convoluted voyage. At every twist in the yellow road, I simply closed my eyes for the half-second required to tap heels and picture home. Square shoulders, gather senses, and press on.
Until the letter arrived.
One slim envelope, and not a surprise, turned up in the mail yesterday. “Your application for credit has been denied.” No big deal. I pulled the plug on the quasi-approved loan after it became clear the short sale was going to eat into my finances for another month or three. Two banks on the seller’s end are duking it out over a piddly $3700 discrepancy in the assessed price of the home. Meanwhile, my lender is awaiting word from a county engineer indicating that recent repairs at the complex pass muster. The county engineer, whose name and number I scrounged up in my determination to gain some semblance of control over the situation, takes my call but to no avail. Her hands are tied as she awaits word from the property manager indicating the dispute over rehab costs is resolved. The property manager refuses to say spit because the complex is involved in legal proceedings.
To tip the whole endeavor into emerald absurdity, my bank started charging me $450 every two weeks to extend a loan with no fixed end date. I made the harrowing decision to let it all slide for a month and then reapply. The dream condo is still under contract with me, though, so I trust this is merely a waiting game.
Perhaps my trust has been a fool’s errand.
When I open the letter, an entirely different story tumbles out. My lender has denied my loan not because I failed to extend it but because of a laundry list of credit problems. In the nine months I have been working with this bank – my bank, the one I have used for insurance and checking accounts and credit cards for 15 years – not one of these issues has surfaced. Too many credit inquiries? Too much money in rotating accounts? Insufficient collateral? How is any of this possible, and why has no one mentioned it before?
A breeze from the open window lifts the pages from the bed where I have dropped them. I can’t bear to look at those terse, typed lines. The simple goal of buying a home blurs and retreats. Without this, there is, quite literally, nothing.
Nothing but here.
It’s not as if another place is out there waiting, one that’s just a little less expensive or a tiny bit further from my son. Not a single local condo even at the outer reaches of my price range has been listed in the past three months. The only affordable properties are an hour’s drive away. As the weeks of economic recovery tick by, the asking prices at the low end are ballooning beyond reach.
Let’s not get into a discussion of rental costs. I can actually afford (just barely) a mortgage and condo fees. Stick the extra few hundred per month on top that local landlords demand and I cannot even squeeze Bug and me into a one-bedroom, let alone a place where we can grow.
Mother’s day just passed. I had started to believe those friends that generously reached out to tell me I am a good mom. I can’t help biting back the response: So the f**k what? What does it matter? Sure, I love my kid and give him a decent-enough life. But what to make of this this very basic metric of providing? What to do with this failing grade? I cannot afford a home for my child.
As the breeze scatters pages around my room, every mistake I have ever made pushes up like a twister and tilts the world. That knotted string of poor decisions spills out behind me. At any point, I could have chosen differently, chosen more wisely. Chosen to fight harder for the marriage. Chosen to nourish my own career instead of Tee’s. Chosen to pursue an MBA or a teaching degree instead of my indistinct master’s in nothing remotely marketable. I could have decided to stick with the GIS which came so naturally instead of foregoing it for dance and revolution. I could have studied harder, maintained a professional network, written about something substantial, stopped hiding. Could have stopped pouring energy into worthless shit like gardens, bread, mountains, books, and friends. Cut short the conversations. Culled the flourishing heart.
Gotten to work.
Then, perhaps, I could have the capacity to reach this one simple goal. I might be able to provide for my son.
As it is, I have to live at the front end of this frayed string. I try to braid it into some sort of rope to haul Bug and me up and out of this spinning house and onto a patch of solid ground. It splits in my hands. It shears to nothing.
Paper and sisal. Me, suddenly trapped in a tiny bedroom not even my own. Stunned into paralysis. Now how to proceed? The choices I make today, are they similarly foolish? I can’t begin to understand how my credit is rated poor. Aside from a car I paid off in 2006, I have never held one penny of debt. I pay my cards in full each month. I have no college loans, no collections agencies after me. Somehow, I manage to maintain small but steadily growing balances in retirement, 529, and brokerage accounts. Ample funds to cover expenses both planned and otherwise are a click away every month. In fact, my checking now has more cash in it than I’ve ever seen in my life, squirreled away there to cover 20% down on a vanishing dream.
My credit is poor, quite simply, because I am.
A good-enough job for the Commonwealth of Virginia is barely sufficient for a single woman to survive. It falls short of thriving, and barely enters the ballpark of getting by when a kid is added to the equation.
Yet, I had I assumed my choices are the right ones for right now. The daily mile to and from the metro saves me $5. Taking breakfast and lunch saves me $10 or more. My hair looks like a factory-floor mop squeezed a few too many times through the rollers because I refuse to put money where the payoff isn’t evident. I hold onto a low-paying job with good benefits and flexible hours so that I can pick up my child at the end of the day and still have time for a conversation with him over dinner. We spend our weekends wandering the woods or roaming the neighborhood, eschewing outings that require a fee. All the small sacrifices, the little denials of indulgence, the hand-kneading of the pizza crust from sourdough starter and hand-making of Christmas gifts, because I believed that simplicity could lead Bug and me to the place we belong.
But what if I’ve been wrong?
What if it is cowardice or stupidity keeping me quiet in my room at night writing poetry? What if contra dancing and nighttime walks are just time – precious, would-be productive hours – tossed in the garbage? What if I have only been avoiding the hard work of launching a real career? A girl’s got to pay the bills. This isn’t a game anymore. I don’t get to make decisions based on what feels good or what compels that tenuous aspect called “spirit” (something, as it so happens, I don’t even believe exists) to roam those lush meadows of the imagination.
And now I wonder what it would take. Which missing part drives me to Oz to tap the source? I fear I lack in every regard. My loose, anemic heart has not loved self or son enough to get past my idle ways. My brain has languished in a vacuous, quasi-childhood of pleasure instead of erecting bridges with industry and precision. And my courage? Never has it been emptier than when I have tried to draw upon it as I lurch towards the lip of necessary change.
Without doggedly pursuing these attributes, why would I expect to find my way anywhere more substantial than Munchkinland? How could I have been so silly as to think I could tap my heels and carry us home?

Career, Growing Up, Happy Days, Home

Happy 100 Days: 40

Less than 48 hours after making the offer on the condo, fear’s icy hands come to drag me down under the churning surface. A closer look at my budget squeezes the air from my lungs. The Wow of this has become the Ugh. What do you call buyer’s remorse before the purchase? Bidder’s remorse, maybe? If this offer is accepted, I have no earthly idea how I am supposed to make ends meet.
This is supposed to be the happy blog. I know. I will try to write my way there now, because nothing else is working. Thinking is getting me nowhere but further down in the cold dark.
Two and a half years ago when Tee’s job went away, all of our possessions went with it. Four-bedroom house, the shed Tee built for our tools and outdoor gear, furniture, appliances. All the little things a family collects over time had to go away, too: bicycles, books, dishes, linens, lamps, sleds, on and on. You can imagine. We sold tons of stuff on Craigslist. A massive yard sale that brought in $1000.
It was a conflagration. It was as complete as embers and ash.
We moved back to where we had started six years earlier. We rented a storage unit after moving in with my folks but soon realized the rent on the space would far outstrip the cost of the items inside. We emptied it, took several trips to Goodwill, and each tucked away what little bundle of marital debris we could manage in our respective borrowed bedrooms.
I had been out of the workforce raising Bug and being a camp wife in the mountains for five years. This set me back on the job hunt but it did not cripple me. In the wretched economy of 2010, I landed a decent job at an entry-level salary and am thankful for it every day. Even so, my paycheck does not stretch far enough to move Bug and me out of dependence on my parents. In those first panicked months of separation from Tee, I realized that no one was going to fix this for me. If I was going to climb out of my financial hole, I had to do it myself (with ample and very blessed help from the folks, of course. No way around that). Three options seemed to be available to me:

  1. Marry a rich guy
  2. Write a best-selling book
  3. Increase my income at my job

Options 1 and 2 were a bit too risky for my taste. I was fresh out of a marriage to someone whose perception of the world had never been based in a reality I recognized. I needed to place my bets on something that depended less on the whims of others. Sure, I would date (eventually) and sure, I would write (erratically), but I was not yet ready to morph into a Kardashian or JK Rowling.
I am a hard worker, though. I can kick ass when I put my mind to something.
Which is what I have done at my job. It helps that I love it and that working in higher ed is a great way to make a contribution while still drawing in decent benefits. I am pleased to note that 2 1/2 years into my job, I have received two small raises, a promotion, and am being encouraged to take on a greater leadership role at the university. My income has not doubled and it may never, but I have seen my effort and courage rewarded well. This gives me every reason to believe that if I keep on finding ways to grow and improve, new opportunities will present themselves.
It is just a little hard to remember all this when I picture being entirely responsible for mortgage and everything else my son will need to grow up safe and well.
A short sale can take somewhere between 90-120 days to close. This gives me a few months to tighten my belt. I think now about re-accumulating these possessions to make a home, and I see how the expense can sink a person. Tee and I took eight years to build up that foundation. It will take far more than that yard-sale $1000 to begin to re-furnish a life. If I move in the next few months, I will have to come up with stores of money I simply do not have to cover payments my parents’ largesse has helped me avoid. You know, those little things like food in the fridge, heat, and electricity.
I keep running and re-running the numbers in my personal budget. Where else can I shave? The internal chatter has been incessant:

If I bike to the metro every day, I don’t have to pay parking or gas. Can we get by on $200 a month in groceries? What about $150? The gym membership can go, of course. We will have to reel in Christmas and birthdays. No more eating out. I don’t need much in the way of new clothes for the next few years, and I know where to find decent used kid stuff. Shoes for Bug could be a problem. The kid needs a new pair every 6 months!

All of this, to make sure Bug and I have a home. It seems insane to do it. It also seems insane not to. With an interest rate of around 3.5% for 30 years in a high-growth area of the DC metro region, this place can be both a good home and a decent investment for our future.  If I can swing it for a couple of spaghetti-years, I may be able to come up with other creative ways to bring in money.
This is where the happiness warms loose the cold grip of fear.The truth is that I have every tool available to me to make this work.

  • I am already frugal to a fault.
  • My years working in a family homeless shelter taught me about resourcefulness.
  • Camp taught me to be creative with spaces and furnishings.
  • The past two years have shown me the extent of my work ethic, creativity, and willingness to try unconventional approaches.
  • I have such a great circle of supportive friends and family, I know we will never be entirely on our own.
  • Bug and I could share a room for a year and find a roommate. I know graduate students and the condo is near a university.
  • With my free weekends and my own home, I could make progress on writing projects that could bring in extra money.
  • As long as I keep my eyes and heart open, something new will present itself to help me along. It always has, and it always does.
  • A home is not the same as having a baby. It is reversible. If I get a few years into this and can’t make ends meet, I can sell. People sell houses all the time. Someone is selling this one to me.

Just because I am tired and scared today and can’t think of how to make this work does not mean it can’t work. I was tired and scared in 2010. I was blind to a way forward. Somehow, we made it here. Here is a really good place to be.
The  future is growing up and around me. Some of it is within my control. A great deal of it is coming here to meet me. I keep learning the lay of the land and how to move over it. Just keep walking, as they say, and the way will appear.


Happy 100 Days: 77

Word from the bank: approved for a loan.
Before rushing off to look at the half-dozen tiny townhouses in the county I can afford, I have to remember to pause and notice this turn of events.
For a home loan!
Bug and I are not stuck after all. At some point in the next three months or three years, the story will change again. It always does. We may stay put, we may move on. The happy truth? We have choices. We have a way forward.
I can provide a home for my son.
A home!


Happy 100 Days: 85

Ten Steps Closer to Home:

  1. Shake off the inertia.
  2. Call upon a generous and excited friend who happens to love real estate.
  3. Sketch out the picture of what you want, not just what you can manage.
  4. Choose to create an anchor for your family in a place you want to be.
  5. Look beyond the boundaries.
  6. Find a few places that give you the giggles.
  7. Skim mortgage lending sites.
  8. Click for quotes.
  9. Hatch a plan.
  10. Begin.