The last time I bought a house was 1979, and things were wildly different. For one thing, it wasn't just me: there were three of us, though we didn't expect the baby to ante up anything towards the closing costs. For another, Jimmy Carter was President, and if you remember nothing else about Jimmy Carter's Presidency, you remember inflation. We were paying 9.9 percent interest, and thought we were getting away with the greatest deal since AMC started dropping V8s into the Pacer.

Now it's almost a quarter-century later, the baby owns her own house, her younger brother is on a lease/purchase program, and here I am, shopping for real estate again. And if I felt clueless then, I am absolutely bewildered now. There are enough incomprehensible disclosures to fill up an annual report at Enron, once-inviolable debt ratios have acquired the flexibility of Mary Lou Retton, and prices, at least as I know them, are way, way out of sight: despite three or four iterations of the classic boom/bust cycle, absolutely the cheapest equivalent of the house we had in 1979 — three bedrooms, 1.5 baths, two-car garage, den tacked on to the back, enclosed back porch, scary-looking outbuilding, 1500 or so square feet — sells for almost exactly twice the price today, and that's in a neighborhood we rejected out of hand back then. (To be fair, I should point out that what was once our neighborhood has deteriorated somewhat as well.)

I don't, of course, need 1500 square feet. My current Meager Hovel is about two-thirds that size, and it's all I can do to keep up with the cleaning, though I can always blame it on work hours, which are either long or longer. What I really want is a ceiling that vibrates only when the Air Force passes overhead, and a place to park my car that's defined by something more than a couple of yellow lines. And apparently I'm willing to pay dearly for these amenities. The prequalification process at Mysterious Rival Bank (this isn't the place I've banked for the past 25 years, owing at least partly to Basket Egg-Distribution Syndrome) suggests I'm good for about 2.5 times what the perfunctory online calculators claim; in some ways this is good — I don't have to settle for something that looks like a backdrop on the evening news in Basra or Detroit — but the last thing I need is to be encouraged to spend a whole lot of money. Especially a whole lot of money I don't actually have.

But dammit, this has to be done. The fistful of rent receipts from the past two decades isn't even useful for kindling. And while I'm not obsessing over future property-value increases — unless I win the lottery or actually live long enough to retire, this is the last move I ever intend to make — I must note that we sold that first house after three years for 47 percent more than we paid for it, which, if nothing else, proves Jimmy Carter might have been good for something after all.

The Vent

#360
10 October 2003

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