I Thought Childbirth Was Hard. Then I Tried to Buy a House.
We make enough money for the houses we want to buy—but in this lopsided market, that’s not enough.
I’m not a money guru. Just ask my husband. We have our fair share of debt (shout out to liberal arts degrees we’re DEFINITELY USING and also Whole Foods), and I probably spend more money on unbudgeted novelty beverages than I do on our monthly utilities (shout out to my kids for being the youngest caffeine enablers in history). Erratic spending habits notwithstanding (shout out to the underwriters processing our mortgage), I thought we had our stuff together enough to buy a decent (read: small and not infested) home in a moderately desirable neighborhood.
I wasn’t wrong, but I wasn’t exactly right.
As my husband and I prepare to close on our second home, I’m nostalgic for 2013, when house hunting was more like a game of Candy Land than Black Friday at the Mall of America. Not only were interest rates at an all time low; it seemed like charming single-family homes with midcentury features grew on trees. Or at least around them.
DINKs at the time (albeit irresponsible DINKs in entry-level jobs) were shocked to discover we had been pre-approved for up to $200,000 — we felt like kids in a candy shop, except all the candy was 24 carat gold. By some stroke of luck, we got the first house we offered on, in the neighborhood we wanted, for under asking price, and somehow made friends with the sellers in the process (who also happened to be DINKs).
We felt like we were doing everything right—and then realized we maybe shouldn’t have bought a home at all. When we had our first baby in 2014 and I haphazardly quit my day job, we suddenly couldn’t afford our mortgage. So we rented the place out (and eventually sold it), moved into an apartment, and assumed the market we vacated would be waiting for us when we were ready to hop back in.
Fast forward to 2017: We’re two kids deep, somehow still sans minivan, and itching to get a place with a backyard so our boys will actually nap. My husband has had a few promotions since we last bought, so he makes quite a bit more money, and though I still stay at home with my youngest, I’ve set up a nice little freelance writing gig for myself. Still, we don’t have much to show for it, except maybe the sad swells of purple under our eyes (shoutout to house hunting with two kids in tow). On paper we make enough money to snag a house we like in the neighborhoods we want to live in—but in this lopsided market, that’s not enough.
We live in Minneapolis, where houses have drastically increased in price alongside growing demand, and, consequently, waning inventory.
Twin Cities housing market expected to tighten more in 2017
With homes still in limited supply and buyers' demand not wavering, signs continue to point to a tighter Twin Cities…
We’re also a two-income family that is technically viewed as a one-income family when it comes to getting a mortgage. Though my writing income can vary from month to month, it’s fairly predictable, and we were expecting to get a higher pre-approval rate because of it. But it turns out you need more than sheer dollar bills to purchase a home. You need two years of tax returns from your current income, which I don’t have — I only started freelancing this year.
So we were faced with a choice:
- Stay in our tiny city apartment, save up for a bigger down payment, and hope the market doesn’t turn on us, OR
- Use the small savings we currently have to lock in a decent mortgage rate in a very stressful housing market, on my husband’s income alone.
As usual, we chose FOMO. And we’re paying for it, literally.
$275,000 may sound like a lot — and in 2013, it was. We probably could have bought a lakeside McMansion with all imported everything. But this time, the market is not so friendly. $275,000 — if we’re lucky — can get us a fair 3-bedroom home in a hip neighborhood, or a hip 3-bedroom home in a fair neighborhood.
I thought pregnancy and birth were emotionally taxing, but that was before I experienced the Minneapolis housing market in 2017. The MLS on the morning of hot new listings is worse than a suburban mall on iPhone release day. They should honestly make a video game out of it. We would see a house come up, call our realtor, cancel all our plans, and cart our two screaming kids to a house where they would try to dump out bins of other children’s toys, only to find out the home already had multiple offers. If we only had my income to cushion us, we could engage in bidding wars (another good video game idea), but we just couldn’t afford to play that game.
After viewing over 20 houses and unsuccessfully offering on three (I even wrote those cheesy offer letters!), it felt like we were running out of options. We entertained renting for another few years, but research told us the market wouldn’t improve, and neither would our projected monthly payment. Things were looking grim, and we began to wonder if buying another home was a distant dream.
Until we decided to explore the suburbs. Only seven miles outside the city, but light years away from the housing market as we knew it. In a decidedly unhip yet peaceful and thereby hella alluring first-ring suburb, our pre-approval amount translated into something magical: the ability to engage in bidding wars and the simultaneous freedom of not having to.
The market, though it wasn’t exactly the one we knew as status-hungry newlyweds in 2013, was much more docile two exits out of Minneapolis. A month into our search (in housing years, that’s like half a decade), we found a sweet little home with a big backyard just two or three highway exits from downtown. It smells like Glade potpourri and the carpet to hardwood ratio is a little off balance, but it will afford us two kinds of peace: a quiet, slower life and the knowledge that we did what’s best for our little family in a trying situation.
If you’d had told me in 2013 we’d be Minneapolis expats by 2017, I’d have spit out my rosé all over my J.Crew blouse. But making this choice — staying within the confines of what we can actually afford without compromising the things we want and need — feels exactly right. Our one-income mortgage didn’t buy us the future we’d have crafted for ourselves, but isn’t that part of the fun? Maybe we’ll move back to the city someday; for now, I’ll take my Applebee’s (and my big yard, finished basement, and low property taxes) and eat it too.
Ashley Abramson is a freelance writer who works and lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two young sons. You can find her on Twitter @ashleyabrmsn.