The Hunt for a Place of My Own

by Janelle Sheetz

“You have six months to find your own place,” my godmother, Kimmie, says.

She doesn’t approve of my move into a house on Mt. Washington with three roommates — all of whom are in college except for me. She insists that I’m at a different place in my life and need to live by myself, even when I tell her that they keep decent, normal hours and don’t party often or during the week.

But six months later, my fairy godmother gets her wish when my roommate Diana and her boyfriend get engaged and decide to move out.

We all have about a month to find new apartments, which I think will be easy.

My cousin Meredith asks me if I’d mind living with her and her boyfriend, downsizing to a three-person apartment sans Diana, and I’m fine with this as long as they are. But Meri hates the house she tours and I trust her judgment, and soon the couple finds their own little house on Mt. Washington.

I’m aiming to stay on Mt. Washington, too — the move would be easy with little to no real changes in my daily life and commute — but the house I plan to tour gets scooped up by another couple hours before my appointment.

An apartment complex near the South Hills sounds promising, but my mother’s former boss is familiar with the area and says it’s often in the newspaper for drug-related shootings. My mother calls me just in time, right as I’m planning to call the property manager and sign a lease.

Time and house furnishings dwindle. Meredith and her boyfriend slowly move their things to their new house, as do Diana and her fiancé, and we three girls spend an afternoon on our empty, wooden dining-room floor divvying up Tupperware containers and random dishes left behind by the previous tenants. Our landlord says to take what we want, so we evenly divide wine glasses and shot glasses. Meredith and I play rock-paper-scissors for a set of multicolored glasses we both like, thinking it pointless to break up the set.

I’m left with a week, so my parents rent a U-Haul — either we’ll need it to haul things to my new apartment I have yet to find, or we’ll need it to haul things back to my empty bedroom at my parents’ house.

I do not want to move back to my parents’ house.

Mostly I don’t want to go back to the hour-plus commute to work, and I’ve also enjoyed my freedom. Three roommates was a good starter apartment, and with my bedroom in a secluded, finished section of the basement, I could pretty much do what I wanted. Rent split four ways was cheap, so I splurged too much on groceries and things I didn’t need. Moving back home would save me money, but the thought makes me desperate.

Friends and roommates ask why I don’t get a place with my boyfriend, but he has summer classes to finish before he graduates and no job offers. I don’t want to rely on his income when I don’t know how much that’ll be, or even if he’ll get a job nearby. Plus he’s not comfortable with living together. He still gets pangs of Catholic guilt — cohabitation before marriage being sinful and all — and his parents wouldn’t be happy. He cares about both these things more than I do. And as the oldest of six kids, we both think it’s important for him to have a place that’s just his for a while.

Most importantly, we’ve spent most of our relationship at separate schools on opposite ends of the state, and we figure moving in together so quickly would be a surefire way to cause tension and spark a breakup.

On Monday, a week before our lease is up, I find a listing for an apartment 20 minutes from my job and 30 to 45 minutes from the city, depending on location and traffic. On Wednesday, my mother meets me there for a tour. I don’t like the brown carpet, but the rent is the cheapest I can find, the area isn’t horrible, and the size and quality is good enough for me, so I sign the lease and my mom cosigns, since I don’t make enough money to meet the income requirement. On Friday, I move in.

I pack up my bedroom (again) and lead our caravan with my car full of stuff. My brother follows in his car full of my stuff and our parents tail in the U-Haul full of my big stuff, and I’m amazed (again) at just how much I’ve accumulated in 23 years. I guide us into rush-hour traffic on the parkway, and my dad tells us later that my mom was nervous watching my brother and me merging into it, but says we did it expertly.

“I don’t like this place,” I hear my dad whisper to my brother. “People are watching us.”

Of course they’re watching us, I think — we’re carrying furniture and boxes full of stuff right along a main road in the middle of the evening.

He says a guy told him the street behind me is notorious for drug deals and prostitution, but I say it’s not much different from where we’re from and where they still live — Fayette County, notorious on local radio stations for its frequent bizarre crime and nickname, “Fayettenam.” Fayette County is where I witnessed drug deals and saw prostitutes on the street as I left ballet class as a kid, where one nearby street was so famous for prostitution that a man put up a sign that said, “No Ho Zone” and it made the news.

Most of my new neighbors seem to be elderly or college kids — not much of a threat.

Still, it’s the first time I doubt my decision to move in, and my dad insists on setting aside a day to take a gun-safety course and go gun shopping.

I don’t exactly disagree or resist.

I moved in so fast that I don’t have a stove, internet, or even electricity, so I stay with my parents for a few days until the power is turned on.

When I do spend my first night alone, I don’t feel like I’m in a place that’s mine — I feel like I’m in a hotel. I have trouble sleeping in unfamiliar places, so I take melatonin.

I’ve spent most of my money on the first month’s rent, and my mom paid the last month’s rent required of her as the cosigner plus security deposit. I now owe her about $1,200. I have very little left in my bank account to last until payday.

I open my fridge for a snack and see how empty it is.

I start to cry.

Maybe I’ve made a huge mistake. Maybe I actually can’t afford to support myself — at least not without roommates to split the costs — and maybe I should’ve just moved back home and saved money.

I feel overwhelmed.

A few weeks after I move in, I get a promotion at work. I’m still living paycheck to paycheck, but covering my expenses is getting a little easier, and I can even put away a little to save.

I’m no longer completely broke between paychecks.

I’ve also gradually started to feel like the apartment is mine — I like the freedom to do what I want when I want, which usually means not wearing pants.

“Don’t you get lonely?” a soon-to-be-married friend asks.

I don’t.

This story is part of our Real Estate Month series.

Janelle Sheetz is a 20-something closed-captioner by day, writer by night, in the Pittsburgh area. She currently writes regularly for Examiner.com and AXS.com. Keep up with her on Twitter.

Photo: Turkeychik