I Look at Houses the Way Some Men Look at Cars

Lately, as I drive around, I find myself peering out the windows at houses. In my mind, I’m practically moving myself into other people’s lives: I’m painting their walls, arranging my chaise longue in a picture window, setting up my son’s room; I’m hanging my artwork, replanting window boxes with blue and yellow pansies, and putting in gardens on their front lawns. And I keep thinking: How did they do it? And, more painfully and pointedly, Why can’t I give my kid a house? 

Ever since the recession, it seems that my husband, Dan, and I have been shut out of this aspect of the American dream. As the years go by and our child gets bigger, and we still haven’t been able to buy a home we can call our own, we feel that pain even more keenly. 

When I was growing up, I thought a house would be just a given: I’d get married, have a child, and buy a house. (To be honest, I thought I’d get rich, too, which certainly never happened, though lots of other rewarding things have.) I think part of my belief — that a house would be something that I was just entitled to, something I could give my child without too much duress — came from the fact that I grew up in a house that my parents owned. Before I was born, my mom and dad bought a sixty-acre wood lot on the coast of Maine, with a small house on it, for seven thousand dollars. Later, when I was in the second grade, they moved us to another town and built a modest house there. It didn’t seem hard, really — the house part of it. Lots of other things were hard for them, but giving us a house was not. 

But these days, with the cost of real estate being what it is (and the prices are high still — recession or not — for a young family that is just trying to make it paying for groceries, child care, bills — the basics), and with the difficulty of getting a home loan on good terms (despite the incredibly low interest rates, it’s very hard right now to get a mortgage) there are many of us who have come to a dead end in the rental market. According to the National Multi Housing Council, 32 percent of Americans reside in homes they rent rather than own, and of that group, 37 percent are in my and Dan’s age bracket, from 30 to 44 years old. 

The irony is that young families, locked out of home ownership by a bad economy, are actually the key to helping turn the economy around. Home owners, after all, stimulate the economy by making home improvements. And I believe that if people could count on the basic security of owning a home, they would be more likely to be productive in the world: Just affording people the small safeguard of a home and the power of a little bit of equity gives them not only a leg up in the world, but also a lifeline. The feeling of fundamental well-being that comes from owning something — knowing it’s yours — and therefore wanting to invest your sweat (or hired-and-tipped) equity into it, should not be underestimated. 

Last week, in a moment of hopeful hopelessness, I called a friend of a friend who’s a real-estate broker to ask her if she knew of any sellers who might be willing to offer financing to a buyer directly, so that we could just bypass the banks altogether. However, she said that it’s unlikely these days to find someone open to unconventional deals; the sellers just don’t need to. The market is picking back up. On the other hand, she said, the banks are now asking many of her buyer clients for 50 to 60 percent down, which is simply impossible for most people. I know what she’s talking about, because Dan and I have also been told that’s how much we’d need — we’re freelancers without regular W-2 income. Yet paradoxically, it would be much easier for us to pay a mortgage than to pay rent, because rental costs have ballooned in a full-on landlord market. Step by step, we feel squeezed further and further away from our dream. 

Now, with the market turning to the side of sellers, and houses on offer moving with such alacrity, Dan and I feel like we’ve been sidelined from a game that we don’t even have the right shoes for. Houses I dreamed about last week are gone this week, and the life I imagined myself into last month is already someone else’s. That someone else is planting her own pink petunias in the window boxes. 

And it’s not just here in Maine. In parts of California, the number of homes available for sale below 300 thousand dollars has fallen by more that 50 percent. Nationwide,according to realtor.com, inventory has decreased in all but 11 of 146 markets. This effectively means that there are fewer homes for sale — which puts home buyers in a one-down position. The S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices estimates that home prices rose by 10.2 percent in the last four quarters. JP Morgan Chase predicted last December that home prices will rise between 3.4 and 9.7 percent in 2013. (Freddie Mac, the government-controlled loan purchaser, predicted a more modest gain of 2.3 percent for 2013.) 

The thing is, when I’m driving around, with my kid in the backseat, listening to Greg Brown sing the oddly prescient “Someday House” (which my son likes to call “Some Gray House,” as if he were willing to take any old gray house, but just get us a house, Mama!) on the stereo, I let my imagination take me inside everything from modest capes to tiny hovels on the side of the road that need some major fixing up. Greg Brown is singing, “I’m living in a someday house, I’m here and I’m there…” and I’m thinking that I’m not too proud to own just about anything — if we could just get ourselves a house that wouldn’t be so much of an energy and money pit that it kills us. 

I’m still hopeful that it will happen. But just now, as summer blooms, I’m trying to boil down my desires to the essentials. And I keep thinking that maybe a garden would suffice in the meantime. I’d like to be able to walk out of my house and pick some herbs or a few tomatoes for dinner, walk back inside, and feed my family. I want to be able to sink my hands deep into dirt — my dirt, even if it’s only three hundred feet of an earthen strip along the side of the road — and know I belong. Just a little plot, to tide me over until I find some gray, blue, yellow, or any damn house.