This summer, my wife and I bought our first house. It was a great moment for us. But really, it was an accident.
I don’t mean that it was an accident in the sense that we’d gone down to Bed Bath and Beyond to pick up some new bath towels and came home with a three bedroom cape and some land. I mean that we hadn’t planned to buy our first house this summer.
I most certainly had planned to ask my wife to marry me back in December, and we knew we wanted to get married within the year. We didn’t want to be one of those couples who drag out their engagement for four or five years while haggling over every detail of the wedding, such as what color the groomsmen’s boxer shorts should be (light blue, obviously — why do couples fight over this stuff?) only to, like a glider with the wind suddenly gone, crash to earth and divorce once we no longer had wedding haggling to support us. We’d marry in late June, hold the reception at our rental home, honeymoon for two weeks, then spend the rest of the summer — for me — trying to get used to saying “my wife” instead of “my fiancee” (or “my girlfriend,” which I still hadn’t broken myself of). Buying our first house — something we’d taken a number of serious steps toward doing, such as discussing it, would have to wait.
It’s not like we didn’t want to buy a house. It’s just that we didn’t want to buy a house in a town whose daylight features, even after almost three years, were basically unfamiliar to us. Since we both worked more than an hour from home — in opposite directions — we’d hoped to wait out closer job offers before ultimately splitting a more reasonable difference and purchasing our first home wherever that might be. Buying a house was about much more than doing yardwork or roof repair — it was about making the kind of adult compromise that you have to live with. Sort of like voting in the current election. And just like voting for Jill Stein, renting seemed like a way that we could shirk that responsibility, while not feeling too guilty. We just weren’t ready, we told ourselves.
But sometimes what it takes to finally force a decision is good, old-fashioned terror — or at least a deadline. I’m not talking about serious duress — like when you’re flying a plane with 155 people on board and suddenly both engines blow out and you’ve got about twelve seconds to either set it down in the Hudson and hope everything stays buoyant, or try to make it back to LaGuardia and risk turning Teaneck into a smoking crater if you come up short. I’m not talking about facing duress like Tom Hanks in that new movie “Sully.” Which by the way was my first visit to the movies since two years ago when — speaking of duress — I saw that sappy John Green film in the hopes of finding out what my students were into and realized I was the only person in the theater who a) did not have a crush on the main actor, b) could legally drive, and c) was not weeping uncontrollably by the end of the opening credits. Why did I go see that? Having to buy a house on short notice was nothing like that.
What it was like was unexpected. One minute I was busying myself with pre-wedding planning (that’s a lie — my wife did the heavy lifting; I was sitting around on the couch trying to remember the lyrics to “Regulators”). The next minute I was staring open-mouthed at an email from my realtor saying that, basically, due to a slight breakdown in communication, nope, we could not renew our lease. He wanted us out of the house on June 1st, just a few weeks before our wedding. What happened was that when I’d suggested to him, back in January in a fit of optimism, that we might be interested in looking at houses to buy, I’d meant “not really, but humor me and throw me a few leads.” He’d read, “Go ahead, sell our rental and buy yourself that yacht.”
After a few rounds of begging and pleading and what I call “playing the wedding card,” our realtor agreed to let us stay through mid-summer — enough time to hold the wedding at home, but not much more than that. That’s when we realized: we didn’t want to lug our belongings into another rental, only to be shewed out again in twelve months. It was time to buy our first home.
While it technically wasn’t the biggest, most life-altering decision a human being has ever faced (that would be deciding what to wear every morning during middle school), it was still daunting. We didn’t want to become one of those hapless couples who blunder into buying a house they can’t afford and end up evicted and living in a Camaro behind the Try ‘N’ Save. We didn’t want our sheepish faces turning up on commercials for shady real estate lawyers who “helped us get back some of what we lost, so stupidly.” We wanted to be smart.
Besides, one major life milestone per summer was enough. Most years, I hadn’t had any. My biggest achievement last summer was biking from my house to Cannon ski area and back with only one stop for ice cream. This summer was going to be big enough already without a For Sale sign.
And the commitment of buying! I wasn’t ready. One minute we’d be carefree renters — phoning up our landlord to come over and hose off a squashed bug on our deck; the next minute we’d be grizzled home owners, like Clint Eastwood in “Gran Torino,” shaking our bony fists at the neighborhood kids: “Get off my lawn!” and trying to save money by rewiring our own electrical outlets. Or worse: we’d start making everyone take their shoes off. We could NOT become those people.
But life — and surprise emails from your realtor — have a way of forcing your hand. And if there’s one thing I learned in more than a decade as a whitewater kayaker, it’s that when things get rough, you just have to go with the flow. If there’s another thing I learned as a kayaker, it’s that if nobody will ride in your car, it’s not because they don’t like you, but because your car smells like the Potomac River. So go with the flow we did. But we made sure to keep our wet gear in the trunk.
It took us a few weeks to start going with the flow. During Week One I did everything I could to walk upstream. But soon it was Time to Move Forward: find a new house, or start scouting bank ATMs with soft carpeting. We had to move quickly. Suddenly there was no time to waste with the airy wish-list items for a first home that we’d idly tossed back and forth during car trips (hot tub and sauna, retractable roof like the old Texas Stadium, drawbridge and moat with alligators). Very quickly we had to clarify exactly what we could live without (the moat, but not the alligators).
So we got practical. Having grown up in a house that predated the U.S. Constitution, and strongly advised by my parents *not* to buy a fixer-upper unless I was entirely clear-eyed about the process, or entirely insane, I knew better than to take on some latter-day Tara with the idea of restoring it to past glory. My wife and I — both educators by day, inclined to see the latent potential in all young people — became cold-eyed realists around houses. Our realtor would chirp on about the beauty of some new home we were visiting. “Sure, sure,” we’d say dismissively, “lovely trim and all that. Let’s talk about the septic system.” The sight of some newly-repurposed building housing a new charity to feed homeless war orphans merited no more than a head shake from us: “That roof’s got two years. Tops.” Or some beautiful, rolling pasture for sale: “Twelve acres in Bethlehem? Good luck with those property taxes.” At one point I became so fixated on the details of our negotiation that I found myself wondering, “Now what would Donald Trump do here?” That was when I knew: if we didn’t work this out soon, forget buying a house — I might actually live out my days in a padded cell.
But I’m not committed. Nor am I typing this from a cot at the St. Johnsbury YMCA. We found a house. Not only that, we found a beautiful house in far better shape and for less money than we imagined. Would the process have gone better if we’d had the five or six months to prepare, as we’d planned? I can’t imagine that it would.
There’s one last story I want to tell. Right as we were moving in — the moving van was still in the driveway — a door on the second floor of the garage that we’d opened to pass items straight into storage heaved and buckled and then ripped right out of the wall. We hadn’t unloaded our bed yet and I already had my first home repair project. I looked at the broken mess — the ancient hinges, the rotting wood — and asked myself: Am I really ready for this? Then I went into the garage and opened up the tools my father had given me back when I was still renting, when I never thought I’d need them. I opened them up, took out the old hammer, and went to work. After a few trips to the hardware store, a few trips up and down my new step ladder, and an hour in the sun cursing under my breath as I worked — and I had the door reattached. It was different than being a renter: this time I was somehow working toward our future. Until then I hadn’t been sure I was ready for home ownership. Turns out I was — and all it took was an accidental home purchase.