My Sunday afternoon conversations of late have gone something like this:
Husband: “This window has a broken seal, but the basement seems dry.”
Me: “I’m pretty sure she’s a lesbian. She teaches at the U. and she just won some kind of research award.” Or:
Husband: “There’s no way this is 1200 square feet.”
Me: Does everyone have one of those awful freestanding Zen fountains now?
Feeling that our lives were getting too stress-free, we decided to buy a house in what is said to be the most inflated housing market between the coasts. It is certainly one of the most fevered. Everyone has a story to tell us. There are the houses that sell after being on the market an hour. The millionaires who buy houses in our price range, tear them down, and put up $400,000 fake Tudors in their place, dwarfing the rest of the neighborhood. The people who drive past a house for sale, call the realtor on their car phone, and make an offer before they reach the end of the street. I heard about one seller who gathered the five highest bidders in his living room, passed out paper and envelopes for second bids, and announced the winner right there, Agatha Christie-style. Telling first-time home buyers these stories is kind of like telling a first-time expectant mother about your twenty hours of back labor, but people can’t seem to resist.
In spite of all this, we decided to buy a house. It’s a good investment. We need a big fenced yard for our hypothetical dog to play in. My husband needs a real studio because his paintings are growing mold in the basement. One of us turned thirty, and it’s starting to look like I might someday too. I’m in some weird hormonal state where Martha Stewart projects are starting to look reasonable, so I need walls of my own to sponge-paint, and it’s going to take me two years to stencil the walls of the hypothetical baby’s room, so I need to start right now. There has been talk of growing roses. Also, shopping for a house would allow us to amuse each other with comments about the books and wallpaper of others, and laughter is important to a marriage.
So we got a realtor and started looking at houses. Almost right away we found the perfect house, and made a full-price offer three hours after it went on the market, because this is Ann Arbor and you do not get to take a day to think about the most important purchase of your life. And we found that three other buyers had beat us to it, and that two of them had offered fifteen percent more than the asking price. And then we got very gloomy and snappish with each other, because when you’ve offered someone $150,000 practically on the spot it seems rude of them to turn you down. But that’s late-1990s Ann Arbor, where “No Scab Labor” bumper stickers decorate the Saabs. Our realtor, who had a habit of referring to the vacation home he’d sold so-and-so, kept trying. One message he left for us went like this, more or less verbatim: “There’s a house on Sunset you should see. It’s not nearly as nice as the house you tried to buy, but you could fix it up, sell it in two years, and get a house you really like!” Another time he called us about a house that sounded great, except that “I think they’re dealing drugs next door.” John and I realized that though we had once been young and fun and hip, we no longer thought it would be nifty or even convenient to live next door to drug dealers.
“We have real money to spend,” I said to John. “Why he is acting like we should apply to Habitat for Humanity?” I started doing research on what our money would buy in other cities. It would buy much, much more. “I hate it here anyway,” I said. “It’s so vegan.”
“Still, I don’t think Gary, Indiana is the answer,” John said.
We got a new realtor and kept looking. We saw gorgeous little dollhouses and houses with smoke stains around all the outlets and one enormous place we called the Mousetrap after the children’s board game. The owner of the Mousetrap had started remodeling or redecorating every single room in the house and then had apparently been abducted by aliens before he could finish even one. My husband got the flu and watched seven straight hours of home improvement shows and decided we should buy the Mousetrap and turn it into a mansion. “I’ll do it on weekends,” he said, slightly glazed with fever. Fortunately a professional carpenter beat us to it, although even he later changed his mind.
We did see several houses that would have worked just fine for us. They had enough bedrooms and big kitchens, and the neighbors weren’t using Confederate flags as curtains. We would walk around these houses noting that they met all our criteria and were in our price range, and then we would go back to the car feeling sort of blank and guilty because we just didn’t like them. Now, I have a tendency to grab at the good-enough, for fear that God will get pissed off if I don’t show sufficient gratitude for whatever dead-end job or unbearable boyfriend he’s laid before me. “So, Star Trek guy isn’t good enough for Little Miss Priss!” I used to imagine him saying. “Let’s see how you like this one.” I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to make sure God wouldn’t give me something worse than Star Trek guy. But a few years ago I tried an experiment. I had just been offered a job more or less in my field. It was a good job, better than the one I had, and naturally I was planning to accept it, because who was I to say no to a good job? Except as I drove home from the second interview, a voice inside me kept saying, more or less, “Yuck!” Could I really turn down a job for being yucky? I thought. Surely that would mark me forever as an ingrate, a suburban princess. When my father was angry at me he used to say, “Do you think the world owes you a living?” That’s a strange question to ask a second-grader, but I heard it loud and clear. I’m still hearing it, and I’m still trying to prove I don’t expect too much. I guess I was feeling defiant that day, because I turned the job down without explanation or apology, and within a week I had the job I really wanted. (You should be careful what you wish for, but that’s another column.)
Anyway, since then I’ve made a practice of turning down jobs I know in advance I will hate, and I decided it was okay not to spend a massive sum of money on a house I didn’t like. So we kept looking. And one Saturday afternoon our realtor unlocked the front door of a big blue Dutch Colonial and all three of us said, more or less, “Jesus Christ.”
The one thing you don’t want to do around here is find the house you were born to own, because you will never get it. I believed this until our offer was accepted, and then I believed the inspection would be a bloodbath. And when the house was pronounced as fit as any octagenarian could be, I realized the bank had made a horrible mistake in pre-approving our loan. While we waited (ten days!) for underwriting to say we could really have the money, I developed a little flutter in my right eyelid. The many medical books I consulted said it was due to tension or fatigue. I had a feeling it was a brain tumor, but there was no time to think about that until we’d closed on the house. To distract myself from my pitiful yuppie problems I saw lots of movies, which is how it came to pass that I sat through the Patch Adams preview six times and realized there is truly nothing I can’t survive. By the time our mortgage representative called to say our loan was finally, wholeheartedly approved, my first impulse wasn’t to drink champagne or call my friends, but simply to take a nap.
So next month we and
our hypothetical dogs and babies are going to move into a real, grown-up
house, and I will no doubt starting cooking casseroles or at least buying
them. Of course, our problems aren’t over yet. We need about $50,000 dollars
worth of new furniture to go with the house, and I’m worried about the
prospect of mowing the lawn—as reparation for shabby treatment since the
beginning of time, women ought to at least be exempt from yardwork. But
we’ve survived the worst of it, and I guarantee that no one strolling past
our home a year from now will hear a woman’s voice screaming, “At least
you don’t have a tic!”
Write "Ellavon" at email@example.com.
Released: January 14, 1999.