The plan has always been to buy a house. I’ve been saving somewhat obsessively for one for the last six years, but it’s always been something to get around to eventually, sometime in the undisclosed future.
And then I turned 30 and somehow in the place where rom-coms have been telling me my biological clock is located (next to anxiety over societal norms, just past deeply seated insecurities) a time bomb began ticking. But instead of putting my ovaries in a twist for baby-mania, the pressing biological need was to buy a house of my own. I want to spread out and nest in something that exceeds 900 square feet. I want to paint walls, bastardize a subway tile backsplash, and have an existential crisis over the best ways to fence a yard for my obnoxious barking dogs. The time had come—I needed to buy a house.
Of course, if you’re as obsessive as I am and stuck in your own head, this is not something that magically occurs overnight. It started innocuously enough, I’d get bored and hop on Zillow and despair that I’d never be able to afford something in the Northern Virginia area. I’d read a few years back about a law in the U.K. that was discussing limiting mortgage qualifications to three times someone’s salary so there wouldn’t be a housing bubble burst again. Somehow this stuck in my head, and when I multiplied my salary by three it bought me a meth shack in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. Despite having savings for a down payment, I was skeptical it would get me approved for a high-enough mortgage to buy house in the ‘burbs. Mortgage calculators did little to ease this despair.
I decided to try something novel, something anti-millennial, something so outside of my hermit “I can find any information at the tip of my fingertips” personality that I’m still astounded. I made an appointment at the bank. I walked in and had diarrhea of the mouth and babbled how much I made, what I’ve got in savings, my credit score, and promised I could prove that I’d paid off my car. Then from between my fingers I said, “Lay it on me: Will I ever be able to buy a house?” My financial adviser (whose title made me feel wealthier already) laughed at me and told me to throw out some figures of what I’d want to spend on a house. Through some kind of mathematical wizardry he input gibberish into his computer and out came a mortgage payment and down payment well under what I was expecting. Astounded and thrilled by this woo-woo banking mysticism I made him try increasingly higher figures until I finally yelled “Yahtzee!” and had a workable figure from which my new obsession could hinge upon.
From there it only escalated. I downloaded the Zillow and Redfin apps on the way home. I signed up for open house emails. I created five different saved searches on each account. I started checking the apps every morning before work and immediately thereafter. Soon it became a stress management technique. Bad day at work? Check for houses. Dog driving me bonkers? Check for houses. Break a nail? Check for houses. At this point I’m fairly certain that I’ve seen a slideshow of every single house within a 60-mile radius within 100k of my price range.
But through this house hunting I’ve learned a thing or two.
1. The people on House Hunters are even more unbearable than you think.
When you start seeing what the average house looks like, you quickly comprehend the vast majority of people are tasteless and generic. If I had a dollar for every brown-on-brown-on-brown room or backyard with not one, not two, but five different types of fencing in it, I’d be able to move up a tax bracket. The likelihood of finding any house, even new construction, that is perfectly tailored to your design aesthetic or that checks off every box (and fits in your price range) is impossible. These people strutting around disdaining carpet (yes, it’s dirty, we get it, rip it out) or throwing fits about their starter home (for which they have a budget of ~$50,000) not having granite countertops are delusional.
2. Remove expectations from sphincter, then house hunt.
As House Hunters has taught us, you really need to lower your expectations and have a reasonable list of “must-haves”, “nice-to-haves”, and “I-could-fix-it-myself-haves”. For example I’m not keen on unpainted kitchen cabinets. Ideally I want white or grey cabinets, but if I wait to find a house that has one, I’m going to be in the market for ages. And guess what? I can paint them myself. Granite or butcher block countertops are nice, but a bathtub is non-negotiable. For me, I want a porch, deck, or sunroom because those are expensive to put in yourself and I work from home. I want a getaway space. A fence is something I have to have, but I can get that installed. If Fixer Upper and Rehab Addict have taught me anything, it’s the importance of seeing the potential of houses and also knowing your limits.
3. You suddenly assert your opinions most assuredly for someone your age.
Things that have actually come out of my mouth since this has begun: “Sucks to suck that you bought before the bubble burst, suckers, I ain’t paying that much for your ugly ass house.” “Who lets their kids poop in the only bathroom during an open house?” “Well, that has to go immediately.” Somehow through the act of viewing a few houses, I have become not only an expert in the Washington, D.C., housing market, but also someone who isn’t afraid to speak my mind, at least in the private and far away from home owners. Not that I’ve ever had a problem with opinions, but house hunting has made me a lot more self-assured. This is the biggest decision of my adult life so far, so I feel entitled to my snarky-ass thoughts. While you don’t have to be an impossible-to-please prick throughout the process, it is important to figure out what really matters and what can make or break a living situation. It’s your money on the line, and no one else. So speak up. Just don’t berate the realtor; it’s not their fault these have mysterious brown stains on their walls.
4. You get super realistic about your future aspirations real fast.
When you’re looking online and dabbling in the house hunt, things like a pool or that fourth bedroom seem super important. Or, on the flip side, you think “Yeah, I can totally live in this burning trashcan. That will totally work out. I’m not picky.” But you, friend, are wrong. Once you start stepping foot in house after house and thinking realistically about the money you’re putting into it, one of two things happen: You go, “Why the hell do I need a third library? I don’t even read anything other than Buzzfeed articles on my phone,” and you suddenly can limit your search. Or alternatively, you get filled with a special type of rage only reserved for real estate deals, wherein you think, “Fuck this burning trashcan. If I’m going to mortgage my first three children away, I’m going to buy a house with a goddamn kitchen and room to grow.” You learn a lot about yourself—and what you want from life.
5. You’re suddenly that person who antiques on the weekend and talks about the real estate market.
There’s nothing quite so adult feeling as feeling elation at your credit score or getting approved for a mortgage. It’s on par with getting into college, equal parts elation and the crushing weight of debt sucking the air from your lungs. It’s great, but terrifying. Your friends buy a house and all you can ask is, “What were your closing prices?” and “Did you get a fixed rate?” You start frantically going to tag sales and buying furniture and increasing your kitchen supplies because there’s no point in buying a house if you can’t fill it.
Where my shopping brain used to consist of tea and “Is that Kate Spade bag 80 percent off yet?” it’s now nothing but square footage and mortgage rates. Somedays I feel I’m half a step from reading The Wall Street Journal and checking stocks on an app on my phone. Pretty soon I’ll be thinking about life insurance and whether or not I’ll ever write that novel instead of contemplating whether today is the day I’ll actually put on pants. It’s a strange adult world, and apparently 30 was that gateway through which I had no choice but to enter.