Month: June 2011

The joy of househunting

For the last few weeks, my partner and I have been house hunting. After renting for the last few years, my partner – ever the efficient mathematician – crunched the numbers and decided we would be paying less with a mortgage than we pay now in rent. (This is the same slightly dubious reasoning that led us to give up our Zipcar membership and buy a car we drive, on average, one day a week.)

I love the idea of owning a home. I thought that the process would be fun, or at minimum, a bit of an adventure.

You know what I’ve discovered? I’ve found that if our government really wanted to torment terrorists, spies and criminals at Guantanamo, water boarding is not necessary. They could just send them on a search for real estate instead. It will break them and shatter the stability of their mental health in no time.

Now, before I complain further, let me say this: I’m very, very lucky. My partner and I are healthy. We have saved enough to be thinking about this seriously. We both have decent credit scores. We are in a place where a lot of people ain’t. I am very grateful for that. So grateful, I feel guilty for complaining.

But some parts of the process are just crazy.

Working with a real estate company seems to be the same no matter where you go. They get the most basic information about what you want (bedroom and bathrooms) and then bombard you with emails of the same properties. We seem to get the newest or most inexperienced agent every time, which is NOT who you want to sell you a house in this economy.

We’ve worked with a few people where we explained some of the specific things we wanted…and they just kept sending us listings that were nothing like what we’d been seeking. The search engines many of these companies use are missing a LOT of fields. None seem to have a search for square footage. No listings for finishes/design type.

And the money! It’s supposed to be a recession, and I’ve heard nothing but news about how low home prices have gone, and how much lower home values are now than they were two years ago.

But I think those lower sale prices must have skipped Chicago entirely. I’m astonished at what people want for small, cramped, poorly lit, badly decorated condos that are less than 1500 square feet. It’s insane – half a million dollars in some cases!

Maybe I’m being unrealistic. It’s Chicago, after all.

I’ve been thinking a lot about when my mom and dad bought the house I grew up in. It was in 1965, and the buying price was $15,000. Dad put $500 down and did another few hundred dollars in work inside. It was a great house, with 3 bedrooms and almost a half acre of land. When he sold it last year, it garnered not quite ten times the original cost.

That’s in western Pennsylvania, where housing costs are very low. But in much of the rest of the country, you can’t buy even a small place without spending at least $300,000 these days. And that just seems insane to me.

I’m a city boy, so we’re looking mostly at condos and townhouses. But a little part of me thinks about the home I grew up in, and wonders if we shouldn’t be looking to buy not only the living space, but the land underneath.

I wonder if we are making the right decision in buying a house. From theorists like Professor Richard Florida to money gurus like Suze Orman, I’ve heard over and over that renting, not buying, makes more sense in the long run in this new economy, in these new days.

It’s a lot of money to gamble. And that’s before the mad dash to find the place we love, the place we can live in and call ours.

It’s a financial consideration, perhaps, but it’s also an emotional one. Having a home feels like the top rung on the ladder of security. So do we follow our heads or our hearts? I’m not sure where this will end up.

Why libraries matter

I admit it: I am not objective when it comes to libraries. In my opinion, libraries are awesome. They’re great resources of information and very democratic resources (anyone can access them).

They have provided hours of entertainment (and sometimes, refuge) for me. And I love books and information – learning, reading and growing.

So I found it very sad recently when I heard that the main library in Gary, Indiana is closing. It’s sad on multiple levels.

After all, Gary is an area that’s struggling in a way that’s unparalleled in this country (outside of perhaps Detroit). They’ve lost over 50% of their residents and a huge chunk of available work. For them to lose their main library? Is knocking a man when he’s down.

I can understand why they have to – the money simply isn’t there, and Indiana’s current state government is yanking nearly all remaining funding. And you have to see Gary to understand the level of decay – in some sections of town, it looks positively post-apocalyptic.

But I want to tell you why having a library matters. It’s a part of a community’s identity. It’s a source of pride.

That’s not just empty lecturing. I can tell you, in a very genuine way, that libraries can make a difference. I can say that about the Gary Public Library. It was where I found some incredibly helpful information.

I’ve been doing my family tree research for about a year now. And I’d been researching my grandparents’ lives and tracing their family – their parents (my great grandparents) and their siblings. Between my maternal grandmother and my paternal grandfather, there were 25 siblings, so it’s been a big project!

I’d figured out where most of my gram’s siblings had ended up, and even connected with some of their descendants – my mom’s cousins and their children, from my generation.

But one great-aunt remained mysterious. I knew little about her. My grandmother and mom are both gone, so I couldn’t ask them, and my aunt was helpful, but I still had some gaps in information. None of her information was coming up online.

Online records indicated she was living in California, and I happened to be in California this past winter, so I checked in the local library for her obituary. No luck.

What we did determine, from the obituaries of my great-grandmother and great-grandfather, was that at the time of their deaths, she’d been living in Gary.

So it was decided that on our next trip to Michigan City, we’d stop in Gary. And one rainy, bleary day this past winter, we did.

The library was dark and clearly had seen better days. The staff was incredibly helpful – they’d verified ahead of time that they held the newspaper from 1981 that I’d wanted to check. We went to the Indiana Room – a bit chaotic and disorganized, but filled with information. The appropriate microfilm cartridge was located.

I only had the month, not the day. So I searched an entire month’s film. And there, on the very last day, was my great aunt. She’d gone by her middle name (I’d been looking for Myrtle, but she’d been known as Ann) but it was definitely her.

It may not seem like a big deal, but it was to me. I’d found a huge branch of the family tree less than an hour from where I lived. I learned that great-aunt Ann had 10 children, including a multi-award winning high school football coach in Indiana. I was able to solve the mystery of a few photos in our family photo collection with no names or only nicknames written.

And best of all, I’ve connected with several members of my family and gotten to know them. And that’s a really nice feeling to bring that full circle. I think my mom, my grandma, and especially my great grandparents would be proud.

And of course, none of that would have been possible without the library – a library that is closing at years’ end.

For many of us, libraries have always been there. But in this evolving information age, we can’t assume they still will be.

Don’t take your local library for granted. Support them with your money* or your time. Let your local and state governments know how important they are.

You may not need a library every day. But invest in it and all of the information it holds. You never know when you’ll need it, or what door it will open.

*NOTE: I did donate money to the Gary Library for their help on my project.