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.

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