On Doing Everything Right and Still Making the Wrong Decision

My husband and I are a supposedly elusive breed: the Millennial Homeowner. However, this is not something we are celebrating. Three years ago, newly engaged and living in a new area, we started looking for houses. It was a kind of mania with me, some programming that we needed the house and the big yard and the mortgage to be real adults, to be successful. We had been very careful financially.

Both of us are teachers, and we had spent years limiting our spending and living in cheap apartments, squirreling away money for the house of our dreams. My soon-to-be-husband especially was a big saver, quietly amassing over $20,000 dollars in his bank account over two years, while I was not far behind with my own savings. When we moved to a new place, a beautiful, rural area of Virginia that bordered the Chesapeake Bay, our suburbia-raised selves rejoiced. Everywhere we looked were wide-open fields, desolate beaches, roads lined with wildflowers. We went for bike rides and ate fresh seafood and thought: This. This is it. Weʼre going to stay here forever.

So, when I saw a listing for a historic farmhouse on three acres, I immediately took a drive past it. Bordered on one side by a few acres of woods, with a big backyard, perfect for those imagined future kids and pets! With the house flanked by beautiful, old trees, I was overjoyed. I came back that weekend with my fiance and my father, a real estate agent who was visiting us for the weekend. The house was less perfect once we were inside. The owner had clearly not done anything, including clean, in a long time. The floors needed refinishing, the kitchen made my stomach turn, and rooms were decorated with ancient pink carpets and deeply creepy stuffed animals. In one of the rooms, the ownerʼs dog had thrown up at some distant point in the past, and it had gone unnoticed. A dead mouse lay in the middle of another room. However, all these things added up to one thing for us: a low price. 

We had hopes of getting the house for under $200,000. A house on over three acres, four bedrooms, two and a half bathrooms, over 2,400 square feet. Hey, we can do some work! Whatever, canʼt be too hard! Sure looks easy on HGTV! We got a USDA rural loan for the property, meaning we didnʼt have to put any money down. We talked sagely about this, about putting our savings into making improvements on the house. We talked a lot about “sweat equity,” sure we could do most of the work ourselves. I dreamed of having goats and chickens, a vegetable garden, turning the formal “parlor” into a playroom, the old dining room into a library.

Two years and $30,000 later, I know how to put up drywall, repair plaster, and replace kitchen countertops. My husband is great with a sander, to which our gleaming hardwood floors can attest. We have had unending conversations about crawl space drainage, the correct sink width for our kitchen cabinets, and, again and again, the correct way to fit an inside corner with crown molding. I have also learned that “sweat equity” should more appropriately be called, “blood, coughed up drywall dust, tears of frustration, and sweat equity.”

Thereʼs just one problem: We donʼt want to live here. We donʼt like living in the country. The vegetable garden and chickens never materialized. Turns out, I really donʼt like working in the yard. The planned playroom is the formal dining room. We are now debating whether we even want kids; our three spare bedrooms stand empty. We get frustrated and lonely when things shut down for the slow winter season. We have trouble meeting people our own age. We miss little things like Netflix, which doesnʼt work on our satellite internet, and Chipotle. We want to move. Immediately.

Unfortunately, rural areas may have beautiful, inexpensive farmhouses on large plots of land, but they do not have a large influx of people trying to buy houses. Guests may “oooh” and “ahhh” over our house, but very few people seem to be in the market here. Iʼm now facing certain possibilities: the house may sell, but for a low price. We may lose all the money and work and time we put into it. We may end up in debt, when we started flush with savings.

Worse: it may not sell. We may move and pay rent as well as a mortgage. I wake up in the middle of the night struggling to breathe: What if it doesnʼt sell? What if it sucks even more money from us? What if we canʼt afford rent and a mortgage? But the question I ask myself most is: Why? Why did we pour our money into a house before really getting to know the area? Why, when we had done everything we were supposed to—gotten good jobs, saved money, bought a house—are we in this position? Why were we so stupid? Our house is now a heavy, strangling—albeit, beautiful and charming—weight around my neck.

I donʼt know if it will sell. Iʼm not sure of our plans if it doesnʼt. But I do know that owning a house is no longer a great ambition of mine. I know that it is a responsibility and financial commitment far beyond what I actually want. I have a much clearer picture of what I want out of life, and it doesnʼt necessarily need to include home ownership. So, fellow Millennials: donʼt let all the think-pieces about our lack of home ownership stress you out. My American dream now consists of a cheap, cheap apartment, preferably one walking distance from a Chipotle.

 

Emily is a teacher and amateur home renovator living in Virginia.

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