You live in the city and you’re in your mid-30s. You’ve got a kid on the way. Maybe it’s your second. You’re starting to get that twitchy feeling. It seems to come from a primal, almost biological place. It’s something out of your control. Rather, it’s taking control of you.
I know what you’re thinking: I have to buy something.
I know because 10 years ago I was you, and I’m here to tell you: You don’t have to buy. I don’t care what your father, your accountant, or Suze fucking Orman tells you, buying is overrated. Think of me as a freedom fighter sent back from the wreckage of your suburban future to save you from the blond realtor-terminator hunting you down in her Lexus SUV.
In 2004 I was 35, living in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with my wife and our baby daughter. I loved Brooklyn. I loved the burst of green that greeted me as, returning home from work, I exited the subway at Eighth Avenue. I loved taking our dog to Prospect Park early on a summer Saturday. I loved the space and light of the apartment we rented on Fifth Street, just two blocks away from the park.
But somehow it wasn’t enough. We became convinced we had to buy something, and we had to buy NOW, or we’d be left behind.
Behind what? Well… everyone else, who seemed to know things we didn’t, I guess. Oh yes, and we needed to “build equity,” whatever that was. I didn’t understand what it meant, but it sounded substantial.
It was a kind of hysteria, really. At a certain point it became entirely irrational, and we stopped asking essential questions we should have been asking ourselves. “What makes us happy?” for one. “How do we—not our parents, not our friends, not the Wall Street Journal—want to live?” for another.
This was the height of the bubble, the absolute worst time to buy, but that didn’t deter us. We quickly realized we couldn’t afford to buy anything decent in our neighborhood. A coworker who lived in Montclair, New Jersey, was a big booster and convinced us to start looking there, so we did. In a few months we paid $80,000 over the asking price for a small Sears Roebuck-designed house, 1922 vintage, not much larger than a good-size duplex apartment. But we had a yard. We had equity.
Here’s what else we had:
A water heater that needed replacing. Cost: $700.
A very old, and very thirsty, oil-burning furnace. Annual cost: $5,000.
The highest property taxes in the state with the highest property taxes in the country. Annual bill (for now): $13,000, a 40 percent increase from the year we moved in. That’s for a quarter-acre lot.
A collapsed sewer line, discovered when we called a plumber to fix what we thought was a routine clog. Total cost, including landscaping to suture the six-foot-deep trench that had to be dug from the house to the street: $12,000 (none of which was covered by our insurance company, which deemed this “normal wear and tear”).
That’s just a taste. The word limit imposed by my editor prohibits me from describing the isolation, the difficulty in meeting friends our age, the subpar restaurants and shopping, and the underwhelming schools. And my town is supposed to be one of the good ones.
When you rent, someone else takes care of everything. If your radiators are blocked or your fridge gives out, it’s the super’s responsibility. When you buy, you become, in effect, a tenant farmer. Tilling the land, fixing the shit that breaks—that’s all on you. But someone else truly owns the place. Sure, eventually it will be yours—in 30 years. It took me a while, but I finally learned what equity is: It means every month you write a check to a bank instead of a management company. The cold reality of the market is when we sell, we’ll probably break even.
Oh, that coworker who was so high on our town? Six months after we settled there, he and his family moved back to Brooklyn.
Chapin Clark works in advertising. He is now divorced. He doesn’t attribute that solely to his decision to buy a house, but let’s not kid ourselves—it’s not unrelated, either. He and his ex-wife still co-own the house. Now he gets to rent an apartment, as well.
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