Oh yes you can!

We had no savings, hefty credit-card debt, and middling self-esteem. Still, we got the house.


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Cary Tennis
November 7, 2002 9:20PM (UTC)

Long before my wife and I attempted to surmount the financial and practical barriers to buying a house, we had to surmount the psychological barriers. The trouble was, we didn't know we had psychological barriers.

But one Saturday morning, when we were at the bank, robbing our account, I saw a sign advertising a special no-money-down mortgage program for people with limited income. Our income was certainly limited. No-money-down sounded like a lot, but I thought maybe we could scrape it together. At any rate, I was just curious. So we sat down with a bank person. She asked us how much money we were making. I said not much. My wife was working at an independent bookstore and I was working a temp job. We told her exactly how much. I think we were expecting her to scold us for not making more. Instead, to our amazement, she said that we made too much for this special low-income program. A psychological barrier we had lived with for years was thereby shattered.

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"That was weird, huh?" I said in the car.

Our barriers to buying a house came in the form of assumptions, not just about our financial ability to become homeowners but about the whole loaded social and cultural significance of owning a house. I equated owning a house with buying into some notarized, amortized, fluorescent-lit Sunday school full of helmet-haired women in crimson blazers, giving up my last shred of individual dignity and freedom. But what kind of freedom was it that could not abide connection, continuity, commitment? It was not the freedom to act, to do, to live, but only the freedom to flee. It was "Easy Rider" freedom. What about settling down to finally do whatever it is you've been talking about doing all these years?

I catalog now the beliefs that stood in the way for so long: Homeownership was square. Corporate guys owned homes. School principals had lawns. Goofy dads kept jars of screws and nuts in the garage. Parents sat up late at night under a dim lamp, scowling over the mortgage. Shiny young couples who majored in finance bought houses and furnished them tastefully.

But rebels didn't buy houses. Artists lived in apartments in dangerous parts of town. Writers were poor. Writers didn't own houses. Writers just needed a room. If you were going to be a writer, you had to steel yourself against entanglements that could distract you from your devotions. A mortgage was a commitment, a distraction.

Private property was alienating. When people owned private property, they became economic competitors and thus bought into a system of oppression. Property was theft. My ancestors owned slaves. I should atone. If I owned a house it would be on the backs of the poor. Banks foreclosed against the poor. Banks equaled slavery. I am not free until every man is free.

It's funny how a little visit with a loan officer can alter one's perspective on Marxism. After our visit, I thought I would see if we could buy the house we were renting. I had the deluded notion that there might exist between tenant and landlord some accumulated goodwill based on the tenant's steady payment of rent over the years, the tenant's assiduous efforts to make repairs and maintain the property and even perhaps some genuine tenant-landlord affection born not out of mercantile exchange but out of common humanity and shared experiences; I thought this hypothetical goodwill might induce the landlord to sell us the place we were renting at a lower price than what it might command on the market.

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Why would I think such a thing? It's embarrassing now. Was it my not-so-distant ancestors' semifeudal arrangements down there in Virginia, in which landowning involved noblesse oblige? If so, I could not have been more off the mark.

Anyway, as mentioned in the last column, having determined to see about buying the house, I bought and read the book "Home Buying for Dummies." In the back was a sample inspection report that the book said was the best of its kind. Curious, I looked up the guy who did the inspection. He was local. His name was Warren Camp. I called him up and explained the situation. I told him that if we were to make an offer on the house we were renting, we'd want it inspected. He said he thought the best way to buy a house was to find a buyer's broker to work with you as an advocate. He told me he had just finished doing a deal with a very good buyer's agent and suggested I call her.

Full of fear that we weren't really serious contenders, but sensing that we were on to something, I called the buyer's agent he recommended. We made a date for her to visit and talk. My wife and I cleaned up the house. We got some cookies and made tea.

When she arrived and sat down at the kitchen table with us, what struck me about the agent was that she was like one of those faux 3-D postcards with eyes that blink when you tilt them. From one angle, she looked prim and proper with her blond, professional haircut, her sensible clothes and chipper Midwestern twang; but when you looked at her again, you saw a clever scrapper, an underdog, a red-tape cutter, a can-do populist who loved competing, who loved the game. Plus she had a B.A. from Stanford and a law degree.

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Two things stand out in my mind about our first conversation: 1) She asked us what, specifically, we wanted in a house. I could not remember having been asked that before. 2) She told us that yes, we could probably buy this house if we wanted it, but we could probably buy other houses too. She said we should look around, and go through a process of learning and evaluating comparable houses. She sort of shrugged when we told her we had no down payment saved up. She asked us if we thought we might be able to get some money. She said that, regardless, there were ways. What you have to do, she said, is get your ducks in a row. Get your credit record cleaned up. Get pre-approved for a loan. See if you can scare up some down-payment money. Start looking at houses.

So we did all that. We drove around the neighborhood on weekends, looking at houses. We developed a sense of what a house ought to be worth, and what we wanted in a house. I discovered that we really wanted a garage. I had thought, being somewhat anti-automobile, that we did not need a garage. Tracy helped me face reality: You need a garage. We spent a few months on this process, at the same time applying for a loan so we would be pre-approved.

There were many little tasks and obstacles to take care of. For instance, it turned out that I did not actually work for the company I thought I worked for. When the loan broker contacted the company I went to work at every day, the company said I didn't work there. This was legally true. I did enter their building every day and perform tasks under their direction, but my status was as a contractor legally employed by an employment agency.

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What the loan officer actually needed was some assurance that whatever I was doing to get money would reasonably continue for at least a year or so. What was really required was for certain human beings to come to believe that certain things would happen. It was not really about the legal definitions. It was about trust. The reality was that, however convoluted the legal definitions of employee and employer might have been, there was a reasonable chance that money would continue to flow into my bank account. It was that probability that needed to be stated.

At moments like that, I was glad I was a writer. I had to carefully craft a letter explaining that the "reasonable expectations" were reasonable. When the problem of our credit card debt arose -- the loan company wanted to know why we had all the credit card bills -- I had to write another letter, describing prior periods of unemployment, large purchases, our wedding, etc. I composed a sober and contrite narrative. I do not think that the narrative itself had any material effect on our ability to get out of credit-card debt; but it showed the loan company that we were aware of the debt and the reasons for it were at least grounded in some kind of socially approved pursuits. That is, it was not gambling debt; it was not bar tabs or debt for drugs and drug rehab. And I think in this was some kind of subtle moral give-and-take, that if we had this black mark against us, we had better at least acknowledge it, humbly and soberly.

All this I was aware of and went along with. Although many times I could have laughed out loud, I took every single step dead seriously. I met every deadline. I stayed in touch with every person and complied with every request for every shred of paper, explained as best I could every mysterious company on our credit report, every gap in unemployment, and every fluctuation in income. We proffered tax returns. We did everything we could.

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(What came in handy during this process was my experience as a journalist, and my experience watching "The Rockford Files." There was always somebody who would help you if you talked to them nicely.)

Then there was the question of the down payment. We had no down payment. We didn't know how we would get one. We had never been able to save. To our great surprise, each side of the family, independent of the other, offered us some cash for a down payment. We are not rich people, but our parents did manage to find some money. We were deeply grateful, and I mention it because if you are trying to buy a house, you might find that your own family members may surprise you with their willingness to help, even if you think they have no money.

Houses, like weddings, work powerfully on the imaginations of family members; perhaps because houses endure, because they enclose and protect, they strengthen the sense of security in a family, they call to the desire to be rooted, to continue, to prosper. At any rate, we were quite grateful and quite surprised. For purposes of the purchase contract, the money our families gave us had to be a gift and not a loan, and we had to keep it in the bank for a period of time; but even if it been strictly a financial investment, it would have been an excellent one.

Things were progressing at a comfortable speed when my overtures to the landlord met with excessive enthusiasm. When I asked them if they would be interested in selling the house, they said that maybe in five years they would be interested. But my inquiry apparently accelerated their plans to sell, which in turn put pressure on us.

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I got a call from the landlord saying he wanted to put the house on the market in two or three weeks. We did not feel prepared, even though we had been working on pre-approval for a loan, squaring away our credit record, researching the market, learning about taxes and insurance, and gathering a down payment. (During the run-up to a house purchase, you want to close any old credit card accounts, and not open any new ones, because even if you just get a Macy's card or a Sears card, each credit application triggers an inquiry, and several inquiries are a red flag, indicating a possible increase in your debt exposure.)

Suddenly it was time to actually make an offer on the house we were living in. Tracy sat us down around the old kitchen table and asked us each to write down on a slip of paper what we thought we ought to offer for the house. I was surprised at how low the number I wrote down was. But it was the number I truly felt the house was worth.

We made an offer to the landlord to buy the house for an amount that was the average of our three numbers. Then my wife and I got jittery and went out to eat pizza and for two days could not really think straight. Finally the landlord made a counteroffer that was much, much higher. It felt like a blow to the chest. We knew we were sunk. What had we been thinking? Were we crazy? We couldn't afford that. How arrogant had we been to even imagine we could buy a house? We wanted to crawl into a hole. But Tracy, of course, took it in stride. "OK, no problem," she said. She had expected that to happen. "Tomorrow, we go looking."

So the next day we went looking, and I saw the house I'm sitting in right now. After walking through the house, Tracy and I looked at a few more, but I said I really liked that one house. I wanted to make an offer.

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We drove back there. The agent was just about to close up. This is the part I will never forget: Tracy went into action. She walked up to the agent and said, "Do you have any offers?" The agent said, "Yes, we have offers."

"Clean offer? Pre-approved? No contingencies?" She gestured toward me: "Ready buyer. Pre-approved. No contingencies. Clean deal. Ready to go."

I saw the agent look up with interest. Something showed in her eyes. She glanced at me, then at Tracy. I had a feeling we were going to buy a house.

Tracy handled the rest. We offered less than the asking price. It turned out that there was a higher offer, but it had contingencies attached, and the seller couldn't afford to wait for the higher price. That was a valuable lesson: People sell houses for all kinds of reasons. If you're ready to buy and you make it easy on the seller, it might be worth a few thousand dollars off the price.

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We bought it as-is. Tracy brought an inspector around to look the place over, and he didn't see any glaring defects. Sure, there was some dry rot. Sure, some of the electrical was no good. The place was built in 1925, so you'd expect some of that.

The first piece of mail we received at the new house was the real property deed, duly recorded in the assessor's office. Later would come taxes, termites, dry rot, toilet backups, drain stoppages, boring beetles, roof leaks and tenants. Later the garage would become the neighborhood polling place and I would become an elections inspector. Later the real estate market would skyrocket and we would agonize over whether to sell out or hang on.

But for now there was just the two of us sitting on the floor in the empty living room, nu paint, fplc in gd condition, the sun slowly going golden over the Pacific.


Cary Tennis

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