Home ownership is overrated

I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, but perhaps the biggest was my decision to own a house in Michigan.

At the time before we bought it, we were renting a very small house that my husband’s grandmother used to own. My mother-in-law was our landlord and although the rent was cheap, she was strongly pressuring us to buy it for an inflated price. (I have to say that all the warnings about doing business with family are well-founded.)

There were a lot of things I hated about that particular house. It had a very small closet, so my husband had to keep his clothes on a portable rack outside our bedroom. There was no master bedroom per se, and only one bathroom on the main floor that had a bathtub, no shower. It didn’t have a vanity and the electrical outlets were all upside down.

The bathroom that had a shower was actually in the basement, right next to the washer and dryer. It also had windows that made the shower visible from the driveway. The shower was a very tiny cube, barely big enough to turn around in, and it backed up every time you used it.

The kitchen had fewer cabinets than an apartment and an intolerable lack of counter space. The only small appliances I could fit on the counter were a toaster and a coffee pot. Like I said, there was a lot to dislike about that particular house. Getting pressure to buy it for an overinflated price made me really want to get out.

So we bought a house of our own. Our house was nice enough, though it had its quirks, like any house does. We had a basement flood the first Christmas we were there and couldn’t afford the insurance deductible to fix it, so we got mold and mildew. The smell of that moldy basement permeated all our belongings for the next 8 years we lived there. You know how when people smoke indoors, you can smell it on everything they own? That was us but with mildew.

If anything broke, we usually couldn’t afford to fix it. We found ways to fix crucial things like broken hot water heaters or when the furnace stopped working in the middle of winter. But a lot of less essential stuff never got fixed because there wasn’t enough money.

Homeownership was a gamble and we lost big. A lot of people (including my mother-in-law) said that “renting is just throwing away your money” and we never questioned that. But for us, we didn’t factor in the cost of maintenance and repairs, nor how hard it would be to afford them when we were already stretched so thin.

Homeownership only works if you have plenty of money to start with. If you don’t, one thing like a roof replacement or needing to replace a furnace will sink you. Forget about cosmetic changes like updating cabinets.

In truth, owning the home was like a millstone around our necks. I tried moving back to Texas 6 years earlier than when I finally did, at a time when I had just graduated college and could only find part-time work at Starbucks. The reason I couldn’t stay then was because of the house we owned. All my friends advised me to do anything to avoid losing my house, even if it meant staying in a place with no jobs.

My husband went through 10 months of unemployment–then his next job paid minimum wage. If we hadn’t owned the house, we would have left the state then. He was stuck at another job for five years with no raises, making about what our oldest kid makes now. Again, we wanted to leave but couldn’t.

I wanted to go to grad school right after finishing my degree but there were no graduate programs in my major nearby. We would have had to move and once again, the house we owned was holding us back.

We finally had to just go when I moved down here, damn the consequences. I regret not making that choice sooner. My husband now earns double what he did there and hanging on to the house for so long was ultimately stupid. We did lose the house but our credit has already recovered enough that we could buy again. We still choose not to.

We’ve been renting ever since we moved back to Texas 5 years ago and I have to admit that I love it. If something breaks, we call our landlord and he fixes it. We have a nice place to live. We’re not tied to it, though. Currently, we have no desire to move to another area. My husband’s illness keeps us here, he likes his current job, and the job market here is great for what he does.

I used to think that I’d buy a house for the security of it if he dies from cancer and I get the life insurance payout. But now I’m not even sure about that. I couldn’t stay in our current house because I’d go through the money too fast. But I did the math and I could rent a one-bedroom apartment for about 35 years (maybe longer if I made some smart investments.)

I actually like the freedom of not being tied to one place. Not owning a house means that I’m free to go wherever. Right now, I have no reason to leave this area. But I like knowing that someday, I could if I wanted to.

I don’t have big attachments to the concept of home, anyway. My childhood home burned down. I live 1300 miles away from where I grew up. Renting may be “throwing away my money,” but it also lets me feel free, almost nomadic. I’m here because I choose to be, not because I’m trapped. Renting gives me a sense of possibility because I’m not tied to one place.

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