We just bought a house in America. Or more appropriately, I think we just cured my wife of a particularly virulent case of the “new house” bug by doing the unthinkable – buying a new house in a suburb of Maryland at an astronomical price that has put me in a permanent state of shock. My wife’s infection, which seems to attack her every ten years, couldn’t have come at a worse time. She got the “new house” shakes at a time that developers and realtors gleefully call a seller’s market, meaning that as potential house buyers, we were royally screwed. We live in the Washington metropolitan area where there appear to be long lines of buyers for every house that is on the market. It was not uncommon, from our experience, for homes to sell for thousands of dollars above their asking price. Here, even townhomes are selling for prices that would have been unthinkable for palaces ten years ago. Builders and realtors are covered in the gooey glow of knowing that buyers like me are not negotiating from a position of strength. We cured my wife’s affliction. But now we are saddled with a house that goes through a bank account once a month like a little Tsunami.
Things were not always like this. It was not always a seller’s market in the Washington metropolitan area. Ten years ago in 1993, when my wife caught her first “new house” bug, the reverse was certainly the case. We were a young couple eager to buy a piece of the American dream. It was a good time to buy a house because it didn’t seem like anybody was buying at the time. It was a buyer’s market. Oh how I pine for a return of those days. Homeowners were having a very difficult time disposing of their homes. I remember wistfully how stressful it was to visit a home that was for sale. The anxious sellers would pepper us with offers that sounded too good to be true, strip us of all our phone numbers and practically stalk us with even more offers once we got home. The sales pitch was so aggressive then, you could see skid marks on carpets as we fled these “for sale” homes. We finally settled on a lovely one year old townhome and acquired what today would be a ridiculously low mortgage. I loved to joke that the monthly car note on a used Hummer SUV was slightly higher than our monthly mortgage payment. Also, ten years later, our house appeared to have more than doubled in value. It did not make sense to us but we did not complain.
But by Western standards, we had outgrown the house, with our four children, thirty tropical fish, and the steady pilgrimage of visitors from Nigeria. The townhouse had three bedrooms, three and a half baths and a finished walk-out basement. There was also space for a fourth bedroom, a deck and a patio. I calculated that we had had outgrown over 1900 square feet of living space. And so, we had to move. The thought of plunging into the sizzling hot housing market filled me with unspeakable dread. I had however been assured by several risk-takers posing as my friends that what we were about to do was smart investing. I remembered ruefully that these were the same people that a few years ago encouraged me to drop thousands of dollars in an over-heated stock market just before the market started to careen downwards. When last I had enough courage to look at my “investment portfolio,” It had grown from several thousand dollars of my hard earned money, to a handsome one hundred useful US dollars and three cents. I am surprised that I can still talk about it without weighing reasonable options like jumping off a bridge.
Besides my unreasonable fear of repeating recent mistakes, my reticence about this undertaking was informed by my experience growing up in Nigeria, the land of my birth. We were not really poor but I lived in TWO rooms with my proud parents, and at various times, up to nine siblings, several cousins and the more than occasional visitor from the village come to enjoy city life (at my parents’ expense of course). Matters of hygiene needs were accommodated in age-appropriate ways. Children were stripped naked and scrubbed down with the help of a bucket of water, sponge and soap. This spectacular ritual was carried out daily on the common yard before the watchful eyes of everyone (our little daughters would faint from reading this account of my traumatic childhood). Adults went to a “bathroom” a distance away from the house near the latrine that was mercifully a distance from the house. In terms of the latrine, you did your business into a bucket that was emptied nightly (well, some nights) by night-soil removers (that was actually their official government title since they were civil servants). These men accomplished this noxious feat by simply hauling the bucket brimming with “night soil” on their heads and taking it to a mysterious dump somewhere far away from our home. I could tell you stories about my childhood adventures with night soil removers, but that would ruin your appetite. Besides, I digress.
Our two rooms were usually crowded with people. I used to fantasize about growing up and owning my own two rooms, just me, no children, no guests, nobody else but me! And now in America I had to address this trauma: My wife and I and four little children have outgrown a 3-bedroom townhouse that is situated in a leafy community brimming with happy children, complete with a community playground, club house and swimming pool. I did not see any reason to move. Our townhouse was very spacious, especially in comparison with my childhood digs. As I looked around the house, I saw opportunities for space where before they did not exist. We could build that fourth bedroom in the basement. Also, a deck and patio would be a nice addition for the summer months. If there was any money left from the refinancing of our little home, maybe we could paint the house, and buy a barbecue grill for the deck. Now that was a plan. Unfortunately, that plan of mine could not erase that faraway look in my beloved’s eyes that is the tell-tale symptom of people with the “new house” disease. After the rejection of my plan B, I braced myself for a very long summer.
So, like a dutiful husband, I accompanied my wife to new home developments and we traipsed from model home to model home in search of that home that was powerful enough to kill the disease in my wife’s eyes. We ooohed and aaahed over tastefully furnished homes that we would never live in unless we won several hundred million dollars in a mega-lottery. The base prices of these homes started at $600,000 if you exclude options such as a roof and doors. Like overfed Sumo wrestlers, these homes sat squat on little lots the size of a postage-stamp. I can only say that our experience was beyond stressful. Typically, we would be pleading (unsuccessfully) with an amused seller to reduce the price of the home to $400,000 (our budget for a detached home in our county. Yes, we were joking, I now agree). Meanwhile frantic buyers would be lined up behind us bidding the $600,000 price up to one million dollars. The last straw for us was when we went to a new development in a God forsaken part of the county to sign for one of three building lots and we found, horrors of all horrors that six families had been camped out in line for a chance at those three lots a week before their release to prospective buyers. There they were all grimy from lack of sleep, grilling hot dogs, chanting “We Shall Overcome” all for a chance at purchasing an overpriced American dream. I exaggerate only slightly. Now I know why President Bush looks puzzled whenever the democrats and Al-Qaeda suggest that the economy is in bad shape. Who are all these “poor” people that I see, offering a cool million dollars for $200,000 homes, Iraqis?
Well, we bought a home. It is a very long, improbable story that must wait another telling of it. Maybe I can sell my story to the media and make enough money to pay off this new mortgage that terrorizes us every payday. It is a beautiful house with a fenced yard that houses a playground for our children and hot tub and a barbecue grille for adults so inclined. It is a big house with a lot of space that we don’t need, even for a super-sized family of six. Some of the rooms have their own names like family room, sun room, living room, master bedroom, den, and office. It is harder to find my children when I need them for an errand, or when I need to confront them with the consequences of a crime. They hide from me in the various nooks and crannies of this monster of a house that claims our paycheck and raises my blood pressure every pay period. And I am not sure that the house has erased that far-away look from my wife’s eyes. I thought I spied her the other day looking at new homes in one of those silly magazines that encourage you to make the kinds of financial judgment that my wife and I just made. Wait, maybe, just maybe, I just woke up from a nightmare. My wife says she is happy and so she must be. I wish our bank account felt the same way. Sigh.