The Life Lessons About Change and Choice We Learned While House Hunting
The night we learned we’d been outbid on our first choice, we drank whiskey and wine and scrolled through the sellers’ social media pages, making up wicked stories.
“They probably make their dog sleep outside in the cold,” I said.
“Yeah, and without food,” Laura said.
“Oh, look, they have friends! Who doesn’t have those? Narcissists.”
To us, the people who owned this house we wanted now represented all that’s wrong with two-legged capitalists. We’d seen the numbers and dates on the listing: They bought the house just a handful of years ago for half the price of what we’d offered, and still they took a few thousand extra? And look at how young they are. What would they do with the extra money anyway?
“Maybe if they’d met us, they’d have liked us better than the other couple,” I said.
“You sound crazy,” Laura said, staring into her computer. “Oh, God, look at that wedding dress! They’ll probably get divorced within a year.”
Maybe I’ve embellished our words. I can’t remember exactly. But you get the general portrait of how the evening went. We were living examples of a line E.B. White once wrote: “One of the most time-consuming things I do is to have an enemy.”
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This was late January 2018, after a stressful couple of weeks. We’d been pre-approved to buy our first home together by the skin of our checkbooks, all because of Laura’s full-time job. Turns out lenders don’t take us freelance writers at our word when we say how much we make—no matter how strong our credit scores, I’d like to note.
We couldn’t afford anything near the condo we’d rented for a few years, in a great neighborhood we loved just outside of uptown Charlotte. No more walks to our favorite restaurants. No more record store around the corner. No more pictures in the snow under the oaks out front. No more rose garden and little library down the street. No more hollering hello from the front porch to Runner Vince and Crazy Dave and Hippie Fern and Beer Man Jason and New York Jen and gosh, maybe we should rent this life forever.
Our real estate agent set us up with an account and password to shop listings in our area. I highly recommend getting one of these.
For the low cost of parading through someone’s home once every couple of days and pretending to listen to the sales pitch, you get access to pictures of every living room within an hour of your search center. Can’t afford a million-dollar house? No problem! Just hook up your computer to the biggest TV around, and walk through someone else’s door on the screen. You know that gated community on the golf course you’ve always wondered about? You’re in luck! Someone’s selling and, hey, would you like to see their indoor basketball court?
We’d do this for a night or two, then meet the agent at some house that matched our criteria. I remember in the first home we visited, the listing boasted of a completely refinished kitchen, but when Laura pulled open the door to the pantry, the handle fell off.
Within a couple of weeks we found an adorable home—yes, “adorable” is in fact the only adjective permitted when you find an adorable home—with a red door and a porch swing, located on another tree-lined street in another neighborhood not far from center city. Three beds and a bath, about 70 years old and redone, with a garage and a patio out back. We offered the asking price, and the sellers asked to sleep on it. The next day, they told us someone else had offered more. We lost.
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Laura and I aren’t accustomed to that. We’d started dating on the agreement that as long as it was easy, we’d keep going. Since then, we’ve laughed and breezed on from one day to the next. We got engaged in April 2017 and set a wedding date for that fall, or tomorrow in wedding-planning world. She and her mother, two of the easiest-going people I know, pulled together an outdoor evening at a museum for about 150 people with no problems or tears. The week of the wedding, 90-degree heat broke two days before the event, and it was 72 degrees as we said our vows and the sun set on the last night of September.
How dare they turn us down?
* * *
The best part of any concert, if you ask me, is the stretch of about 20 or 30 seconds before the music starts. When the lights drop and you squint to glimpse the artist through the darkness. It’s like walking into the living room on Christmas morning as a kid, having peeled back 24 days of anticipation on the advent calendar, to see that Santa’s gifts are on the carpet right there.
This past Memorial Day weekend, my brother and Laura and I went to a Willie Nelson concert. We’re not die-hard Willie fans, but as a general rule we wouldn’t miss the chance to see an 85-year-old legend of any craft, especially one with a guitar named Trigger.
We arrived early, tailgated, saw the opening acts, spent way too much on hot dogs and tall beer cans, and at about 8:30, made sure we were in our seats. The overhead lights went off soon after, and all of us in the amphitheater rose like Push-Pops. We waited. Waited. Until against the backdrop of the stage lights, we saw the outline of a cowboy hat and a skinny man making a crooked walk along the side of the stage. The big lights went up, and there was Willie.
I read somewhere that Americans spend an average of $42,000 on music in a lifetime. I read somewhere else that Americans move, on average, 11.4 times in a lifetime. I figure I’ve already gone way over my allotment on music. And this move was going to be No. 13 for me. I’d gone from Maryland to North Carolina for college, then to Virginia for my first job, then got back to North Carolina as fast as I could, I like to say. I chased a few newspaper jobs, then magazine jobs, and landed in Charlotte, first in a cookie-cutter complex, then in the condo. It’s worth repeating that I loved that condo, downstairs in a four-plex, hardwood floors and a long hallway and a refinished kitchen. I’d been through a divorce, and part of me wondered about my ability to commit to anything until I lived there alone awhile. I spent nights reading, cooking, and watching movies with nobody around to talk to but the walls. I came to learn how peaceful that could be.
Then, as I’ve written a few times in this magazine, Laura came along and ruined all that in the best way possible. With her, I was a 36-year-old who could see the future, a life beyond renting and opening guitar notes.
That night in the amphitheater, Willie Nelson walked onstage, looked back at his band, but then kept walking, making a horseshoe and exiting on the other side. We thought it was a joke. We waited there in the dark for about a half-hour, 20,000 people not sure what to do.
Then it happened again—cowboy hat, crooked walk. This time, Willie picked up Trigger but quickly set it down. He turned to face us and tossed his cowboy hat into the fourth or fifth row.
Thirty minutes later, we got news that he was sick and had to reschedule. There would be no show that night.
That’s sort of what it felt like to have the house with the red door yanked away from us.
* * *
This would be my second house purchase but Laura’s first. I’d bought one in another North Carolina city in 2009, as the market collapsed, with my first wife. The place was on an acre of land on the edge of town—our road was actually on the dividing line with the county. It was neither urban nor rural. It wasn’t really anything. We liked it, but when things didn’t work out, we had a difficult time selling it and lost a few thousand dollars each.
I told myself then that my next purchase would be located either in an established and stable neighborhood in a city, or as far away from everything as possible. No more of this in-between stuff. There’s a chance I was talking about more than homes.
Maybe you were taught like I was: You make your own choices about your future. But somewhere along the way you encounter a situation where choice is an illusion.
Maybe you were taught like I was: You make your own choices about your future. But somewhere along the way you encounter a situation where choice is an illusion. Or at least limited. I left my full-time job last year to start my personal writing business by choice. And because of that choice, I went on to make more money the very next year.
But the mortgage guy wanted two years of tax records to show proof of income. Making matters worse, at the time we met him, a few clients were late on big payments, so the rhythm of my income wasn’t exactly impressive to him. Laura, though, had a traditional full-time position, which is why he turned to me that day and said, “OK, you don’t count.”
Not, We’ll see what we can do. Not, We’ll just use hers. Just, You don’t count.
It’s probably a blessing, because he approved us for what we could afford only on her salary. We make a pretty good living, way better than most, but in a city with 1 million people, only a dozen homes fit our criteria for price and size and location. Most of the others were at least $100,000 more expensive.
In one red-hot neighborhood in this city that’s growing with 60 new residents a day, we visited a crumbling bungalow at the top of our price range, and it had a tarp over the roof. The whole structure needed to be replaced.
This speaks to larger, society-wide concerns about the future of city living and homeownership. In 2014, researchers at Harvard and Cal-Berkeley released a study that ranked Charlotte 50th out of the nation’s 50 largest cities in terms of upward mobility—meaning it’s harder to get out of poverty here than in any other city in the country. I’ve worked with groups trying to address that in one way or another, but our home search gave me a real window into the space between rich and poor.
If people as fortunate as us are priced out, what about those scraping by? Or even first-year teachers and police officers, public servants whose starting salaries wouldn’t get them a one-bedroom condo in neighborhoods near center city?
“The notion that we’re defined by, and responsible for, our choices is at the core of the American story,” Kent Greenfield writes in his book The Myth of Choice. A few paragraphs later, he continues, “But what if choice is fake? What if we have much less ability to choose than we think we do? What if our choices—even the ones we think we are making—are so limited that we are less like wild horses on the plains and more like steers in a cattle chute?”
The night after we lost the house, Laura and I went back to the internet to chew on our cud.
* * *
The floors of the living room on our screen were purple and had a white, flower-shaped pattern all over them. They appeared to be linoleum. The walls, too, were a purple-tinted gray. The place looked too dark, so we clicked past it.
A couple of days later, I realized we’d visited just about all of the homes that met our criteria. Laura was at work when I sent an email to her and our real-estate agent about the home with the crazy floors.
“Don’t have the highest hopes from the pics,” I wrote, “but couldn’t hurt to see, right?”
It was raining when we walked in at 11:30 a.m. the next day with no expectations. Just inside the entrance was an arched doorway to the living room. To the left was a fireplace, to the right a dining room and kitchen. But we felt the most amazing thing under our shoes. Those purple floors with the white patterns weren’t linoleum. They were solid wood.
The place that looked hopeless on a screen was starting to show promise.
“We could sand the paint off,” I told Laura.
The home was 70 years old and smelled a little like an old school auditorium after a holiday break, empty and unused for a few weeks but with decades of love built into the hardwood.
We opened the closets and went up a flight of stairs to an attic with a floor but no walls. “We could finish that,” Laura said.
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We stepped onto a weathered-brick patio out back and saw a huge willow oak standing in the center of the yard, a shed, and a garden. We went back inside and tapped our feet on the acid-trip floor in the living room again. Laura crossed her arms in her sweater and said, “Yeah, we should buy this.”
That night, we made an offer.
The next day, our agent said there’d been two others.
Not again, we thought.
We bumped ours up as high as we could, a few thousand above asking price. The next day, the agent sent a note to say congratulations.
* * *
It’s been almost a year since we moved into that one-story brick house with the big backyard. On nice days, our neighbors play badminton with their kids and listen to music. Robins bounce around picking up worms in the mornings, and the sun sets across our patio in the evenings.
The trees drew us to the neighborhood, reminders of the one we left a few miles down the road. But if you ever live in a neighborhood with lots of trees, you soon realize the burdens they bring, too. The gutters fill up and the limbs fall and you’re never quite sure how safe to feel in a storm. This summer, a tree fell on a house down the street and trapped two boys in a bedroom for just a few minutes. They walked away with no scratches, but still.
Our yard had been overgrown around the edges. Most obvious was a bush out front, just in between our yard and the neighbor’s. We’re not sure what it was meant to be, but it had mushroomed into a seven-foot-tall Mr. Snuffleupogus-like character, vines and leaves falling from its sides and covering whatever flowers might’ve been inside. We ripped it down this summer and it opened up the whole yard. Sometimes you have to cut some stuff back to go forward.
And there were the floors. Turns out, they had a story. We met the seller at closing. She was kind and hugged us. She gave off a put-together-hippie vibe, which I recognize is sort of a recurring personality in this story about where we chose to settle. She told us she worked at a bank full-time but was an artist on the side. She’d lived there almost 20 years and said she’d painted the floors with that color and that pattern during a difficult period for her a few years ago. The project comforted her, she said, and that made sense to us. We’d all been through times when we needed to paint our worlds a different color. Now she was shining, recently married and living with her husband in his home.
She even left a note on a chalkboard that read, “Welcome Home.”
We didn’t tell her we planned to redo the floors, but her demeanor made us feel less guilty about it.
Our flooring guy, a retired U.S. Marine, showed up the next day. I recommend hiring former servicemen and women, not only because it’s a good way to repay them, but because they’re reliable and focused. By the weekend, he had the floors back to their original 1947 form, bright white oak. He put a slightly darker finish on them, redid the trim, and had the project completed one week after we closed. The little house looked a whole lot bigger after that.
Control what you can control, and don’t worry about the rest.
I broke down some shelving in a side room to turn it into an office. We bought new paint for each room. Installed new towel bars and a ceiling fan, and new blinds on all the windows. Little stuff that adds up to a modest overhaul.
A few weekends later, a couple of movers arrived at the condo to help with the heavy items. Runner Vince wasn’t home to see us go. Neither was Hippie Fern or Beer Guy Jason or New York Jen. Crazy Dave puffed on a cigarette and watched us pull away from his front porch down the street.
At the new home, they dropped a chair here and a desk there, and with each piece it felt more like ours. We unpacked the important stuff first—the record player, the records, the champagne glasses.
When I worked as the top editor of a magazine, I had a saying for our staff members and freelancers when they hit snags on stories, or when corporate honchos froze raises, or anytime the ideal scenario fell through: Control what you can control, and don’t worry about the rest.
Ripping the tape off of the cardboard boxes in our new home that night, I’m not sure I completely agreed with Greenfield, that choice is a myth and we’re all but cattle in a chute. We didn’t have as many home options as our wealthier friends, but we had more than most people. It wasn’t until those options were most limited that we saw possibilities in places we wouldn’t have considered. With less to choose from, we got more creative.
That night, we did the most important thing a couple can do on their first night in their first home—we looked up the closest pizza joint and called one in. The first album we pulled out was Springsteen’s Born to Run, and we played it all the way through, from the harmonica that opens “Thunder Road” to the final keys of “Jungleland,” right there in this well-loved home in the trees, the last choice now the first.
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This article originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Michael Graff is the editor-in-chief of Charlotte Agenda. His work has appeared in publications around the country, and he's been a notable selection in Best American Essays and Best American Sports Writing. Reach him at [email protected].
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