When I was young, my imagination fueled by Pemberley of Pride and Prejudice and the charming homes in the Anne of Green Gables series, I used to imagine my first home would be spacious, crammed with nooks, have ample land for a garden, and ideally feature a babbling brook somewhere. I assumed I’d be married, and there would be children tumbling down stairs and somersaulting across the living room.
When I actually decided to buy my first house at 31, the reality looked a smidgen different. I was single and childless, and in the Washington D.C. metro area where I live, spacious homes with yards are exorbitantly priced—or involve committing to a horrifically long commute.
Once again, adulting wasn’t going according to plan.
I knew financially that buying a home made sense: I was committed to the area, apartment rents regularly rose in the D.C. area, and it would help my tax situation. (Even considering my “tax situation” made me want to gag at how boringly settled I was.) But emotionally, I struggled at times. Buying felt like an admission that I was an “older” single woman, and in some way, I worried that it narrowed my future. What if I met some great guy who lived across the country and wasn’t willing to move? But then again, I wasn’t sure I’d be willing to move, either—my job was not portable, and I had built a strong community of friends in the area. In any event, I reasoned, if I did decide to up and move in the near future, people do rent out condos.
Really in the end, I did what I was getting better and better at doing: throwing up my hands and accepting I didn’t know the future and could only make the best choice I could with what I knew now.
Once I had recalibrated, I decided to buy a one bedroom condo, and I narrowed it down to three neighborhoods, all within a reasonable distance of D.C. and near friends. My aunt, who had bought her house as a single woman in her thirties, sent me a book on buying your first home, and I learned about concepts like “points.” I contacted a realtor who had helped a friend of mine, also a single woman, buy a home a few years earlier. I reached out to a lender another friend, a single man, had used.
And because I knew it would be a tough process, I went over my finances and made sure that I believed for myself this was the right, smart financial move for me now.
I was prepared. I was ready. I could handle this.
Or so I thought.
In the weeks that followed, nothing went “right.”
The lender told me that the credit score my banks had told me I had wasn’t my “real” credit score (which was, alas, lower), resulting in a higher interest rate. In the neighborhoods I was interested in, plenty of two-bedroom condos appeared on the market, but far fewer one-bedroom condos sprouted up for sale.
And if home-buying isn’t complicated enough in any market, my market experienced a never-before-seen frenzy when Amazon announced their plans to build their second headquarters smack in the middle of the neighborhood I lived in.
Cue some of the most stressful weeks of my adult life.
My first bid on a one-bedroom condo was automatically rejected, deemed too low for the seller to even bother asking me if I wanted to bid higher.
A week or so later, I saw another one bedroom condo that had a lot of charming qualities, but not a ton of closet space. I hesitated. When I called my realtor a day or two later, that condo owner had already accepted another offer.
Apparently in this post-Amazon housing market, there was no time for consideration.
I like to be thoughtful and deliberate, to take my time to weigh the pros and cons, to discuss and ponder with people whose advice I trust on major decisions, and then take some more time to consider. During my home-buying process, I found myself making snap decision after snap decision, my stomach churning.
At times I wished I had a husband, someone who was equally invested and responsible and at risk in this decision. But I also discovered that while no one else was putting their name on the mortgage besides me, I truly did have real support. I had long conversations with friends who had bought homes; they patiently listened and advised as I went through various scenarios. The first condo I looked at, I was accompanied by a close friend.
My parents, especially my retired dad who always made time for my calls, have for years jokingly referred to themselves as their kids’ “life coaches.” But during this period, they actually were my life coaches. We discussed the pros and cons of different approaches; how much I should bid; whether I should reconsider two-bedroom condos; whether I wanted to buy a house that needed renovation or not. Was it possible I was in a housing bubble? What if I bought a condo and Amazon changed its second headquarter locations and my mortgage was more than the value of the home? Some days, I talked to them multiple times.
Casting out fears and uncertainties by setting roots
Day after day, I realized how this process was forcing me to grapple with the uncertainty of my future. As I debated between one- and two-bedroom condos, knowing it generally made sense to stay in a home at least five years, I found myself mentally zigzagging between an array of futures. If in the near future, I got married and had children, obviously a two bedroom would be preferred. But if I didn’t get married and another recession rippled through the economy, devastating companies and slashing jobs, as it had when I had graduated from college in 2009, would I be affected? Could I, without a spouse as a back-up, definitely commit to the higher monthly mortgage payment of a two-bedroom condo?
I’ll admit I felt a little resentful about how blindly I was making this choice. The practical process of home buying wasn’t helping those emotions, either.
I fell into a bizarre routine: see condos on the weekend, put in a bid on Saturday or Sunday, and find out Monday or Tuesday that I had not gotten the condo.
The losses rolled in. I bid $30,000 above asking price for one condo and lost it to someone who bid $37,000 above asking. I made a similarly outrageously high bid on another condo, and similarly was trounced by someone who went even higher.
I learned from these bids, though, and ultimately they led me to my home.
One weekend, I saw a condo with a recently remodeled kitchen, new wood floors, and even recessed lighting in one room. It had its downsides—a shockingly huge mirror on one wall of the master bedroom, no central AC, and it was in a development known for bugs visiting homes sans invites. But there was a large patio outside, and from the kitchen window, I could see a tree, erupting into exuberant pink blossoms as spring rolled through the D.C. area. A good friend lived on the same street. The uncertainty was becoming clearer and more beautiful. I put in a bid.
On Tuesday night, my realtor called me to tell me it was between me and another person for the condo. Both of us had bid $21,000 above asking. I called my parents, and floated an idea to them: what if I went even higher? Based on how the market was going, I felt it was a relatively safe bet the condo was either worth that or would be worth that soon. My dad thought it made sense; I called the realtor back, and in the end, the condo was mine.
Doing things alone I never imagined I could
I went to the condo directly after signing the papers for it, unlocked the door, and walked around. For the first time I was here by myself. This is my home, I told myself.
It was surreal.
In the weeks that followed there were indeed surprises. Getting blinds installed is a process that takes more time than you’d think. Not all no-drill shower rods are created equal. And while the seller had fixed the washing machine, he hadn’t installed the water pipes correctly (an $1,800 repair). The relatively new dishwasher, which had worked fine in the home inspection, also unexpectedly stopped working (a $500 repair).
But there was fun to be had, too.
Finally unencumbered by landlord-enforced beige mandates, I picked a deep blue for the living room; burnished gold for the bedroom; teal for the office; and pink for the bathroom. I watched YouTube videos on how to paint walls, peppered Sherwin-Williams employees with dumb questions, and carefully covered my windows and ceiling edges with painters’ tape.
Friends offered to help me paint, but I turned them down. Fueled by the momentum of the past weeks, I wanted to do one more thing I had once been sure I couldn’t do by myself. As I swiped the paint roller up and down the walls—quite the change from swiping on dating apps—and saw the rooms blossom into the dreamy, atmospheric spaces I had envisioned for so many years, I felt a true healing.
In one sense, nothing had changed: I was still unsure what the next few years would bring. But I had changed. For years, I’d read advice to singles that encouraged you to not live your life in a holding pattern, to keep moving forward. And by buying the condo, I had committed to not just waiting around for my future to clarify. Sure, I wished the future wasn’t so obscure and fogged over. But I was also refusing to let the ambiguous future muddy my present.
Now I’ve lived in my condo nearly two years. I’m still employed. Jeff Bezos is still planning to move Amazon to my neighborhood. Home prices have only gone up since I bought.
The rooms of my condo are now cluttered with memories: laughing with friends on the patio outside, drinking wine; waking up my sister in the guest room/office, cup of coffee in hand; seeing my friends try out my punching bag in my bedroom; and watching my brother, a Catholic priest, slowly walk through the condo, sprinkling holy water and blessing my home. There are other memories, too: learning new recipes in my kitchen; writing in my office, gazing out between sentences at the huge tree in the courtyard; tossing a ball up and down the long hallway for my puppy to chase; reading the Bible in the quiet morning hours on my couch.
And as I take time to explore my neighborhood, particularly during the past year of the pandemic, I keep discovering new welcome surprises. In the hollow of one tree is a nook crammed with fairy-like figures. There are secret paths through wooded and park areas. I live within walking distance of not one, but two babbling brooks.
And I didn’t stop changing. After two failed attempts, I successfully assembled a tricky piece of furniture. I realized I was capable of going into Home Depot and, with the help of kindly employees and Google, figuring out what I needed to make small home repairs. I discovered baking soda and water is a miracle worker if you can’t get a stain off a quartz countertop. I’m in the middle of refinancing, another foray into the murky, confusing world of personal finance.
But my proudest moment was at Christmas. I was crouching under my Christmas tree—my first real, large tree ever—trying to retrieve a hook for an ornament when I came eye to eye with a brown cockroach. I hastily got up, and then took control of the situation: I grabbed a sneaker, smashed the cockroach, scooped it up with a paper towel, and threw it out. Perhaps buying a house by yourself seems more impressive than killing a cockroach by yourself without having a heart attack. But for me, I know which one was harder.
I still don’t know what my future holds.
But when I sit in my brightly-painted, atmospheric condo—my bungalow, as one friend dubbed it—and sip my coffee, looking out at the trees and the bushes from my window, hearing the neighbor kids playing and the neighborhood dogs barking at each other, I do feel that at this moment, I have a home.