Tossing and turning over the American dream

By Jimmy Alford | Published Saturday, April 12, 2014

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Nicole and I are toying with the idea of buying a home and leaving the rent race behind. I never thought I was afraid of commitment until the word “mortgage” entered my vocabulary.

Jimmy Alford

Jimmy Alford

Here’s a slight caveat before going further. I have never bought a home. I don’t know the ins and outs. This is a column about my perception and fears of the process, so all you real estate gurus out there can keep your opinions to yourself.

What normally happens is, Nicole and I are home browsing the Internet, watching TV or reading – sometimes all at once. Then she will start looking at houses.

“Oooh, look!” she’ll say. “This one is selling for $[X amount]!” I ask what’s wrong with it. We debate a little while. I say it’s too small, she’ll say the outside isn’t exactly right, and eventually we drop the subject and go one about our evening – usually.

But now and then we come across a great deal. We’ll find something with a nice backyard, two-car garage, three bedrooms and all for a good price. This is when I start getting nervous. I know it’s a good deal – at least on the face of it.

Thoughts of property taxes, homeowners insurance and lawn mowers start to fill my head. My face flushes. Why do I feel this way?

I think having coasted through the nation’s housing crisis as one of the many apartment-dwelling Americans has instilled a great sense of caution – maybe even fear – that buying a house is just buying into a scam.

It may not be true, but sometimes, when I crunch the numbers and hear the horror stories, I’m not convinced.

First you need good credit, which you can’t get without having debt, but not too much debt and not too little. You have to have this Goldilocks amount to have a great score.

The whole process of credit seems counterintuitive. How was it ever decided that owing people money is a good thing and makes you a better person to lend to?

Then if you’re short on cash and late on a payment, they charge you more. If you couldn’t pay to begin with, how is increasing your debt going to solve the problem? Seems silly to me.

That said, my credit is fine – but tacking on six figures of debt makes my head swim. Not to mention the fact that once you’ve paid off the loan, you’ve likely paid double what the house was originally worth.

My parents told me a house is an investment that can be left to your children. It’s equity and can increase in value. While all that may be technically true, I think the last 10 years have shown us all that even the money invested in your home isn’t a sure thing.

I’m not even going to get into how much it costs to maintain and furnish a house – just more debt to add to the pile in your wallet. And don’t forget to throw $3,000 a year in taxes on top, and however many thousands more for insurance.

It all feels like a carnival game to me – like ring toss. They put a couple rings out there to show it can be done, but come to find out, it’s all rigged to take as much cash from you as possible. How is this the American dream?

All this fear is tempered, of course, by a longing for that perfect home life and a desire to give my wife what she needs. And she needs a good home to call her own.

That’s one upside that I can’t argue with – it would be ours. We could paint, alter and improve to our hearts’ content. If I wanted to have a barbecue in my yard, I could.

Sure, I would have to mow that yard, but that’s what kids are for, right? I’ll only have to endure that chore until they’re old enough to take over.

I can build an office in my garage, or I can fix up an old pickup. Nicole could paint, and we would be happy – deeply in debt, but happy.

Sounds like the American dream to me.

Jimmy Alford is a graphic designer, reporter and photographer for the Messenger.

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