Friday, February 8, 2013

houses and homes

At the aikido dojo, we once had a very angry kid who we tried to help grow beyond the upbringing life had left him with; he lacked persistence and meandered off after a year or two. He never quite learned to control himself on the mat, and was often dangerous to train with. He did learn some manners, though.

Etiquette is like any other language: if you didn't grow up with it, it's a terrible lot of details to consciously remember correctly, and it will be quite a while before you are fluent and improvisational. In the meantime, native speakers like me--thanks, Mom and Dad!--can tell when you've learned etiquette late in life, because your composure may not survive an unexpected and perhaps un-generous turn of conversation:
"You could start a garden."
"That'd be nice, but my apartment has a very nice little yard that gets almost no sunlight, so it's not practical."
"Oh, you live in an apartment?"
"Yeah, cute little place about a mile up the road."
"I'm sorry, I thought you had a home."
"I do. I just don't own it."
"Oh...well...yes...I mean..."
I was more sensitive then than now to the assumption that "having a home" means "you own a house," and obviously less willing to let it slide by without comment. It was entirely natural for me to answer in a way that deviated from the implied script, and if anyone does that to me, I can handle it graciously. (One big aspect of being "gracious" is really "able to keep a calm and courteous conversation moving, even when the other conversants don't know how.") This young man couldn't, at the time, and I wasn't being attentive to his comfort level.

(This is absolutely not to lie and claim that I emerged from college with fully-developed social skills, which all of my friends and ex-girlfriends will tell you was not the case. It's just to say that I learned etiquette as a child, so becoming socially competent was a matter of properly tuning my foundational skills, rather than learning everything from scratch.)

At any rate, I have had numerous homes over the years, without owning any of them, for a variety of reasons, mostly involving the $650,000 median home price in San Mateo County. That was fine, since it wasn't really clear that the math worked out. Elsewhere in the country, with a relatively modest down payment, you can have a house with a mortgage payment that's less than rent would be. Not here, unless your idea of "modest" is $300,000.

However, this year we needed an accountant, who informs us that the math does work out and we should buy a house. I found a couple places that didn't look too insane and have somehow not provoked a feeding frenzy of investors bearing $400,000 in cash or more, so I suddenly decided it was worth trying again. This week we're submitting offers on a surprisingly large townhouse that's ready to go (assuming you can live with dark avocado tile counters in the kitchen), and on a quirky but appealing house that looks liveable but has dozens of obvious improvements available.

(Where to start? The unnecessary wall separating the small living room from the small dining room? The dark wood paneling on the walls? The dismal faux-ornate 60s cabinet facing? Perhaps the linoleum covering the floor of the garage, which was obviously an illegal apartment at some point? The third "bedroom" where they boarded up the fireplace and built out a closet in front of it? The possibilities are endless!)

Even on the low end, it's a ridiculous amount of money. We took a look at the economics of the Bay Area, though:
  • The biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression, caused by housing and provoking a nationwide flood of foreclosures, essentially left area house prices under $800,000 untouched. Condominium value was destroyed, but houses dropped maybe 10%.
  • High demand: this is a really nice area to live and work.
  • Restricted supply: there's very little unbuilt land within a 30-minute drive of the San Francisco-Mountain View corridor. (25% of the Bay Area is protected open space.)
  • Enough people who can summon large amounts of cash and/or float large monthly mortgage payments. (There's no sign of the Bay Area losing its primacy at the elite end of the tech world.)
Buying a house starts to look more "reasonable," in the limited sense that you're unlikely to lose your shirt to a local housing market collapse. Maybe a mega-quake? Who knows.

So, here we go again. Wish us luck.

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