May 2010


For about five years my wife and I lived in a two-bedroom, two-floor carriage house in Inman Park. We rented. It was—and remains—the only way we could afford to live in such a gorgeous location, where some of the houses could easily fetch $1 million and where I was just eight minutes from work. Our landlords, who lived in the main house, couldn’t have been better—they weren’t intrusive, but they responded quickly when the washing machine broke down, or the toilet wouldn’t stop running, or a squirrel got under the roof. One year workers spent months renovating part of the main house, which was beautiful but old. This is the South. Wood rots. Roofs buckle. Anne, who owned the “compound,” as she called it, with her husband, would be standing outside in the driveway when I’d come home from work, staring up at her house, arms crossed, oblivious to the mosquitoes. “It never stops,” she’d say. I nodded like I could relate, but I couldn’t. I was a renter. My responsibility began and ended with one task: Write a check every month.

When you’re in your twenties, it’s fine to rent. As you get into your thirties, and certainly as you get married and think about a family, it’s not so fine anymore. People look at you funny. By the time I hit thirty-five, my friends not only thought it was weird I hadn’t bought a house yet, they told me. “Are you nuts? Interest rates are so low.” That’s what they said, but this is what I heard: You mean you’re still paying rent? Don’t you understand that for just $500 a month more and a longer commute—plus a $30,000 down payment that you otherwise could put into an interest-bearing account—you could do what I do on the weekends, which is clean the gutters, mow the lawn, shop for a new water heater, pray that property values don’t sink, and that after twenty years you’ll actually start paying more on the principal every month than on the interest?

Is this a cynical view? I’m not sure it is, especially considering that the economic spasms convulsing the nation began when the subprime mortgage market collapsed. Too many people who shouldn’t have bought homes bought them, because too many banks were happy to oblige. And government is complicit, dangling the carrot of tax credits and deductions. Politicians know it’s not businesses that are the nation’s economic engine; it’s the compounded effect of millions of us spending our money on cars and flatscreen TVs and $2 coffees at Starbucks. And houses. Especially houses. The sales pitch works. Heck, homeowning is woven into the fabric of the American dream itself.

The fact is, just because you can buy a home doesn’t mean you should. A generation or two ago, with money borrowed from their hometown bank, Americans bought a house and stayed. It made sense. Their houses weren’t meant as nest eggs, but simply nests. My parents live in the same house they did forty-five years ago. Today the average American moves a dozen times in her life. Maybe now, in the new real estate reality that we explore starting on page 55, houses will no longer be investment vehicles, but will once again simply be homes.

You can see where this is going. Last year we bought a house. In Decatur. My wife loves it. A massive oak that’s well over a century old towers over the front yard. It produces approximately 18 million leaves, which I rake most weekends. Naturally I wouldn’t trade any of this. Probably. But at least now I can relate.

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