Have you noticed how people whine and complain on HGTV’s House Hunters and Property Virgins shows?
They criticize Formica counters, funky wall colors, small bathrooms from the 60s with pink tile, vinyl flooring. Whine, whine, whine. No house is “perfect,” they sigh. Why isn’t there a perfect house for them for a reasonable price?
I think about the nice house I was privileged to grow up in, with one pink bathroom for seven people, a tiny sliver of yard, about three linear feet of Formica kitchen counter. The mouth-watering meals my parents turned out of that bare-bones kitchen were the definition of delicious. Cherry pie from the fruit tree in the backyard? Who does that today? My family loved that house—it’s the place we think of when we remember home. My parents were so proud to make their last $200.00 monthly mortgage payment after thirty years.
The HGTV house-hunters’ expectations are high. How did these young Americans get the idea that they were supposed to be living so large? What the heck is wrong with Formica, anyway? Some of the most fabulous meals I ever cooked were in a camper trailer kitchen with an apartment sized gas stove from the 1950s—and gasp—no granite counters. Here’s a shocker: granite counters and stainless steel appliances don’t make dinner taste any better. Or create family harmony.
Here comes the hypocritical part, and my secret shame. I live in McMansion. Before you start hating on me, let me explain.
We owned the lot for 20 years; we bought it when it was called a swamp and not a “delightful marsh-front property with bird-watching from the back yard.” My husband built the house for us in 2006. Sounds ominous, right? Yep, we built at the height of the real estate boom, planned to stay in the house about five years, sell, and have enough equity to help with our eventual retirement. That retirement has been moved back to about age 90 since the real estate bubble burst. We pray our health holds out.
We aren’t wealthy people. I teach in the South, for Pete’s sake. That alone speaks volumes; you must know I teach for love, not money. Like many others, I haven’t even had a cost of living raise in five years. They’ve cut my health benefits and are going after my retirement plan next. Although I’m not happy with this treatment, I’m incredibly thankful to have the job, for obvious reasons.
So now the lovely house we built, our “dream” house that we really built for other people, is sitting on the market. The market is in the toilet. We’re stuck in a house that has a humongous mortgage payment, is too big and fancy for us, and may not sell for years. The house has most of the hot-button features that HGTV buyers crave: oak floors, granite counters, 3 full baths, loads of windows, porches, decks, and even a boat dock.
The house is lovely, and we’re lucky to live in it, but it has never felt like home to me. I knew we’d sell it, so I haven’t let myself relax into it, to feel like I belonged here. I appreciate all the features, I do. We looked at house plans for ten years before we picked this plan as a match for the lot. It’s a special, light-filled house, built like a fortress to withstand the hurricanes we get here in the South.
But when I write that murderous mortgage check every month, I dream of a house of half the size, with a small yard, some old-timey charm, and yes, even Formica counters. A house with a tiny little mortgage to reflect its tiny little square footage. Room to breathe financially. A lift to this relentless weight on our shoulders.
Yet we are extremely lucky, and I count my blessings every day. Yes, I really do. Believe it or not, we moved directly from a comfortable double-wide (not a thing in the world wrong with double-wides) to this house. We sang the theme song to The Jeffersons, “Moving On Up” when we moved in. We have this huge mortgage, but we are not underwater. The house is still worth more than the mortgage, although if you count the cash we put into the house ourselves, we are at breakeven. For today’s economy, that’s a miracle.
We see people—we know people who have lost homes to foreclosure in the last few years. Other people are underwater but still scraping together a mortgage payment each month. Some families are homeless and may never be homeowners again. They are the ones who deserve our attention, our help, our understanding.
We have been there, too. In the early 1990s we were bankrupt and foreclosed on, wandering the country in an old van and living in a tiny 1964 Holiday Rambler camper trailer. Foreclosure is heartbreaking. No one can fully understand how it hurts unless she’s been through it. It hurts financially and it hurts because a dream dies when a family loses a home after trying everything they know to save it. The hurt lasts for years, and never really goes away entirely.
Please don’t judge someone who has lost a home to foreclosure. An outside observer never knows the whole story about how a family lost their home. The situation is always more complicated than you could possibly imagine. Saying they shouldn’t have borrowed the money in the first place is not helpful. Illness, job loss, addiction, and death can hit any family at any time. Most foreclosed families have spent their life-savings fighting to keep their house, trying to do the “right thing.”
In our case, after foreclosure, we rebuilt our credit over the course of 15 years. We worked and saved. We don’t ask for praise. We did what so many others have done; we built a pretty house.
Some of you may be thinking, tough shit. I should just shut up, put on my big girl panties, and thank God I don’t lay my head down in a cardboard box or homeless shelter every night. I get it, I do.
Maybe that’s why some of the couples on HGTV upset me. They tend to have such high expectations of what a house should be. The hardwood floors, the granite counters, the high ceilings seem to mean everything to them.
If I could, I’d try to get through to these house-hunters. Lighten up, I’d tell them. It isn’t the house, it’s the feeling of home created within the house. A nice house means nothing if we don’t have peace of mind.
All the granite countertops in the world won’t bring us that.