Mia recently brought this article to my attention, “So Much for the Starter House.” It made me think deeply about the houses my husband José and I have lived in and purchased over the years. Of course my own thoughts on this matter may be very particular to my own circumstances. Even amongst Millennials, we all have different life experiences.
I would love to have a discussion following this post with your reactions and observations after having read the article as well. So let me know what you think in the comments!
Millennials Are Buying Homes Later In Life
In the article, Ronda Kaysen writes:
“Millennials, saddled with student debt, are buying their first homes later in life, and so are less likely to move again. Inventory is tight (largely because homeowners aren’t moving), home prices are high, and interest rates are rising.”
Although I talked about the fact that student loans are holding a lot of Millennials back from home buying in my ABS Podcast episode, this hasn’t been my life story. José and I had a baby, got married, and bought our first house when we were 22 and 23… all within two months! We tend to live outside the box… What can I say? It’s always been in my nature to put the cart before the horse.
That’s just what we did. We needed a place to live and José had a VA loan, so we decided to use it and invest our monthly BAH (Basic Allowance for Housing) in a starter home, rather than “waste it” on rent. At the time, it was the option that made the most sense to us. And to be honest, although I’ve gone through phases where I did regret it, now I look back and see that it truly was a smart financial decision. In fact it is one of the few big decisions we’ve made for our lives that we didn’t totally fuck up.
We call our starter home “the Georgia house.” The Georgia house was $162,000 when we bought it in 2011, and it was brand new. It’s got a two-car garage, three bedrooms, and a fenced-in backyard. It’s in a nice neighborhood in a nice town. A small town, but a nice place to live nevertheless, and only an hour from Savannah. We lived in it for 3 and a half years. Tenants pay our mortgage now. I think we just lucked out and fell outside the bracket of these high home prices and interest rates that are hitting other Millennial couples so hard.
Location is part of our story (houses in suburban Georgia simply are much cheaper than houses in New York or Denver or San Fransisco), and also our timing. We decided to buy very young, and with the Army’s VA loan program, we had the means to do so. Eight years ago housing markets were painted in a very different color than they are now.
The Five-Year Plan
“We often cobble together what we have for a down payment with the expectation that in five years (because, face it, we like to believe that life operates on an endless loop of five-year plans) we’ll upgrade to something larger, or in better condition, or in a better neighborhood.”
I got a real kick out of this! It really hit home for me (…pun intended…) and made me want to laugh, cry, and maybe throw up a little bit. We do do this, don’t we? Always expect that our lives will be different in five years. That magically, or not so magically because of our working hard at life, we will have so much more money and so many more options.
If my life has taught me nothing else, it’s that no matter how hard we work, sometimes life still drags us through the dirt and there’s nothing we can do about it. Contrary to what most of our well-intentioned baby boomer/ gen x parents led us to believe, hard work does not always precede reward. We explored this concept in depth when we read and discussed Leaders Eat Last.
Upgrading on that five-year plan seems to me to be more of a result of luck, chance, or destiny than anything else, and eventually, after probably a few cycles of five-year plans that don’t pan out, we all do figure out that we’ve been disillusioned the entire time. And for a lot of us, that means staying in the house. But is staying in the house really that bad?
“Americans have been moving less over the years, with only 11 percent changing households in 2017, down from 13 percent in 2007, according to United States census data.”
In the beginning we just bought the Georgia house because we needed a place to live. We might have been lucky and bought at a decent time in a decent market, but of course we still fell into the same five-year trap as everyone else. We didn’t expect still to be saddled with the starter home mortgage eight years later.
Falling in Love with The First Five-Year Plan
I was just telling José a couple nights ago that I have started to fall in love with our current home in the same way I fell in love with the Georgia house.
I used to complain a lot about all the little things I didn’t like about the Georgia house, but after we moved away for 2 years and then back again for 6 months in 2016, I completely fell in love with it, suddenly noticing all the things I loved about it. My favorite thing about that house is its low windows, where I could sit on the floor and watch the sun rise or watch the moon behind my windowsill altar.
We also have made many memories in that house from our early marriage and the girls’ babyhood. I know in relationships “familiarity breeds contempt,” but i don’t think this is true when it comes to our homes. I think the opposite phenomenon happens and we often end up seriously loving a home we’ve lived in for several years simply because we become attached to all its nooks and crannies!
I’ll never forget both of our baby girls determinedly army crawling towards mama down the hallway and taking their first steps in the Georgia house. Seeing my first shooting star from the hammock in the backyard. Making acorn flour from our two big oak trees. Charging stones in the moonlight on our back porch. The night Mia saw fairies in the water on our windowsill. The morning we all woke up early and watched the sunrise and made pancakes together in the kitchen.
In the same way, adult children often feel nostalgic about their parents’ house if it’s the house they grew up in. There is a certain comfort in “going home” to the same physical space. The only thing I don’t like is that I find myself acting more like the child I was when I am “back home,” and I really, really do not like that.
I’ve become conscious of it over the years but it’s still hard to recognize it when it’s happening in reality. I don’t know if this is a phenomenon that affects me only in my parents’ house, or if it’s when I’m anywhere near my parents at all. I find myself complaining more. Like a whiny kid!
It’s almost as if my subconscious knows my parents are there to support me, so I slip into a frame of reference where I am more dependent on them for my emotional stability and take less responsibility for myself. When I am in my own space in my own home with my husband and children, my sense of autonomy is much stronger.
“Autonomy means independence. The term is generally used by social scientists, theologians or psychiatrists to refer to the individuated, self-actualized or authentic human being, a self-governing and self-defining person, subject primarily to his own laws of being and deeply sensed goals and values. This does not mean that autonomous individuals reject social customs out of hand, but rather that their locus of control, their reference point for decision making, rests within… Autonomous persons consciously author their own lives.”
– Marsha Sinetar
When we are in our own spaces, in our own houses, in our own homes – we take responsibility. We own the space, and so the space depends on us for its maintenance, and we can only depend on ourselves. Starter home or not, it feels good and right to have our own space to belong to, and we are better people for it.
Falling in Love with the Second Five-Year Plan
Time passed and 6 years later we bought our second house in Colorado Springs. When we bought it, of course we were still in the five-year mindset. We actually said that in five years or less this house would become a rental for us just like the Georgia house is now, and we would move to a beautiful house with a beautiful view of the mountains on the Westside near all our friends and places we like to go. Now we’re a 20-40 minute drive from almost all of our friends and many of our favorite haunts and hiking trails.
The reason we ended up settling for the Eastside was because the houses we would have liked to live in on the Westside were not financially feasible for us at the time we were house shopping. Westside homes of the size and caliber we were looking for are at least triple the cost of Eastside homes. So we’d live on the Eastside. We settled. We’d move as soon as our futures and our bank accounts looked a little bit brighter. We overlooked a lot of things we didn’t love about this house because of course we weren’t going to stay.
But suddenly I’ve realized I want to stay.
I love the open floor plan of the first floor. It is perfect for entertaining. Even the things I didn’t love about the house like the absolutely abominable layout of the master bath I have started, strangely, to grow fond of. We’ve lived here for 18 months now and put down some rugs and replaced the appliances and blinds and just little things here and there… And it is starting to feel more like “ours”… more like “home.”
I don’t want to move now because I love this house. Maybe this is just my pregnancy hormones talking! I am nesting pretty badly. José joked today, “I see you running out of things to clean and then building a literal nest in our bed and scratching at it and then having the baby in it.” LMAO!
“Husband,” I said, “There is no way I will run out of corners to nest in this house. We have almost 3,000 square feet. I haven’t even touched the basement yet.”
Maybe it is just the pregnancy making me go all goo-goo eyes at my nest, but I still think there is something underneath this. Something that all people who have lived in a space for longer than a year start to feel just because we’re all human and we all get attached to our homes.
And I know once our baby is born here I’ll be even more attached to it.
I have a friend who had all three of her babies in her living room. Her and her husband always talk about someday upgrading to a different house, but I don’t think they ever will. When you’ve made memories like that in your house you don’t want to leave them.
Houses Become Homes
I do think it is sad that Millennials feel like they have to wait ’til later in life to invest in a starter home (or have to due to financial circumstances), since home ownership feels truly right and does something good to the soul. But I think the trend in Millennials’ starter homes becoming our forever homes is actually quite wonderful.
I wonder if we cannot embrace both of these notions and encourage more Millennials (and gen zers!) to take the plunge into whatever-home ownership younger, if they can in any way afford it. After my own experiences over the past eight years I will always be a strong proponent of investing money into mortgage and building equity young rather than simply spending it on rent.
Speaking from my pathetic authority as a former real estate agent, waiting for a better market is a gamble. The market is usually worse later than it is now. Interest rates will always be in flux, but historically, those high home prices don’t really ever retrograde and start going back down.
Waiting for “the right time” in life can be equally as much of a one step forward two steps back process. Y’all already know how I feel about how there’s no such thing as a good time to have a baby. Well, I’m inclined to say that finances aside, there’s honestly no such thing as a good time to buy a house. We’re never going to have all our shit together. That’s a rose-colored dimension I at least have never had the pleasure of living in.
We are making memories in our houses, having babies in our houses, falling in love in our houses, and falling in love with our houses. And so, our houses become our homes.
What did you think of the Starter Home article? Are you a Millennial still waiting to buy that first starter home, or are you already on your second or third five-year iteration? Share with us in the comments and let’s keep the conversation going…