House Hunting: Move On

In her new series, Whitney Carpenter decides to buy a house, but not for the reasons you’d expect.

I should mention upfront that I never expected to be the house-buying sort. Until a few months ago, I was certain that there were only two reasons to own a home. The first was as an investment property — the wise and vaguely mercenary act of buying some bungalow, putting down laminate flooring, and watching your fortunes climb. The second was the white-picket-fence scenario, the idea that everyone, no matter how dramatic their bangs and how edgy their poetry, will eventually settle down, buy an SUV with a DVD player in the back, and mortgage a house with vaulted ceilings. With my lack of financial foresight and inability to drive with the TV on, I figured myself for a life-long renter. As it happens, I was wrong.


To be clear, I’m not one of those anti-materialistic chumps who don’t care where they live as long as they’re healthy and happy. On the contrary, I nurse an obsessive concern over my living space. I suffer seizures of embarrassment when admitting that I once rented an apartment with a wet bar in the living room and palm trees in the parking lot. I’ve lived in the same rental for two years now (a little house with a gate à la The Secret Garden in the backyard), but I still spend hours online peering at pictures of linen cabinets and loitering on the kind of blogs frequented by people who frame pieces of vintage wallpaper. 

But through all of the years I spent packing and unpacking, searching for the next adorable bathroom or picturesque alleyway, the idea of buying a house never occurred to me. Renting, I thought, was liberating. It was the choice of the artistic and intellectual as showcased in Woody Allen films; it allowed one to be adventurous and transient, always ready to move from one furnished brick warehouse to another. In college I imagined riding a bicycle up to my rambling seaside (rental) home, where I would drink toddies and smoke cigarettes in something called a turret. Later, when my obsession with Virginia Woolf subsided slightly, I imagined myself living in a pre-war apartment above an organic produce market. I never achieved this dream, but I’m sure if I had, the proprietor of the market would be jaded and arthritic and save me all of the best oranges.

I wish I could say that my decision to buy a house was entirely an emotional one, that I woke up one day and the romantic clichés cluttering my brain had been replaced by a strong, reasonable nesting urge. I could pretend that I was transformed by NPR into the sort of person who gets — really gets — what an interest rate is and doesn’t feel the least bit tempted to change the station when the word “foreclosure” comes up. I could even blame the fact that I’m married to someone who occasionally uses words like “escrow” and can fathom the elusive financial equations of homeownership (house + x^2 = good), but even that wasn’t much of a factor in my change of heart.

The real reason that I want to buy a house is part financial and part fantastical. I’ve lived in California my whole life, and I understand that overpriced real estate is a tax on the right to be self-righteous when telling people from other states that you don’t live anywhere near LA. However, when I renewed my lease and calculated the percentage of my income that went to my landlord last year, the majesty of renting started to fade a little. This disenchantment melded with my feeling of relative financial stability, and I began to wonder if buying a house was really the cultural betrayal I imagined. And every time a nosey family member or frantic newscaster credited the collapse of the housing market with giving people in my tax bracket a slim chance to buy a home, my curiosity grew.

The second, fantastical part of my reasoning is harder to explain. I’ve spent years searching for the perfect rental without ever finding it. Sure, there were close calls; there have been apartments with crank windows, shaded balconies, and tile floors that I’ve schemed to inhabit, only to find that there is a strange smell in the pipes, a broken oven in the kitchen, or a crazy homeless man who pounds on the door at night. My rental resume is filled with fabulous doorknobs on cheap doors and centrally located 600-square-foot cottages that seemed so much bigger during the hurried walk-through. No place is perfect and when you rent you have to choose between making due and moving on. Typically, I’ve moved on.  

That, I think, is what finally convinced me to start looking for a house of my own. As much as I’d like to fancy myself a rambling artist and adventurer, I’m a fairly boring person with a fairly developed interest in my living arrangements. And while I’ve accepted the fact that no place is perfect when you walk in the door, I haven’t given up on the idea of a perfect house. Owning a house gives you options beyond resignation and moving; it gives you the opportunity to change a house, to paint the shutters, hammer nails willy-nilly into the walls, and create your perfect home through sheer will and well-informed textile choices. When you think about it that way, buying a house is both a responsible and sentimental thing to do. It’s not quite as romantic as perpetual renting, but it comes close enough.

Illustration by wackystuff.

Whitney Carpenter is a would-be writer who spends her time starting great cubicle conversations with questions like, “Which soda do you think is the classiest?" She blogs the mundane at Little Nearer.