House Hunting: Explain Yourself

Whitney Carpenter judges houses. Loan officers judge Whitney.

A couple of months into the house-hunting process it occurred to me that I might not have been fair to some of the houses.

Actually, “unfair” hardly seems harsh enough; at best I’d been hasty, and in some cases, I was fairly certain that I’d been mean. When I realized this I was sitting in front of a loan officer, sporting a pair of shoes that I usually reserved for funerals and trying to charm my way into a mortgage. Sweating profusely and surrounded by multi-lingual posters declaring that a penny saved was a penny earned, I suddenly regretted all of the perfectly respectable houses I’d written off for little infractions like river-rock walls, chain-link fences, and kitchen sinks shaped like kissing cherubs. It might seem a little crazy, but sitting in front of that loan officer in a bank attached to the local supermarket, I felt like one of those houses.
I was visiting the loan officer on the advice of my brand-new real estate agent, a charming fellow full of platitudes about multiple bathrooms being the secret to domestic bliss. A loan officer, simply put, serves as gatekeeper to the bank — he examines the credit, debt, and capital of the applicant and decides whether she is likely to pay back her loan. I didn’t relish the idea of discussing my expenditures and turbulent job history with a stranger, especially a stranger with the word “officer” in his job title. However, my real estate agent assured me that a consultation like this was a necessary part of financing a house, so I donned my most responsible ensemble and followed his advice.

Whatever my misgivings about the nature of the meeting, I did hope that it might give my house search some direction. Every morning I scrolled through pictures of people’s homes and expanded each thumbnail, ignoring the captions and descriptive paragraphs as I tried to imagine my furniture on the owner’s carpet and my face in her picture frames. I was admittedly short-sighted and unsympathetic; I rarely exerted myself to visualize what a room might look like with new wallpaper, and I never tried to empathize with what the owners might have seen in their old stuff. I clicked systematically through the updated listings, flippantly dismissing houses for broken windows, ugly carpeting, and rusty bathtubs. Occasionally a picture would catch my eye — usually some pornographic full-length shot of a pantry — but most mornings I didn’t see a single house that I liked well enough to arrange a viewing.

In the loan officer’s cubicle, I started to wish that the idea of viewing and potentially buying a house had never crossed my mind. I was nervous and I’d spent the morning practicing the kind of small talk that I imagined financially secure people made. I’d even worked out a heart-wrenching story to explain my recent departure from “professional” work and the subsequent pay cut, hoping to give an undercurrent of heroism to the morbid tale told by my paycheck stubs. I knew that I wasn’t a hopeless case financially; I had a steady job, some savings, and decent credit. I was eager, however, to give a back story to the numbers, to explain away decisions that might seem illogical on paper, and maybe give myself something of a human-interest edge. And if given the slightest opportunity, I might have done just that.

As it happened, during our twenty-minute meeting, the loan officer never asked me for a personal statement. In fact, besides a terse question about whether I was really married, in a tone that suggested having different last names was simply too bohemian, the loan officer didn’t ask me any personal questions. He merely took my driver’s license, hen-pecked my name into his computer, and in complete silence, scrolled.

As the silent minutes passed and I realized that there would be no further questions, I became frantic. If the loan officer never asked me anything, I couldn’t explain myself. There would be no time to air my endearing crackpot theories about homeownership, or to mention that I haven’t overdrawn my checking account since I was sixteen and that even then I never overdrew to buy things like drugs and condoms, only the sort of lame, responsible purchases that herald a lifetime of frugality. He’d never know that, despite the alarming number of W-2s in my file, I wasn’t the kind of person who leapt nimbly from job to job. I stared at the loan officer while he stared at the screen, certain that I could never qualify for a loan without prefacing my financial realities.

I spent the rest of the consultation in despair, thinking about the assumptions that the loan officer must be making about me and wondering whether he could see my bank statement and knew that I order my deodorant from Amazon. But as the silent meeting wound to a silent, unrecognizable close, I noticed something familiar in the intent stare and violent scrolling of the loan officer. It was a pose of power and indifference, tempered with the knowledge that there might be something or someone better on the screen tomorrow. I realized that if the loan officer didn’t ask me any questions, it was no better than I deserved; he was looking at me in the same clinical way that I’d been looking at houses.

To attribute feelings of vulnerability and embarrassment to a house is silly, I know, but when I emerged from the loan officer’s cubicle into the florescent lights of the supermarket, I felt a strong sympathy for houses. In a way, hunting for a house is an endless barrage of rooms that you wouldn’t have painted that color, couches you wouldn’t have placed there, and windows that you’re pretty sure you wouldn’t have cracked. In the midst of all the things that you might not have done, it’s easy to lose track of the fact that someone did do them, and that they would probably jump at the opportunity to explain themselves. Unfortunately, when we look at houses we have to make our decisions based on the same kind of disembodied factual residue as a loan officer.

And, finally, silver lining: A few days after our meeting the loan officer called me and explained the results of his evaluation, which was based on my own factual residue. Despite having taken a long leering look at my broken windows, and never having heard any of my crackpot theories on homeownership, the loan officer approved my application. He not only approved it, but approved an amount generous enough to get me into the perfect house, provided that I can look closely enough to find it.

Photo by Laughing Squid

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.