Friday, March 2, 2007

A Place to Call 'Home': 3.2.07

Since I became clear that my main focus--the thing I want most in the world--is a home of my own, I have learned and done the following things:

1) Checked my credit score. It's up 40 points since this time last year! This moves me into a whole new realm of lending rate possibilities! Combed over three credit reports from the three major companies that produce them to make sure the information was correct. Devised a strategy for raising that score even more in the next six months. (Seriously pay down balances, in part by borrowing money from my mom short-term at 0%; increase credit limits; don't apply for or open any new cards; continue to pay on time and pay more than minimum payments; don't use the cards for new purchases; transfer balances to lower rate cards whenever practical.)

2) Sat with a friend and looked on the Internet at every single available house we could find in Greenfield (half an hour north of here) as well as the ones near my price range in Northampton and other towns. Found one near my price range that I absolutely loved, but by the time I got up the courage to call a realtor, the listing had been removed.

3) Asked a homeowning friend if her home-improvement wiz partner would possibly help me in my search by doing some walkthroughs or helping to answer questions or talk to realtors and/or sellers.

4) Investigated options at the USDA. Their rural development office may just have a program that could assist someone like me. Requested information via e-mail, but was told it would be better to come in person.

5) Instituted a new spending policy and budget method. I have alotted $50/week for groceries and I do not go over this amount. I have allotted $30 per week for entertainment and I keep that cash in my wallet. I re-up on Wednesdays. I do not go over. It's tremendously satisfying to still have cash in my wallet at the end of the week. And it prevents me from making purchases because I have to think--do I really want this? This way, I only get the things I really do want. This week, I only was able to give myself $10 of entertainment money because I didn't earn enough to do more, but I spent less on groceries, so the combination of food and entertainment money seems to be happening sort of organically. I can make choices about how to re-allocate funds on an as needed basis, as long as I don't go over. For instance, there was plenty of food in the cupboards, so I had enough money to treat myself to take out food twice, a coffee, and a soda so far this week--entertainment expenses that came out of my grocery budget.

6) Began investigating alternatives to traditional homes. For example, Tumbleweed Tiny Houses. Perhaps buying land and building a home like one of these will be the answer. I'm also interested in looking into Cob houses, and found a woman who does how-to workshops. She doesn't have a web site, but you can e-mail her at (Her name is Amber DeVoss.) I haven't contacted her yet, but if I do, I'll post the results here.

7) Got some information about local resources, including a lead on classes for potential first-time hoembuyers; a recommendation for a good loan officer at a local bank; and the name of a local housing organization (HAP).

8) Created a notebook where I can take notes, keep track of ideas, and form a coherent plan.

9) Read part of a book for first-time homebuyers.

10) Pursued work with higher-paying clients; completed and invoice for work more quickly.

11) Was conscious of every purchase I made--from underwear to coffee to gas--in terms of my home ownership project. Every dollar I spend on something other than a home is a dollar I spend on something other than a home. It's okay to do this; I just want to be really aware of and satisfied by my choices as I go. I don't feel deprived. I feel excited and alive.

12) Created this category at my Thrift blog.

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A Place to Call 'Home'

My biggest thrifting accomplishment was my education. It took twenty years and I honestly don't even know how many thousands of dollars and (wo)man hours, but in 2004, I paid off my last student loan and at last—thank god, almighty—I was free at last.

I say it took twenty years because I was 14 when my mother told me that I would be on my own when it came to paying for college. I started working immediately. Twenty years later I wrote the last check for my student loans, and my priceless ($125,000+) Smith College education was finally paid for. Project complete.

Now, I have a new goal. I want to own a house. I want a home of my own. It seems far-fetched, overwhelming, virtually impossible, and very scary. Just like going to college once did.

I don't understand about mortgage rates or points or closing costs or how one goes about choosing a solid home for the best price. I don't know how to leverage my assets, few though they may be, in the most powerful way. Whenever I start to do research, I get lost amidst price tags and interest rates--fixed and variable--and percentage points swim before my eyes like the spots that burst in my vision just before I pass out.

I've tried researching programs for low-income people, for first-time homebuyers, rural folk. I've tried looking at mortgage calculators and talking to realtors. I've read books and pamphlets and web sites. But I always wind up feeling stonewalled. It's just too much intimidating information. So, I retreat and vow to try again when I have more money.

This happened to me again recently.

But a few things have happened to renew my determination that this can happen for me.

The first took place during an ordinary call to my younger brother (who, at the age of 31 has already owned two homes and is now building a third) to ask him a question about electricity. (He can fix, build, or figure out anything. He's a great resource.)

I didn't expect to find him at home because for the past few months, he's been spending every free minute working on his new house. But, lucky for me, he was home. (It turns out he only came home because he was vomiting at the job site due to a flu he denies that he has. My brother has a very high threshold for pain and suffering, mostly because he just refuses to acknowledge that it's happening.)

Anyway, I had a really good talk with him, and came away feeling a longing to be as fantastically committed to something as he is to this house. He's literally building it himself from the ground up, while also working a full-time job and making as much time as he can for his two children and his wife. He spent two weeks—his vacation time—putting on siding in the rain in near-freezing temperatures (remember, it was December in Maine) by himself. He's now doing the electrical and plumbing. His wife insulated the entire two-car garage herself. My brother says she's the hardest worker he knows. (She says she's learning a lot and that her husband is a stubborn ass.)

I am proud of his commitment and a little envious, I guess, of the passion it takes to commit to something so fully. It's been a really long time since I did that, since I willed something incredible into being, since I gave every crazy ounce of myself to make a dream come true. I did it with college. I did it with my book. I did it with Sister Spit. I did it with moving across the country—and back again. But aside from college, none of those things really gratified me the way I'd hoped. And now I'm getting timid in my old age. It's harder to pick a project to commit to. It's as though I'm less willing to jump off a cliff because I'm aware there's a small chance I might not fly; or perhaps I'm just doubting that I really do want to fly. Either way, it results in a lack of momentum that keeps me stranded, marooned in an apartment I don't love and can't afford, in a job I don't love (and can't afford), in a town I'm bored with, with a manuscript I never bothered to really send out, etc. etc. etc.

My talk with my brother inspired me. I decided to go for a walk, get some exercise, clear my head. My mom called just as I was leaving, so I called her from my (free) cell phone and talked to her about home buying. I asked her some questions about how she managed to do it on less money than I make. It turns out that she bought a very inexpensive house and put no money down. That's easier to do in Maine. I had hoped that she used a more helpful magic bullet—some government program or way of working the numbers that somehow would allow a low-income person to afford a $150,000 home—the bottom of the scale in Massachusetts. But, 'twas not the case.

My problem is that I have a down payment, but my annual income is too low to afford the mortgage on even the smallest homes in this area. Plus, I went through a bankruptcy, so my credit score isn't as high as it used to be. It would seem that I either need to make more, save enough to make a larger down payment, or move someplace where homes are more affordable. None of these things are easy for me to do. They each involve drastic changes and an extensive series of decisions all hinged together to make what feels like a very complicated labyrinth of choices.

Nevertheless, I came home from my walk and checked online again at the MLS database to see what was out there in what I think is my price range. I was disheartened by the rundown homes in rural locations that my meager budget could afford. I also visited the web site of a local bank that I trust and used an online calculator to figure out how much I would likely be approved for. According to the calculator, I could afford to buy a house for $68,953. Egad. That wouldn't even cover a mobile home.

As I sat musing about the futility of my situation, a little memory started to wriggle around in the back of my mind. Amy Dacyczyn, The Frugal Zealot herself, my first and best thrifting hero. I remembered seeing her on the Phil Donahue show when I was younger. She told a story about how she was able to buy a farmhouse in her (and my) home state of Maine on just one small income with two adults and four kids to feed, cloth, keep healthy, and entertain.

So, I searched on the web and found an article Amy had written, that told that same story. As I read it, I felt revitalized, re-committed. I remembered, then, what I had accomplished with college. When I was fourteen, I was in a much worse situation than I am now, with more daunting odds and fewer resources, but I made that education happen. I figured out all of the myriad things a kid needs to know in order to apply to (what's an SAT?), get into, transport oneself to, and pay for a top-notch college education. In fact, the cost of the education was almost the same as the home I want to buy. It was not too much for me to dream of—and fully believe in—my right to that education. While there may not be any merit- or need-based scholarship or grant aid for potential homebuyers out there, there must be a way to make this work. I have to infuse myself with that same focused determination that I put toward school--and that my brother is putting toward his home--if I'm going to make this happen. If Amy could do it, I can do it; if Lucas can do it, I can at least (galdang) try.

I think that in order to make it happen, I have to commit myself to it as fully as I committed myself to the college education project. I have to know what I want and settle for nothing else. I'm thinking that if I declare it here, publicly, and keep you posted about my progress, then my dream of owning the perfect home (for me) will be more likely to come true. And perhaps my journey to home ownership will help others to achieve it as well.

Consider this my official declaration: I want a home I can afford, someplace quiet, not too far from Northampton (or perhaps someplace else in the country that I can equally enjoy) with room for a garden and animals, and lots of sunlight, especially in the kitchen. I want a home with a pool or on the water, that is affordable to heat (and cool) and comfortable to live in for me and my friends and family who will come to visit. I want to have the potential to live off the grid, to grow my own food and make all the power I need to use. There will be fresh, clean air. And, more than anything, I want a place I can call home, that will not be too difficult to pay for. I want to stop being frightened all the time that my home will go away. I want to be solid. I want my home to be my own for as long as I want it to be.

Buy Amy Dacyczyn's book.

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