Home sweet home: house hunting in Southern California

Home Sweet Home

There are some things in life that make you unequivocably grown up — joining Costco, bringing wine to dinner parties, yawning at 11 pm, buying a car with automatic windows, asking for household appliances for birthdays, waking up with a creaky back, seeing high-school kids in the mall and thinking “They’re so young/immature/stupid/fill-in-the-blank with a cranky adjective here”. The pinnacle of grown-up-ness, for me, perhaps beyond joking to my parents that we need to consider which raisin ranch we’ll put them in when they’re too old to wipe, is buying a house… or at least trying to.

First there’s the nerve-wracking stage of pre-approval, where your financial documents are meticulously scoured, every transaction, deposit and discrepancy painstakingly analyzed and explained. “Oh yes,” I said, “I do remember buying that belt at Fashion Bug,” as you rationalize the outstanding balance of $7.96 on your credit report, and then try to explain that you never received the bill and THAT’S why there’s a blip on your credit score. No, no… you would never forget to pay a bill. Of course you wouldn’t! Cough. This process is full of little holes to fill, reassurances to be made that you’re a secure, sound, responsible adult and you would NEVER dream of using your full-time income to do something like buy Coachella tickets or eat leftover movie theater popcorn for dinner. None of those things which I’ve ever done, of course. Cough. I’m still getting over that cold.

Once you’re pre-approved and still gasping at the amount a low-budget house turns out to cost you in monthly mortgage, you begin the hunting process. At first, your head is filled with dreams of things that your house will be — granite counters, shiny wood floors, charming Spanish archways that fill the house with quaintness and character. You don’t imagine carpeted bathrooms, popcorn ceilings, the swarms of termites lying in wait. The neighborhood of your dream has wide, slick asphalt, perfect sidewalks and pathways, mature trees and beautifully manicured lawns. These things are not reality, of course — they’re hopes, dreams, thoughts for the future. You realize with some glimpse of reality that you’re dreaming, but in life you know it’s wise to be optimistic, right?

Home for sale in Pasadena. Currently priced at $975,000.

The first house you really fall in love with is like your first highschool boyfriend. Sure, he’s got braces, bacne and loves Phish, but he’s got CHARACTER. He might be a fixer, but with a little bit of work, he could be perfect. You agree to date (write an offer) and after one date (the offer is reviewed), he makes some weird, offhand comment about how your sister has nicer boobs (they want a counter to get closer to the other buyer’s all-cash offer). You’re aghast, but surely, you’re new to this whole dating thing, so that’s how it goes (you write a higher offer). After a few more dates (a few more days waiting), your highschool sweetheart breaks your heart. “I have a thing for your sister,” he says (the other buyer got it). You’re mad, hurt, but oh well, you didn’t reaaaaally like him, anyway, right? He had bacne, braces and liked Phish! (Carpeted bathrooms, popcorn ceilings, wood paneling in the living room. You keep looking).

A few days go by and some potential suitors interest you (one with a beautiful bay window that looks out to the hills, but hasn’t been updated since 1949). Then there’s the one you fall hard for. The floors gleam like honey in the sunshine. Even though great Auntie Edith died in the guest room at age 103, you feel warmth, not a hovering ghost of sellers past. So what if there’s no central air in 103 degree Southern California? There are beautiful oak trees towering over the house in the backyard, and the 1950s kitchen has adorable little latches on all the counters. You imagine raising your kids there, crossing the threshold with a bundled newborn baby in your arms, hosting Thanksgiving dinners for your inlaws. You envision birthday parties and Christmas, smiles, memories, family warmth. Then you go outside and see the homeboys ride their bikes past your lawn, hear the sirens in the distance, ask the realtor about the neighborhood. “Well” she says with a sigh, “I’ll be honest.” You know right then that the dream is shattered. After all, what’s a home if you can’t sleep soundly at night? So what if the windows are dual-paned when they’ve been broken into twice before?

Sometimes you fall in love, but the person you’re buying the house with doesn’t. Then you have this weird halfway conflict of interest, where you want the other person to be happy, but you’re not really SURE if you want mayonnaise on the sandwich you’re about to share, you know? Then, your marriage becomes even more solid and secure as you spend hours analyzing the cost of ripping out a countertop stove, or explaining why you really couldn’t deal with the carving of the horse etched into the ceiling. These thoughts creep into the free-space in your head, and suddenly, at red lights, you’re dreaming of trips to Home Depot, replacing the yellowing formica with sparkling granite countertops, the kind with rainbow flecks that shimmer in the light. Eventually, you reach a mutual decision and move on with a sigh of relief, back to Trulia, RedFin and Zillow you go.

Sometimes, decisions are easy. The house you’ve absolutely maxxed your budget on has come back with the seller asking for another $20,000, and prior to that, buying this home would mean eating Top Ramen and selling your body by the pound on the black market. You have to regretfully decline. Sometimes, the decisions are not easy. Sometimes, a house has a beautifully manicured lawn, complete with blooming roses, neatly clipped grass, orange trees bursting with juicy, ripe fruit. However, the house also has a frequent visitor in the backyard — a commuter train, a mere 100 feet from your patio set. You could be drinking iced lemonades on a hot summer day, watching the kids play in the sprinklers, at peace with the world until you heard that fateful honnnnk honnnnnk. Then you’d be fearing that the train would one day veer off track and end up in your living room. Despite your agent’s hopeful urging that maybe you future son would grow up to love trains, you know it just won’t work. No, no, that one just wouldn’t work. You will have to choo-choose another.

More often than not you place offers on homes that you don’t love. Your heart doesn’t pitter-patter at the thought of re-painting, re-carpeting, re-upholstering, and renovation, but for your budget, it must be done. You must be confident in your offer that while you may not love the house, you will like it, and when you make it your own, you will love it. You take these risks. You jump in. Just when your hopes are up and you are imagining the dog run you can build in the 9,000 square foot backyard, you get the call that an investor has snatched up your sweet little fixer and will be flipping it into the modern California dream home. You are sad, but back to Trulia, to Redfin, to Zillow you go.

Your weekends become consumed with checking for new listings on Realtor.com, hoping to find that magical unicorn of a listing that isn’t pending, that isn’t a short sale, that has words like “upgraded,” “central air,” “hardwood,” and “over 1,000 square feet”. Friends and family that mean well but aren’t so well-informed of your budget send you beautiful listings for $500,000 in Culver City and Pasadena. You sigh and think, “One day. One day.” You visit open house after open house, learning the lingo. Comp, COE, addendum are new words in your vocabulary. You learn what a Jack and Jill bathroom is. You learn how to scour CityData.com, to compare crime maps with the local newspaper. You are thankful for your journalism education, because you know you can search the block number of any potential address to find recent homicides or break-ins. You compare these iffy neighborhoods to the one you live in now, the one some call the barrio, but it’s been home for four years, and you’ve been fiiiiiiine. Just fine.

At night in your rental home, you think about these things before you go to bed. Do you keep trying and hope that in six months you’re handed the keys to your perfect new home? Do you listen to people’s advice and buy a condo? Do you give up and stay in your rental? Do you wait a few more years until you’ve sold the first book, until the blog is booming, and you have more money to spend? Do you decide to give up all of the conventions of a normal, grown-up life and join a hippie commune in Topanga Canyon where you can walk around in the nude and not care that you’re 80 pounds overweight? These are the things that make you a grown up, that make you confident in your ability to think critically. Granite counter tops. Hardwood floors. Double bathrooms, copper plumbing, porcelain sink. One by one, the features come to you, drifting by like tumbleweeds on a warm fall day. Your thoughts are consumed and your efforts are valiant. One by one, these things enter your mind, and you drift off to sleep, knowing that one day…oh one day, you will find your home sweet home.