Questioning the American Dream: Why I’m Not Obsessed with Buying a House

Questioning the American Dream: Why I'm Not Obsessed with Buying a House

I’ve never lived in a house. Ever.

I realized just how strange that was one day in high school when I was talking to a boy in the hallway. I don’t remember why, but he asked me if I knew how to use a lawn mower.

Without thinking, I said no. It was an innocent question. But the second the word left my mouth I knew it was the wrong thing to say. Well, duh. Every kid knows how to use a lawn mower, because their parents make them do it as a chore. That’s what you do when you live in a house.

“What do you do then? Do you just let the grass grow everywhere?” he smirked.

I felt like an animal. I didn’t want to admit that the landlord mowed the lawn because he owned our apartment, and not us. That I’ve never had a place of my own, a slice of that coveted American dream.

It’s weird to not own a house in America.

Even my mom’s friends from the factory rushed to buy $30,000 mobile homes and plopped them down on the first empty lot they could find.

You’d think that after years of renting I’d desperately want to buy a place of my own. But living in big cities after college, as I have, can leave you wanting the exact opposite.

You often hear how buying a house is an emotional decision, but you never hear how renting can have a similar effect.

So today I’m sharing thoughts on home ownership from someone who not only lives in a place where owning feels more like a fantasy than a dream, but who’s actually pretty happy as a renter. Note: You should never be making housing decisions without considering your own unique situation. Don’t blindly follow the sayings, “Buying is always an investment” or “Rent is throwing money away.” Stop listening to your parents who grew up in time when life was different.

And if you live in an affordable city, prepare to be entertained by how the New York City real estate market is absolutely nuts.

What $650,000 Buys You in New York City

Back in my hometown, $650,000 gets you a 3,000 square foot beachfront house. New York City is a totally different story.

To give you a sense of what your money buys in NYC, I dragged my husband to a couple open houses in the neighborhood last weekend just to see what was out there.

To get to the first apartment we walked through narrow, dark hallways with stained carpeting. Up four floors with no elevator. The apartment itself was three rooms. Literally three: two bedrooms and a combined living room and kitchen–less than 800 square feet total. All for $650,000 plus $780 in maintenance and taxes per month.

The second apartment was also a two bedroom, but located further in, on the edges of a less expensive neighborhood with fewer shops and a 10-minute walk from the nearest subway. The entryway felt homey with its hardwood floors, although I still had to go up three flights of stairs with no elevator option. The apartment was bigger than the first, with a great layout and even-sized bedrooms. The finishings were all new, and the sellers had also spent the money to stage everything. But it was still only four rooms and not in the most happening neighborhood. The listed price was $840,000, plus over $800 per month for maintenance and taxes. That $800 monthly fee was the same price as the first room I rented when I moved to New York!

One reason why there’s a big price difference, even though both are two bedroom apartments: Apartment 1 is a co-op and Apartment 2 is a condo. Co-ops tend to be less expensive, but you need to go through a detailed interview process and be accepted by the board. Not only do you have to make collective decisions with the other apartment owners, but rarely are you allowed to rent your apartment out. Condos are usually priced higher, you can rent them out, and there are no interviews to deal with. They’re more desirable, but they’re also few and far between.

Regardless, I thought both apartments were massively overpriced. Apartment 1 wasn’t much better from our apartment now, and Apartment 2 was most likely a recent flip the sellers were trying to make a quick buck on.

What I didn’t see in either was a real sense of quality. That I’d be getting a lot of value for my money. I mean, you’ve seen how I am when I’m buying clothes, right? So if I’m making a half-million dollar purchase (yes, purchase, not investment), then I’m going to want to feel like I’m getting my money’s worth.

Contrast that with a house I saw in LA selling for about $800,000. It was an adorable standalone bungalow with lots of original features, but had been tastefully redone on the inside. There was a well-manicured backyard. One you could build a casita on. There was even a closet in the bathroom so you can hide all your toiletries, something you never get in NYC. While the price was still high, I could at least see the value in it right away.

So buying in NYC doesn’t always mean you’re going to upgrade to a better apartment. It could mean you end up paying a premium for the same quality apartment.

Mathematically, Buying in NYC Isn’t Always a Slam Dunk

People always say, “If the mortgage payment is the same as your monthly rent, buying is a no brainer.”

OK, I can buy into that. But in New York City that guideline only works if you’re already paying the average for rent.

According to Streeteasy’s tipping point calculator, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment where we live is about $3,000.

We pay $2,550.

This is for a two-bedroom apartment in a highly desirable neighborhood. If we swapped that $2,550 for a monthly mortgage payment, that could get us a $500,000 apartment…in a neighborhood we don’t want to live in. I’m a Brooklyn gal through and through, and have always prioritized a good neighborhood with amenities over a higher-end place in a less-happening area.

The $650k apartment in our neighborhood actually does come out to a $2,500 monthly mortgage payment. But adding in taxes and maintenance fees, and now the total monthly outlay is $3,300, or at least an $800 increase in monthly housing costs. And that doesn’t even factor in costs for repairs or renovations.

Yeah, but what about the tax breaks?

While tax benefits might have made a difference in homeowner costs in the past, new laws make home buying much less appealing. Although tax benefits alone shouldn’t be the tipping point either way, they do make a difference in the math.

So, the equivalent of our monthly rent could still get us a two-bedroom apartment, but in a less desirable neighborhood. But the reason why we live where we do is because of the neighborhood.

Of course you can’t expect to get everything on your wishlist, but then there are the money factors…

Who Wants to Be House Poor?

Now let’s talk about how much to spend on housing from an “I-want-to-be-a-financially-responsible-person” perspective.

One generally accepted guidelines says you should aim to spend no more than 30% of your gross income on housing. Another says you should spend no more than 30% of your NET income.

Here’s how we’re currently stacking up on both rules:
We spend about 12% of our gross income or 23% of our net income (net is barring both maxed-out 401k contributions).

I’ve used some online calculators that told me we could spend more than $5,000 per month on housing, and that honestly makes my face go:

I don’t care if it’s normal or average in NYC, or if we can afford it. I don’t value housing so much to spend all our money on it. $2,550 is already more than enough! And if we bought the cheaper apartment we’d be spending at least an extra $9,600 per year, and the nicer $840k apartment would cost us an extra $18,600+ per year.

Hot damn.

While it’s not always possible, we try to live on one income. If we were spending an extra $18,600 per year, we’d need to rely on both incomes. That would put us in a risky position in case one of us loses our jobs, starts hating our jobs, or something else happens to us.

And it’s not like I want to live in a cardboard box, but there are just too many other things I want to do with my money. Things like:

  • Trips
  • Saving for retirement
  • Saving for other future life events
  • The possibility of retiring early

While many view renting as “throwing money away,” in our case, I see it differently. I view underspending on housing as a way to afford other things in life that are important to us, too.

We’re Not Bad at Saving

Let’s face it: lots of people don’t save. Or maybe they do but investing seems complicated. Buying a home can be a way to force them to grow a nest egg for the future.

But what if you have a knack for saving? I will find a way to save money, or die trying.

Since my husband and I got married, I’ve been super mindful about actually doing something with the money we save on housing. Specifically, we hold a lower emergency fund and try to invest the rest. And in just a year, our net worth has increased by 33%, which astounds me. So redirecting savings from housing costs can be invested and grown in other ways.

A Home Is a Feeling

When I first started dating my husband, and he hadn’t seen my apartment yet, he told me he wondered what my room looked like. What I put on my walls. How I chose to express myself.

Well, he was pretty disappointed when he came over and saw the blank walls.

I don’t decorate.

I know some people care about customizing their home and making it “theirs,” but that’s not me.

With or without customizations, our apartment already feels like a real home. With its unique layout, exposed bricks, and wide-planked wood floors, it’s hard not to want to cozy up by a fireplace. And when I do laundry in the basement, sometimes I forget I’m in the city at all. I could swear I’m actually in a free-standing house in the suburbs.

We Won the Rental Jackpot

I haven’t even told you about our apartment yet. My husband found this place seven years ago, and we haven’t found a compelling reason to leave just yet. All you hear about with rentals are horror stories, but there’s no denying we have a rare deal. Here are our favorite amenities about where we live:

  • It’s a five-minute walk to the subway (clutch in the winter time).
  • We have only one set of neighbors, since the whole building is just three units. The landlord used to live on the first floor but moved away and now trusts us to take care of the building. Also, the neighbors feed our cats sometimes and have offered to let us borrow their car before.
  • Plenty of basement storage with washer/dryer access (both of these are huge luxuries in NYC)
  • An extra room! You almost never get this. You usually just get a kitchen, a living room, and then the bedrooms. The only thing in there is my desk, sewing machine and a chaise, and no one ever uses this room, but I love having it there as an option.
  • An actual closet in the bathroom that hides the cat litter box. It’s a small thing, but I’ve seen a lot of expensive apartments and I haven’t seen a bathroom closet in any of them.
  • As mentioned, old-school features like tin ceilings, crown molding and exposed brick that add a lot of character.
  • Most importantly, very few rent increases. Our rent has gone up $160 in seven years. Unless our landlord does a personality 180 or decides to sell, our apartment will be undermarket for years to come.
  • Speaking of landlords, he’s really responsive to our requests. For one, in New York City, most renters don’t pay for heat, so you have little control over the thermostats. But the minute we complain it’s too cold, he’s cranking up the heat for us. He’s also replaced the fridge, re-did the bathtub and the tiling, and replaced the toilet seat cover (OK, this is a small ask, but he didn’t even ask me why I wanted a new one.) The other day I was thinking the kitchen floor laminate looks kind of grubby, and that’s going to be my next ask.

That’s not to say our apartment is perfect, because it’s not. The biggie is that the second bedroom can only be accessed by walking through the other bedroom. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t wish the kitchen counter was nicer-looking or the sides of the island weren’t made out of fake wood. Besides that, it’s never really been maintained and it shows, like the holes in the window screens that no one has fixed.

But overall, we’ve won the jackpot to live where we do, have the landlord and neighbors we have, and pay what we do. So reader, can you see how I’m in a pickle?

You always hear that buying a house is about financial stability. But for our situation, all I see is the potential for financial risk. I see a half-million dollar mortgage locking me down.

So I’m sitting out on the house buying-front right now. At least, temporarily.

I know that an apartment that’s not mine could be taken away from me on a whim.

But until that time comes, all that saving we did in the background won’t be for nothing. We’re gonna have options either way.

I’d love to know what you think. Do you think buying a home in NYC is worth it, or am I being a total killjoy? How did you make your own decision to either buy or keep renting?

Feature Image: The Luxe Strategist

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