When I was a kid, the attributes of a well-adjusted Grown Up seemed clear. Grown Ups were married, they had children and full-time jobs, and they owned houses. Grown Ups had the middle class comfort that was the standard to which we aspired. It wasn’t the American Dream, it was the American Expectation. Even I, with my affinity for defying expectations, assumed that I would one day assimilate and become a Grown Up. Then I grew up.
Middle class comfort is as attainable a goal as becoming a fairy tale princess for those living in lower class squalor. While other little girls imagined living in prim Colonial-style houses with white picket fences, I imagined finally having my own bedroom and not sharing a bed with my mother. My only architectural concern was whether there were four walls and a door that could be properly slammed. When I did fantasize about The Future and a place for my stuff, I never considered a proper house. I had loft ambitions—exposed bricks and beams, giant windows, four walls and a door. In The Future, I was going to be an Independent City Girl living in a sexy apartment. Well, at least I got the City part down.
Just as I was not blessed with the Business Savvy gene, the Home Owner gene is also missing from my DNA. My parents were not avid home owners. My mother was a serial renter and my father had the charming habit of purchasing houses and then putting the deeds into his lady friends’ name. Both parental units were terrified of having property attached to their own names, living in constant fear that everything they owned could be snatched away without warning. Whether this fear was a symptom of their divorce or of being born in the Silent Generation or just being lower class Caucasians prone to fits of general fuck-uppery, I’ll never know for certain.
My mother was in the real estate research business. At the request of banks or other lending corporations, it was her job to track the history of ownership for residential properties. I spent many afternoons and summers accompanying her on adventures through the local court house, digging up relevant information on homeowners and their properties. Oh, the information that’s accessible to anyone who’s being paid to ask for it would have privacy advocates reeling! We flipped through thousands of files on Johnsons, Williams, and Smiths and their residential history. We learned where the Johnsons got divorced, which Williams had the most tax liens, how many times the Smiths refinanced their mortgage. I didn’t wholly understand the information I was gathering, but I did enjoy the blue glow of the microfiche. Our research could turn up pages of deeds and mortgages and foreclosures just on one property. Seeing the kind of legal drama that can unfold in home buying—even without HGTV’s quick cuts and tension-building edits—didn’t instill great consumer confidence in the real estate industry.
I’ve been content as a renter. Many people make a lot of noise about how renting is just throwing money away or paying someone else’s mortgage. I like renting when it means someone else is responsible for the outdoorsy bits and structural maintenance. It’s nice to have someone to blame when the house breaks. Home ownership is a major purchase and a huge responsibility. One could even argue that it’s bigger than marriage. Unless you’re a house-flipper or just trying to get a leg up on that property ladder, the house you buy is presumably the house you’ll live in for a substantial chunk of your life. So, it’s not enough to fall in love with a house (unless it’s portable), there’s the neighbourhood to consider…the city, the country. Well, at least I got the country part down.
Things have changed since I was a kid. Expectations have shifted. Thanks to the invention of the Quarterlife Crisis, we can defer adulthood along with college loans. No one really expects new 30-year-olds to own much of anything. The middle class is not as comfortable as it was a few years ago. It looks like we need new social norms by which to measure our failures and successes. I am master of my own web domain…that counts for something, right?