Monday, May 7, 2012

Indecision & Uncertainty

Matt and I need to make a firm decision about the property/house situation. We've extended our option period three times (which means we would lose $200 if we backed out). We've also already paid about $1,300 for a soil sample. We're definitely on the path toward purchasing land and building a house, but I am overwhelmed with indecision. 

I think part of the problem is the relative permanence of this decision. We would essentially be building one of the most expensive houses in the neighborhood, which is never a good financial move. If anything happened (e.g., my school didn't receive permission from the state to open, the school location ends up not being in the neighborhood I thought it would be, we feel too unsafe in the neighborhood, etc.), then it would be pretty difficult to sell our house quickly without losing a significant amount of money. 

On the other hand, if we scrap this vision, I want to have a clear vision of what we're working toward. Are we going to spend a couple years renting and saving up money to purchase a more expensive house near the greenbelt or river trail? Would the daily commute up and down I-35 drive us mad?

Have we even been in Austin long enough to form an opinion about the best place for us to live in terms of building community, feeling safe, minimizing our commute to work, locating ourselves near our recreational preferences, and finding something we can afford?

Am I simply feeling insecure because this step would take so much courage? I would basically be saying: "I am starting a school here. I am putting down roots in this community. We are raising our family here. We are committed to this place and this community." 

Or am I insecure about the finances? A little life might be sprouting within me, which means we are looking at thousands of dollars in medical care (we want to do another home birth with midwife + doula), plus thousands of dollars in additional daycare fees for a second child, plus we just wrote a $10,900 check for Henry's ten months of Montessori school starting this August (which does not factor in his daycare fees for the rest of the summer or the fees for summer daycare the following summer). Oy vey. 

I try to engage Matt in this overwhelming decision, but he's growing weary of the round and round discussion of all the pros and cons. He says he's adaptable and amenable to pretty much any option. We spent some time this weekend exploring other options for ourselves. We found a 3.2-acre horse farm with a pre-existing house that backs up to a golf course and state park for only $230,000 (which includes two horses). That caught our attention, but I ultimately think we would feel lonely out there, unless we could subdivide the land and invite other people to build out there, too. We also scoured dozes of photos of houses closer in town, but we weren't impressed by much of what we saw (since we have our minds stuck on a wide, open house with lots of natural light). 

What's the story we want to be able to tell about our lives a year from now? 

We live in a modern, light-filled home with bamboo floors and glass everywhere that overlooks greenery. We have two chickens, a bloodhound, and two kids. We have a giant sectional couch, and we spend our time gathered around as a family. We're saving up money to build a small pool in our backyard. I'm opening a school in a year and a half, and it will be an 8-minute commute from our house. Matt is only 5.5 miles away from his office. Lots of families from the neighborhood are signed up to enroll in the school. We are friends with other young families. We are in the process of planning neighborhood events to build community and connection. We can walk to the park, which has tons of shade, tennis courts, and a creek running through it. On the weekends, it's a 20-minute car ride to the trails around the lake or to a greenbelt for hiking. We're only ten minutes away from downtown. 

There are other compelling stories we could write for our family, but I'm not sure if they would have all the requisite components. We could live in a safer neighborhood, but then we wouldn't be able to build our own home (the land would be too expensive), and we would have to commute farther to school and work every day. We could move to a cabin in Vermont, but then Henry wouldn't get the kind of public Montessori education we want him to have, and I would seriously suffer from Seasonally Affective Disorder.

I'm starting to realize that committing to a vision is hard because I am essentially saying no to all the alternate visions that I would also enjoy. By deciding to open a school in Austin, I am essentially saying no to all the other cities and countries out there. It also means that we are saying no to formal co-housing, which does not yet exist in Austin. By trying to minimize my commute, I am saying no to rural living. I am saying no to part-time work. I am saying no to working from home and enjoying a flexible schedule. I am saying no to relaxed evenings at home.

That's a lot to say no to!

But I have to remind myself that I am saying yes to meaningful and purposeful work. I am saying yes to committing to children for eleven years at a time (the school will be preK-3 through 8th grade). I am saying yes to building a team of smart, passionate educators. I am saying yes to creating a home that feels like a sanctuary in a neighborhood that has a lot of opportunity for connection and community. I am saying yes to three seasons outside (and one season in the pool). I am saying yes to weekend hikes and hidden creeks. I am saying yes to outdoor music concerts held at local farms. I am saying yes to an over-abundance of dog-friendly restaurants. 

And there's still time for other visions to take shape, too. This might be the vision for the next 20 years and then it might be time to form a new vision (on a lake?).

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Anaïs said...

Hi Sraah, thank you so much for this post and the one before. I feel my husband and I are passing trough the same process. I don't have an answer of course but I personally think that safety is a super important feeling in everyday life. It doesn't mean we should live in golden cages but I would rather live in a smaller house in a nice area than in a huge house where I feel my family is not safe in the street (because of cars, bad behavior and violence, etc.). My second thought is you might not need a bamboo floor and big windows to feel "home" and to enjoy it. Home is where your heart can expend freely.
Best, Anaïs.

Catoctin Mountain Mama said...

Being at a crossroads can be so terrifying. Whenever I have a large decision to make, I hash out all the pros and cons (like you have done extensively) and then I just sit. I stop all the analyzing and sit and breath. Sometimes, I use the mantra "What should I do?" and sometimes I don't. An answer always come. Each time I use this process, I have not regrets about my decision.

Good-luck with your decision! Lots of exciting things on your plate right now!

Rachel said...

It sounds like you aren't ready to build.

Every little decision, from the AC to the door locks to the faucets, requires checking out fifteen of them, and it will always cost a ton more. I don't think you're ready for that much stress. Multiply all your charts by ten, seriously. And that's just the parts that go right.

I'm just wildly speculating on your money situation, but I'm not sure you are financially ready, and that's OK. Most people don't get to build their dream home right out of the gate. If you don't have a serious buffer, and I mean a serious buffer, I wouldn't do it yet. It would bring too much stress to your family.

Just buy a house and install some bamboo floors. Or keep renting and keep your eye on this goal. You don't have to do it five minutes from now.

Jenny said...

Whenever I feel like this, I try to remember that life is very long and what may seem essential right now might seem unimportant a few years (or decades) later. We finished an enormous remodel/rebuild a few years ago and I'll second the comment that is it always more expensive and more difficult than you anticipated. I also wanted to share my experience remodeling while pregnant. We did a previous remodel on a different house when I was pregnant and it was a bad idea. When I was exhausted from pregnancy and work, I had no energy left for decisions about cabinetry or tile and found it all incredibly stressful. All I wanted was for everything to be done by the time the baby was born so the usual stress of building was compounded by a biological timeline that could not be stopped. I also felt like we were bleeding money from the pregnancy and the remodel. It was disconcerting.

Faye said...

A few questions to get you thinking Sara...

1) What would you do for a living and to keep the kind of money coming in that you need/want, if your school doesn't open? Could you raise the cash without the school, in a way that you want to?
2) Why do you have to have a new home and not re-model a pre-existing one? Isn't the latter far more environmentaly sound? Doesn't it bring less gentrification? Or is this harder in the US than the UK?
3) Is a really nice house in a less nice area a shiny beacon for crime?
4) Can you live with a huge commute every day of your lives (for the near future anyway)?
5) Could you forgive yourself if anything happened to your family (safety/crime wise) in the less safe area? Would you still feel the same about the community you were finacially tied to if this were to happen? Would you feel you should have taken the commute instead?
6) Would it be the end of the world if the house part of your 'one year from now' bit happened two years from now instead?

These are just things I thought about, not things I have an opinion on! The kind of stuff that would whirl around in my head too! Good luck, but take it slow. Hopefully you have a very long life to live these dreams, don't spread yourself too thin and reget decisions later xx

Anonymous said...

Don't forget that the more time you spend focusing on the future, the less time your are living in the present.

Shawn said...

Thanks, as always, for sharing. I totally understand what you mean about saying yes to something means saying no to a whole lot of other options. I am going through that now with career choices. I have my law degree, but there are still so many directions I could take that in. I feel like I'll have to take whatever job opportunity comes my way because I need the money, but what if that position means saying no to something else that could lead me down a more meaningful path? I think the trick is that when things are right, your excitement about the current opportunity should overwhelm any fears and anxiety about what you are saying no to. When you became an educator, you said no to a lot of things, when you married Matt, you said no to the possibility of other people, when you had a baby, you said no to a different kind of life and, yet, hopefully, these decisions have for the most part brought you joy. I think if something is right, you will find excitement in the possibilities opening to you and that should be strong enough to cool the doubts about the doors that are closing. I hope you figure out what will bring you joy! And don't forget not to put too much pressure on it - there is very little in life that cannot be modified or changed down the road - and sometimes there is no absolute right or wrong choice, as long as you are at peace with it.

Anonymous said...

The possbility of adding another child into your life put me over the edge with regard to your grand plans. Slow down. It is wonderful to have big goals, but I truly believe the reason there are such things as self-doubt and feelings of anxiety are to keep us all realistic in our decision-making. It is really not wise to start a new business of any kind, make a huge investment into building a home, and add a child to the family (or, frankly, any TWO of those things) unless you have a large nest egg on the side, which I gather you do not. Financial stress if AWFUL. I am a mother of two young children and a professional (as is my husband). I can tell you that the second child adds a SIGNIFICANT layer of complication. You will be on man-to-man defense; realistically, there is very little free time. And Henry will get more and more challenging and will test your patience in ways you can only now imagine. If you think you have little free time now, well, you have more than you WILL have. Big dreams don't happen overnight, nor do they happen all at once. I seriously think you should put the pocket neighborhood idea on hold for at least a decade.

redfrizzz said...

It's a huge decision. What will you do if you don't take this leap? What will you regret if you back out? How will you feel if you leave this opportunity?
Besides the finances, why not?

What is that they say, something about regretting the things we don't do?

Anonymous said...

You can very much regret the things you DO DO.

Anonymous said...

Just a thought: isn't it a bad financial move to build a really nice house in a less nice location? Won't the neighborhood lessen the value of the house once it's built?

That's like throwing away tens of thousands of dollars.

Anonymous said...

I'm gonna be blunt and pray you do not take offense. I think your plan sounds crazy and unrealistic. Your baby turned one, you moved to a new area, you are starting a new business AND you want to buy land and build a home--IN A BAD ECONOMY??? I don't even know how you got this far in your thinking. I think rather than "living your values" you are wanting everything to happen yesterday and not willing to wait. Why is building a home the only way to your "dreams" and "principles"? It sounds so far from minimalism (that you preach and hope to model for Henry) than anything. Maybe these are your environmental and community goals, but looked at another way, it just seems like a me me me situation where you want everything you want and now, despite not having the financial backing for it. You guys are a young family. I'm at least ten years your senior, with one kid, a solid profession and I am just now starting to consider some of the big questions you are wanting to solve this second. I gasped when I saw you spent over $1000 on the assessment. It just seems like a lot of money for these unrealistic ideas about how you "should" live. Save money for a pool?! Sara, I think you lost perspective here (though I adore you and your blog!). By the time you are done with one room in the house, you won't have money left over for any frills. What about your kids' futures? What about taking earth shattering trips to Vietnam or Mexico with your kids so they can experience other cultures? It sounds like you and Matt can barely afford a simple domestic trip, let alone the kind of wonderful international trips that really give our kids character and prevent Americanism. Like other people said: SLOW DOWN. I think you know deep down that you are rushing and not making prudent decisions. But you want things now. I do wish you luck and hope you can understand that I am a direct and blunt person and do not mean any disrespect! But you those are my thoughts after reading your blog for a while and silently wondering what the hell you are thinking. Honestly, what you can "focusing" on your dreams seems to me very unfocused and imprudent.

Kelsey said...

These are definitely big decisions! If you really picture buying the land, can you imagine how you’d feel? Would it be happy that you’ve found land with so many of the qualities you wanted or stress because of the expense, etc? If you have cold feet at all, losing $200 isn’t a big deal in the long run. Right now we love the house we have but if we’d rented for longer we would have bought a house in another area because our jobs ended up being farther away. I do think there is some value is waiting since you’re building (and not just buying) until you have more certainty about your school. BUT I also agree with Matt that you guys can roll with anything, it’s all about the attitude. I think it really comes down to: does the idea really excite you and motivate you? If so, then I think that makes it the right choice for you. Good luck friend!

Kelsey said...

Also, just a thought. Maybe a better piece of land will come on the market in the next year (or two!). In the grand scheme 2 years is not long at all, especially if you could keep saving money. I just thought of this b/c just a few months ago I had no idea what to do about my job and I was so unhappy. Then, suddenly a great job was posted, I interviewed and got it, and now I'm so happy. But I never would have imagined that on January 1 of this you never know what might come up if you decide to pass on this land.

Sara E. Cotner said...

Thank you so much for taking time out of your days to share your thoughts with me! I don't take offense to any of it. At this point, I'm not sure I have time to respond to individual arguments, but please know that I am considering all of your points. I've also talked to my best friend several times throughout the day to ask him if I'm crazy. He's watching TV right now, but he promised to read my post, your comments, and share his thoughts with me (since he's known me for 14 years).

Thanks, All!

Anonymous said...

Sara, a sure sign that you're making the right decision is peace. If you don't have peace then I'd wait. God's grace and wisdom in your decisions. You sound a lot like me but I am learning the hard way that life is long and if it doesn't happen today, there's always tomorrow, next year and the year after. May your dreams come true at the right time :)

debbie downer said...

I hate to be the Debbie Downer here, because you really have accomplished so much and I love your dreams. But you need to slow down and think about crap happening, because crap happens.

You are in a mostly one-income family. If crap were to happen your husband, you are up a creek. I recognize you have been very lucky, but illness, car accidents, and layoffs can happen to anyone. I don't believe you should live in fear, but I don't see why you would stretch your family thin just because you don't like the windows in every rental in Austin.

Really, imagine your husband can't find a job/can't work for a year. It could happen. Suddenly you would wish you had made different decisions when everything was going well and before you cared about what COBRA costs.

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't a nice apartment do all of this more efficiently (except the chickens)? There are plenty of apartments with windows and pools and gyms and green space and nice neighbors and better security than most houses.

I understand your emotional desire to own. It's hard to go back to renting after you owned, but you aren't moving backwards in your life, just in this one little piece. Surely you are deeper than this sounds, and you don't define you or your family by how fancy your house is.

Nora said...

I acknowledge and affirm your desire to build a home that fits your ideals and dreams in many ways (while also making compromises that come with decision-making), and believe that you'll be able build community wherever you go. Still, from my own perspective, I'm sad to hear your blog won't be a place to turn to for updates on the extensive and difficult (but also collaborative, collective, and community-building) process that I imagine starting a pocket neighborhood would be. The real estate market is structured in a way where it incentives nuclear family-centered housing (as the challenges you faced in trying to start a pocket neighborhood can attest to). And yet it seems worth striving for alternative models that work against that, to expand how we think of "family", "community", and "neighbors".
No matter what, I am certain this blog will remain a place that has interesting discussions on family/community/neighbors no matter how or where you build your home.

Rebekah said...

I encourage you to keep trying to set up an intentional community! Austin seems like the perfect place for it. My family and I are members of a small, urban ecovillage in Milwaukee ( and we LOVE it. But, it took the founders a LOT of work to set it up - many months spent searching for the right properties (2 adjacent duplexes) and people. It started with 4 adults and a child and we now have 7 adults and three children. Intentional communities offer so much more than you could get from regular neighbors. I honestly can't imagine living any other way.

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