Monday, May 14, 2012

When I started last week's post about our next steps related to settling into a house, I was feeling uncertain and indecisive. As I got to the end of it, I was feeling a bit more sure that buying a 1/2 acre in the neighborhood where I want to start a school was a good decision. By the time I sifted through all the comments, I was even more convinced that we should take the giant leap. 

Many of the comments, however, were pretty critical, and I wanted to take some time to address them. I don't mean to try to convince you that we're making the right decision (because you are welcome to think whatever you want to think), but I do want to take a stab at clarifying and expounding upon my thoughts a bit more. 

From the Comments Section:
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.

I agree that safety is important. We'll be moving to a higher-poverty area, but the main problem is burglary. There's a lot we can do to secure our home as much as possible, including getting a security system, installing an extra-strong door that is more difficult to kick down, getting sliding glass doors with "Charlie bars" and pins to make them more secure, always locking windows and doors, and getting to know our neighbors really well. There are a lot of families with young children in the area. The truth is, much of Austin is urban. Even the more expensive neighborhoods, like Hyde Park around the university, have higher crime rates.

And, of course, we don't need bamboo floor and big windows to feel home. In our family mission statement, we have a print from Esty that says, "Wherever we are together, that is home." I wholeheartedly believe that sentiment. I'm not saying we need a light-filled house with bamboo floors; I'm saying we want it. I'm an introverted person, and I turn to my home as a sanctuary for rejuvenation and reflection. If we can afford to build a relatively small house with bamboo floors and big windows while interest rates are really low, then I feel okay giving myself permission to  pursue that "want".

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.

We're going to build with Ma Modular. It's a one-stop shop kind of process (they helped us find the land, the foundation engineer is on-site, we will have a design meeting with the architect, etc.). It's pre-fab, so it's faster, cheaper, and more eco-friendly than traditional building. It's also a streamlined process, so we will not have to compare fifteen faucets. They have standard finishes for most things; when we have a decision, it will be between two or three things (such as the color of our cabinet tops: white, black, or gray). We've been talking with Ma Modular for almost two years now. We've already picked out the model we want, and we'll just want to customize it a little bit.

I agree that it's going to be a stressful process. There will be glitches along the way. The thing is, our lives aren't going to slow down in the foreseeable future. If we are pregnant, our family life will get crazier in the next nine months, and my work life will get crazier in the next 18 months. I would rather take on the stress now while I'm only working part-time and caring for one child. I would love to have everything in place by the time we have a second child.

As far as money goes, Matt and I made a really smart choice back in 2007 to plan a $2,000 wedding. We didn't realize at the time how much that decision would help us later on. It allowed us to hold onto (and continue to build) our savings. We primarily asked for cash gifts for wedding presents, and we deposited that money (along with a $12,000 gift from our immediate family) into the bank, and asked for a cashier's check to bring to our closing. Buying our 1,000 square-foot, 2-bedroom, 1-bath bungalow in Houston nearly wiped out all our savings. It cost $231,000, so we had to show up with a serious chunk of change to cover the down payment and the closing costs. We refinanced nearly right away to lower our interest rate from something like 6.75% to 4.75%, so our monthly payments ended up being about $900 (with about $300 more for insurance + property taxes). Paying $1,200 a month for our house ended up being equal to or less than what we would have paid in rent for a house with a yard in a centrally-located neighborhood in Houston.

We try to live pretty frugally. We don't buy a lot of shoes, clothes, books, music, new technology, etc. We continued saving money. Every time I ran a Purposeful Conception course or made money from Amazon for click-throughs from this blog, I transferred it directly into a savings account called "The Dream." When I went on maternity leave, we tried to be even more frugal, and I took on consulting jobs when I could. We had to dip into our savings a little to cover the year I stayed home with Henry. When we decided to move to Austin, we sold our house by owner, so we could save $7,000 in the seller realtor's fees. It was extra work on my part, but I considered it to be a "job" while I was on maternity leave.

Because we chose a desirable neighborhood in Houston and because the economy wasn't hit too hard in Houston, we were able to sell our house for $20,000 more than we paid for it 3.5 years earlier.

Building a new house will definitely stretch us. We've been talking with a mortgage person, and he has given us a detailed, conservative estimate of what we will need to pay for our lot loan, construction loan, and final mortgage payment. We're building a modest 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom, 1,600-square foot house. Based on his estimates, we have enough money in our savings to cover it, and our mortgage payments will eventually be $1,046 (not including insurance or property taxes). Again, this is less than we are paying in rent right now (and we live pretty far south of town, which is a less expensive area of Austin).

Once we get past the initial tight pinch, we be in a very good place to save up lots of money for vacations, retirement, a swimming pool, etc. If we ever go back down to one income (due to job loss, going back to school, etc.), we will be able to cover our mortgage payment and our living expenses (it will be tight, but definitely possible).

I share all of this for a couple reasons: 1) I think it's important to talk candidly about personal financial management (my inspiration is Kelsey!). 2) We've put a lot of thought into whether we can take on this financial challenge. I'm particularly motivated to do it now while the interest rates are so incredibly low.

Why do you have to have a new home and not re-model a pre-existing one? Isn't the latter far more environmentally sound? Doesn't it bring less gentrification? Is a really nice house in a less nice area a shiny beacon for crime?

Honestly, I am very overwhelmed by the remodeling process. I've watched bloggers I respect--like Kelly Rae and John and Sherry do it--and it doesn't appeal to me. If you're not living in the home while you're remodeling it, then you've got to pay two mortgage payments at once. If you are living there, then you've got to deal with the stress of the environment and the potential toxicity. Also, you've got to have good vision. You have to be able to walk into a home and sense whether or not it has "good bones." I am not good at seeing through wallpaper and walls to sense whether something has the potential to feel light and airy after a remodel.

I wish I wanted to remodel because it is more environmentally responsible; it's just not who I am and I have to be honest about that.

In terms of gentrification, it's definitely another thing that weighs on my heart. It's a major issue in East Austin. We're not just moving there because the land is cheaper; we've moving there because we both work on the east side, and we want to build community there.

Our house won't be a "really nice house in a less nice area." First, the neighborhood is well-established and kept up (even thought though there are pockets of poverty all around). Second, our house will have a modest exterior. It will kind of look the like a modern version of the other ranch houses in the neighborhood. And, actually, it will be one of the smaller houses in the neighborhood. Most of the houses are about 2,000+ square feet. 

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

I definitely need to work on being more present, and I'm in the process of signing up for meditation. But, at the same time, planning is one of my hobbies. I enjoy planning things and then experiencing them. It's like double pleasure for me.

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.

Thank you! 

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.

I agree; that's why I want to get the housing piece out of the way before we have a second child. 

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". 

Yes, Nora, I'm sad, too. But I'm being realistic about what has happened to the co-housing movement in Austin. I am friends with a woman who has been working on it from the very beginning. They were so close to making it happen (they had the land, the plans, the people, etc.), and it still didn't work. She finally had to buy a house in a regular neighborhood because her trailer was breaking down and she just didn't see the group getting any traction in the foreseeable future.

It is extremely difficult to find people who a) want to live in community b) want to live in the same part of town c) have money to buy/build and d) have the exact same timeline. We found the most awesome family who met all those criteria, and we still couldn't make it work with them.

I'm not giving up the idea of community at all. We'll be living at the end of a little cul-de-sac, and I've already introduced myself to the two other houses there. Plus, there's a plot of land for sale right next to us. I'm just going to be building community in other ways.

At the end of the day, I want us to feel settled as a family and to put down serious roots. Our son is 14 months-old, and he has already lived in two houses. I don't want us to continue renting in South Austin, make a ton of connections here, and then move closer to our work in East Austin. I want to hurry and move into a sanctuary of a home and start building connections for the long haul. I'd like to be able to tell our second child: "This is the house you were born in."

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Kelly said...

Sara, I'm so glad you're finding so much clarity! Your plan sounds wonderful for you and I'm excited that you're going ahead with it. :)

Sara E. Cotner said...

Thanks, Kelly! Can we get together soon for a walk at our usual spot and time? Today or tomorrow, perhaps?

Crossing my fingers...

Anonymous said...

Hey Sara, the last paragraph of the post summed it up, yes? These sentiments were completely underlying the previous week's post...a strong need to feel settled, but in the way that you have envisioned. The urgency comes from the thoughts of welcoming a second child. And welcoming the child in the environment you envision (if the house isn't ready, does Austin have birthing centers?). People's comments may come off as critical; on the other hand, I am guessing that so many of those comments came from experience, and passed along to be helpful. Many home-owning parents have a laundry list (long or short!!) of things they would have done differently in their home-search or in their home-building process. Safe neighborhood, other kids to play with, a house with space to start plus room to grow, and good schools likely are the toppers. Hard surface flooring probably is too!! Bamboo floors and lots of light sound divine! If there's still some time, possibly talk/email with home-owning parents of young kids (whom you trust and value their opinions) about any of their "do-overs". Any way it's looked at, it will be an educational experience. All the best!

Nora said...

You're balancing an amazing number of goals and visions in your plans. I can be a bit over-idealistic about co-housing, I think. This comes partially out of my disappointment in seeing how hard it is across the country (even when there are interested folks), and partially because it will be a few years until we'll be able to really be able to start trying to work toward it where we live (and at that time are likely to face big compromises).

Angie Cousirat said...

I never underestimate you Sara! Didn't someone once describe you as a hippie with her sh*t together? Well put! Miss you, friend.

Rachel said...

I'm glad you really are thinking this through and really seem to have a good grasp of the considerations. This sounds downright good! Just a couple thoughts. You did ask.

As a buyer in ten years, I would never consider a used pre-fab house like this. But, that might just be my area. I guess that doesn't matter if you really plan on living there that long.

The most important consideration missing from this great think-it-through is your partner. If he feels uneasy, or this is stressful to him as breadwinner in a growing family, that is important. His reaction is important, and it might not be rational to you. My husband is terrible at expressing this kind of stress, but I know the burden he carried when he was breadwinner and the kids were young was immense, and it got worse when I had my heart set on something and he couldn't express how to put on the brakes. Just a thought.

Kelsey said...

It sounds like you've really thought through everything and are feeling excited for the change, awesome!

Ktina said...

This is one instance where I wish blog comments had a "like" button. I completely agree with Angie Cousirat - you (and Matt) have the drive and dedication that is needed to take on any project, including this house! Keep "Making Dreams Happen," as it is certainly a motivator to the rest of us :)

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