Amidst the nightmare that was 2020, my partner and I decided to try and grab a slice of our American dream: owning a home.
Now, we weren’t expecting a picket fence to fall into our laps. But this year-long journey has highlighted the disparities between the haves and have-nots in this country.
The American dream isn’t necessarily dead; it just seems to be reserved for “haves” only.
The Sewage That Broke The Camel’s Back
It all started with raw sewage in the backyard. Due to circumstances beyond our control, our toilet started backing up into the shower and backyard. It was stressful and gross.
Much to our chagrin, we discovered our landlord (let’s call him John) wanted to fix the problem himself to save money. He tried and failed multiple times over several months, leaving us without a toilet in the middle of a pandemic.
This was an underground problem only a licensed plumber could fix. And John was not a plumber. It was during this sewage snafu we realized two things. One, John knew very little about the property he owned, and two, he was willing to cut corners at our expense.
Eventually, after researching tenant laws and threatening to call the health department, John hired a professional. But neither my partner nor I could shake the image of John pulling up in a Cadillac to tell us that an emergency plumber was too pricey.
We wanted to get out from underneath John’s penny-pinching thumb as soon as possible. Strangely enough, the pandemic seemed like the perfect opportunity to do so.
Dipping Our Toes Into The Housing Market
Like everyone else, we had no idea how the pandemic would affect the housing market. We initially predicted a buyer’s market. The literature we found was ultimately unhelpful, claiming it could go either way.
So, we erred on the side of optimism and started looking at available properties in town. We narrowed our search to homes with monthly payments at or below what we currently pay in rent.
Suddenly, a list of 20-25 homes for sale shrunk to three or four. We were shocked at the lack of affordable inventory. We were downright flabbergasted as we watched virtually every inexpensive home fly off the market within days of being listed.
And when we found out John was one of the wealthy investors snatching up homes in our price range, well, we were just pissed.
Our First Home Viewings
Knowing that we were competing against rich landlords, not other first-time homebuyers, our house hunt became frantic.
My partner and I spent hours on Zillow and Realtor.com. We were the living embodiments of Saturday Night Live’s sexy Zillow skit. We’d watch houses come and go, some of which we viewed in person, many of which were under contract before we could.
The anxious paradox of viewing homes was new to us. A pretty obvious part of buying a house is imagining yourself in it. But in this market, becoming too attached was bound to lead to heartbreak.
We also soon came to realize that we didn’t stand a fighting chance in a lightning-fast housing market without being pre-approved for a loan. So, we moved onto the next big, scary step: loan hunting.
Choosing A Lender (And Lenders Choosing Us)
For some context, my partner and I are both self-employed. We both wear multiple part-time hats, including playing music, private music lessons, carpentry and freelance writing.
Though consistent, neither of us would describe our employment history as cut-and-dry or stable. We hustle from job to job, gig to gig, but we pay all our bills on time. Surely, a bank could see our rental and credit histories and find merit in our bohemian lifestyle, right?
Er, wrong—we were denied by multiple banks for conventional loans with little to no explanation. Even with the help of our parents, a blatant privilege so many others don’t have, our financial situation was not up to snuff.
Some lenders ghosted us. Others feigned interest before doing the same. And in a particularly unsavory phone call, we had a loan agent laugh about our financial situation. “Yep, that’s why no one’s calling you back,” chuckled one lender. Oh, okay, uh, thanks.
The Waiting (And Waiting, And Waiting) Game
And boy, did we wait. After providing countless bank statements, spreadsheets, invoices, and pay stubs, the USDA told us they had run out of funds for 2020. They wouldn’t start on our application until January.
So, we renewed our lease for an additional six months and waited some more. By April 2021, we hadn’t heard a peep. We were, however, still expected to send bushels of paperwork each month proving our income.
The USDA office answered our many questions with vague answers. A confusing chain of command made it difficult to know who, if anyone, could help us. So, we just kept sending paperwork.
“Why does any of this matter if we pay all of our bills on time?!” My partner and I both screamed into an answerless void. We (okay, I) complained about it on Facebook. Friends and acquaintances offered well-meaning but un-useful advice.
Meanwhile, news outlets inundated us with story after story of a housing market running rampant. Sellers were overpricing homes because they could. Extravagant all-cash offers were beating out modest first-time homebuyers’ offers.
Did we even want to try and buy a house right now?
Resolving (And Changing) Our Minds
By the time we finally heard from the USDA, we had resolved to rent another year. We even renewed our lease (again). But after painstakingly tracking every cent we earned, we were not about to let this opportunity slide.
Amazingly, we managed to find a house in our price range shortly after re-starting our search. It had been on the market for a whopping seven months, which was suspicious, but we were ecstatic.
After viewing the house in person, we both fell in love. The house itself was twice the size of our rental. Kitschy, mid-century elements like an aqua and baby pink bathroom sealed the deal for me. Space to build a recording studio sealed the deal for him.
Anxious paradox be damned, we were officially all in.
Investing More Money, More Time And More Wishful Thinking
Programs like the USDA’s are great for low-income families, but there are noticeable downsides. Property requirements are extensive and, at times, arbitrary.
The house must be under 2,000 square feet. It can’t be used for business. The paint can’t be peeling. The list goes on, ending with the ever-confusing and, for many, inequitable appraisal process.
We went under contract for our dream home in late May. (It was on Bob Dylan’s birthday, which I’m choosing to take as a good sign.) Since then, we have invested upwards of $1,000 for inspections, estimates, closing costs and credit checks alone. Yet, we’re only halfway there.
As I write this, we’re in yet another holding pattern waiting for an appraisal. We have no idea when it will be completed, nor do we know if it will work out in our favor.
There exists a very real possibility that we will have invested our time, energy, money and emotions into this house just to have it pulled out from under us. No money back, no house.
As we watch smaller, less-equipped and more expensive houses pop up on the market, we can’t help but be a little nervous. We have a great deal. But if the USDA doesn’t see that, no amount of positive manifestation or income documentation will change their minds. Then, we’ll be back at square one.
Our Problem Is Neither Unique Nor As Bad As It Could Be
It’s important to note that both my partner and I are white. Neither of our yearly incomes fall above the poverty line. But we have parents willing to help us if we fall into hard times. Plus, we’re choosing to buy a house in a small Kentucky town with a population under 20,000 people. Our position, no matter how frustrating, is a privileged one.
Nevertheless, our home-buying journey has given us a front-row seat to this country’s unchecked class and racial inequalities. The government has intervened in the past. And from this tax-paying citizen’s perspective, it’s high time they do it again.
Housing is a human right. Overpriced and under-maintained rentals are a direct undermining of that right. So are impossibly complicated or discriminatory loan processes.
All of us, the have-nots included, are well overdue for our version of the American dream.