Wednesday, June 28, 2006

House envy: rambling and rumbling

So. . . I don't consider myself to be particularly materialistic. I mean, I have stuff. Lots of stuff. But none of it is of particularly high quality because hey, I'm a grad student, and because I'm not about brand names or top-of-the-line products loaded with features (OK, except for Apple. I love me those Macintosh computers). I wish I could live more simply--with less stuff--but honestly, most of my personal stuff right now is dissertation- and school-related: books, papers, shelves, desk, etc.

Our living room has an old, broken-down couch and two, er, well-worn chairs, as well as the "kitchen" table and the hardware trappings of Mr. Trillwing's multimedia funhouse. It's not pretty.

Accordingly, we don't have people over much. Grad students, yes. That we can manage. People who understand the madness, the sacrifices, and the teeny-tiny paychecks behind the squalor.

But I'm starting to go to more and more playgroups, and the assumption is that if one goes to playgroup, one hosts playgroup every once in awhile.

And I have yet to see a playgroup held in an apartment complex, let alone in a house that isn't, um, perfect. We're talking new hardwood floors, built-in bookcases, granite countertops, etc.

It's enough to make a trillwing reconsider her life's path. Instead of having (ahem) $XX,XXX in debt, might I have made a down payment on a house in that same amount? If I had done so five, six years ago, it would have qualified as a nice down payment. Today, even if that debt had absolute value signs embracing it (remember those from algebra class?), it still wouldn't be enough for a down payment.

These moms' houses are $500,000, $700,000 homes. So I know these people are carrying a lot of debt, too. But they also seem comfortable and happy in their homes, able to have guests over and entertain.

I'd be embarrassed to host these new mothers at my place: the carpet stains I can never seem to conquer, the ever-present floating dog hair, the stacked plastic tubs of dissertation archive materials, the scratched kitchen cupboards probably last refinished in the 1980s, the boring white heavily textured walls. It's depressing, really, even if it is my current home and if I've had a lot of good times here.

I'd host a playgroup in the park, but it's too damn hot these days.

I think I've mentioned before that my parents bought their home in 1968 for $28,000. It's three blocks from the beach, three bedrooms, big yard, lots of nice wood floors and moldings. At the time they bought it, $28,000 was about 3x their combined schoolteaching income. Today the home is worth about $1.5 million.

(Mr. Trillwing's salary + my salary) x 3 = not enough for even a down payment on a home like that, let alone one in the dusty hothouse of the Big Tomato (aka Sactown, Sacto) or its sprawling suburbs. And there's no way--absolutely no way--we could afford to buy real estate in this pleasant, if scorching, little town where we currently reside.

Don't get me wrong: I don't feel sorry for myself. Not at all. But I'm wondering how I'm going to negotiate this brave new world of mommy networking without a "real" home base.

And I'm wondering, too, if accepting an academic life means I'm stuck on the sad little rental track for a long, long time.


phd me said...

I can relate, even without the playgroup issue. I've been living in an apartment for the past four years, and it's fine - for what it is - but it's noisy, there's limited space, the floors are sagging, the lino's pulling up. And if I complain, people want to know why I haven't moved. Ummm, because this is pretty much all I can afford at my current "salary".

Don't give up though! I'm on the academic track, too - just got my first asst prof position - and I also just bought a house. Granted, I'm not living in a popular urban area or close to the beach. I'm living in a college town located in a semi-rural area, although very close to urban centers; one of the selling points of the position was that I could afford a home right off the bat. That said, I'll never be signing my name to a $500,000 house as an academic!

So, yeah, no good advice. Just some support for the situation!

ScienceWoman said...

I'm with PhD me. If you leave California and the coasts and big urban areas, you can buy a house for a lot less than $500,000. It may not be as spectacular as those McMansions in your play group, but I wouldn't consign your self to permanent renter status just yet. Just give it time.

ArticulateDad said...

Patience... (said the man with none to his name). I know the feeling. It does suck to be renting (again). But reality is, most places outside of these parts, houses go for a lot less. What we sold our house for a couple months ago wouldn't even buy us a tiny mobile home around here. I suspect in a year or two, not only will you be a lot closer to having that down payment, but the housing prices will have fully adjusted to more reasonable levels.

Most important: Follow your heart, whether it's as an academic or not. The path you choose is your own. Be true to yourself, to your work, and your life. Be sure you know your own priorities and goals. And seek them, single-mindedly. Patience and perseverance. (I've got the latter in abundance, and the former only sparingly.) Together they will provide.

susan said...

I can relate, too. Many of the families we have play dates with are people who make way more money than we do, and some of the houses CG's friends live in are just tremendous. But our academic friends live in houses that are more-or-less like ours (some more, some less) and some of CG's friends live in houses that are messier or smaller or more modest than ours. What would be fun about a playdate with you is the Trillwing family vibe, and that's got nothing to do with the house.

Heather Clisby said...

And now a word from a single gal working in Corporate America: Guess what? It's just as hard!

If I want to buy anything at all, it only means that I must keep my corporate job about 25 years longer than I would like and that just makes me sad.

We should start a support group, Renters Anonymous, and keep inviting each other over so we can all overlook everything.

DrOtter said...

Renting bites, we're living in a basement which has so little daylight it is depressing. I'm told it will get better one day though, so keep dreaming!

Can you get creative and host the playgroup in some other non-house place? Or cheaply 'decorate' your living room to some theme (just for the occasion) to make it seem fun and totally better than the big houses? Which I'm sure it would be anyway!

Queen of West Procrastination said...

I really really can also relate, even wihtout the playgroup. It's harder for me because, before we decided to go away for a PhD, we were going to buy a house in the small town where Chris was teaching. Where we could have started off marriage as owners of a nice house, which would have cost about $35,000. Yeah.

And now we're renting a basement suite on the West Coast, where we could never even imagine buying a tiny condo, even if we could find a job for Chris in his field. Sometimes it's hard to look back on what we could have had. (But, on the other hand, would I have been looking wistfully at this life, if I'd chosen the other?)