Home Sweet Home – But at What Price?

Economic crunch has many families living close to the edge.

A friend recently visited our house in San Mateo for the first time. He stared awe-struck at the box beam ceilings, redwood paneling and built-ins and uttered something many have said to us over the past seven years: “What an amazing experience to live in a house this old.”

Later that night, I stared at the huge, gaping, wet, drippy hole in the laundry room wall, which has made the space with the only other toilet nearly inoperable for the past three months thanks to a leaky something-or-another that’s going to cost us a million dollars to fix. Yes, the house is amazing, but not in the way my friend meant it.

When Andrew and I purchased it we were childless 20-somethings who, like everyone else, fell in love with the architecture, despite the fact that the walls were green with mold and the beautiful paneling was black with tarnish. We thought that the bedrooms off the living room, kitchen and front entryway were enchanting. The single bathroom had potential, and the backyard with its 15 different levels and types of pavement was the perfect place to throw parties and barbecues. We didn’t see that this house was not only a load of work, but not very family-friendly. 

Fast-forward seven years and our nest has grown to include a 3-year-old and, quite soon, a baby boy. Now the things we thought were charming have lost their luster. Our daughter hasn’t learned to ride a bike because the pavement requires 4-wheel drive. The quaint bathroom is sandwiched between our room and our daughter’s, which means my husband, who starts work at 6:30 a.m., can’t take a shower in the morning without waking her up. He shaves in the kitchen sink and now that the second toilet is out of commission has to wait until he gets to work to use the facilities. Soon my husband will lose his closet because the baby will take over the office where his clothes live. He joked that he could store them next to the mixer in the kitchen since it functions as his bathroom.

I grimaced. “You know, the entrance to the baby’s room is going to be off the kitchen now, so I’m not sure you’ll be able to shave there in the morning without waking him up,” I said. I’m going to censure the ensuing conversation, but I will say the man who once asked me for rubber gloves in the middle of the night to deal with the dog’s bowel problems had been pushed over the edge.

Andrew and I grew up in San Mateo County. We both lived in wonderful neighborhoods, in homes plenty big, and with parents who largely afforded our lifestyles on the single income of a nurse and educator. My house had a living room, family room, four bedrooms and a backyard so large my brother and I built a 50-yard Slip-n-Slide course through it.

I’ll never forget the first time Andrew and I started house hunting. We had $5,000 in our savings account, a load of debt and high expectations. It took one day of touring 900-square-foot homes that smelled like cigarette smoke and cat pee and were perched next to the sewer treatment plant for us to realize that our dream of recreating our parents’ lifestyles was going to be as crazy and scary as swimming from to Oakland. 

But leaving was not an option. We had family here, great jobs, the city, culture and a stunning array of outdoor activities. We got a lucky break when a real estate agent friend got us into a scrappy little house across from the for a rock-bottom price. I’m pretty sure we told a lot of lies to get the house, since we were in debt, but back then the bank would have given us the keys to the local Wells Fargo branch had we asked. 

We worked hard on that house, rehabbed it, flipped it nine months later and lived with my parents until we were enchanted by box beam ceilings and redwood paneling.

Since then the banking industry collapsed, taking away any hope of “moving up.” I got laid off thanks to media mogul Dean Singleton. And our home value took a slight detour south.

We largely live off my husband’s income. We pose as comfortable, but in realty, as is the case with most families these days, we are so close to the edge that I’m developing a fear of heights. We live without a lot of things, such as toilets and a functioning laundry room. With a baby on the way, though, I’m not sure how this house is going to work.

We’ve paraded contractors through the home, each one with a different idea of how to fix the house. Some think we should tear it down. Others stand in the kitchen scratching their heads for hours and then draw up some totally unrealistic diagram and never call back. 

While we watch them walk away, we both know that the whole conversation we just had was a bit of a fantasy – a chance for us to pretend that we live in the middle class San Mateo County that we grew up in, where carpenters and English teachers could afford a four bedroom house and multiple bathrooms.

I tell this story not because I expect anyone to feel sorry for us. We have a lot to be thankful for and, yes, we could move to Butte, Montana and own a seven-bedroom house and acres of land. I tell this because I think this is the norm for most families living here. Although you see moms in Escalades and Gucci sunglasses parading through parks, most of us here are perched on top of that cliff.


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