I love the Seattle area. The 8 months of dreariness notwithstanding, it’s a great place, with lots of great people. It’s beautiful. The food is incredible. It’s a fantastic, thriving, growing, cutting-edge city. It’s a great place to live.
It is also expensive as hell. When I moved here back in 2007, I had to make peace with the realization that I would never actually be able to afford to buy a home here. A home that in Michigan or Ohio might cost $100,000 would easily cost $600-700k or more, depending on location. We’re not as expensive as California or New York City, but my hunch is that we’re certainly on the upper range of average house prices in the US. As a single man with a single source of income, I realized that it was probably unlikely that I would ever be able to make enough to own anything close to the type of house I wanted to own. Most of the homeowners I knew were couples with at least two sources of income.
So, I rented. I moved out to the Archstone Redmond Lakeview complex in June of 2007, and I’ve been here ever since. Back in March of this year, however, Archstone Property Management was sold, and its assets split off and merged into two other property management companies: Equity and Avalon Bay.
The Lakeview complex had some problems while under the management auspices of Archstone. They had a beast of a time keeping the office fully staffed. The corporate offices didn’t provide anywhere near enough money for maintenance and upkeep of the property, and there were long swaths of time during their tenure where personnel issues resulted in a management vacuum at the complex. But, the one thing they did really, really well was to create a sense of community. The folks who worked in the office and on the maintenance team were really friendly and outgoing. They felt more like your friends and neighbors than they did your landlords. They held regular community events like Pizza Parties and BBQs. They even had a complimentary continental breakfast every Saturday morning in the office, and the complex’s golf cart held a ready supply of dog biscuits for the canines living here. (To this day, Luke the Dog™ still nearly dislocates my shoulder every time the golf cart crosses his field of vision.)
The result of all these items was a very friendly, collegial, and neighborly atmosphere in the complex. I knew many of my neighbors (if not by name, then by their dogs’ names), some of them to the level of friendship. In my many, many years of renting apartments, Archstone Redmond Lakeview was the very first complex where I felt as though I had a full-blown community, neighbors I could count on, and a feeling of ownership. I cared about this complex. I would pick up trash on my daily walks. I would regularly talk to the office staff. I would greet my neighbors, and pick up their mail while they were on vacation.
When Avalon Bay took over the property, they managed to very quickly take away the sense of community. They replaced the entire office staff with one who was professional and friendly, but completely un-invested in building a sense of community. They cancelled the resident events and weekend breakfasts. They got rid of the dog treats. They also managed to take away some of the few amenities that the complex offered. They were efficient and professional, but in a few short months, Lakeview turned from my home into just another corporate-run apartment complex from which I rented a unit.
Then they started jacking up the rents extravagantly, and people started moving out in droves…especially the long-term residents who had experienced what it was like to have such a strong community spirit. And the people who moved in didn’t have any of the same sort of community-building experiences to help move them from disparate renters into members of the neighborhood. So very quickly, the place became full of solitary couples and individuals.
About three months ago, my neighbors and good friends, Julie and Alex, received their renewal notice, and were hit with a nearly 20% increase in rent. It was, for them, the tipping point, and they decided it was time to begin the house-hunting process. Before long, they found a great place, purchased it, and moved away. About a week after they had moved into their new home, their Real Estate Agent and Mortgage Agent held a little open house in their new home, which I attended.
During the open house I got talking with Jodi, their Real Estate Agent, about my own financial situation, and how I was uncertain when, or even if, I would ever be able to purchase a house out here. My 2005 Bankruptcy was now 8 ½ years old, I had very little savings to speak of, and a fair bit of debt. I simply didn’t seem like a good candidate for house ownership in my own mind. Jodi did give me some insights into the market, and corrected a few misconceptions I had about my own personal situation, and handed me her card.
Right about that same time, my dad had a little bit of a Come to Jesus meeting with me about my finances. If you’re a regular reader of my blog (or as regular as anyone can be considering how rarely I update said blog), then you know that I’m not exactly the thriftiest individual in the world. I have an entirely undeserved taste for the finer things in life, and I can pretty easily convince myself I am entitled to purchase them, even if I don’t really have the money to afford it. The concept of an emergency account has been pretty foreign to me for most of my life. I only started a retirement account at the age of 29, but then I emptied it (paying the penalty) two and half years later to buy a piano. I have only been saving again for the last three years.
Then the pen habit hit. I began spending hundreds and hundreds of dollars on pens, ink, and paper. In a matter of six months, I amassed a collection of over 30 high-quality fountain pens (ranging in price from $20 to $700), 90 bottles of ink (some costing as much as $30 a bottle), and all kinds of specialty papers from France. It is still a wonderful hobby, and I love my pens, but it was a more than little financially irresponsible…not to mention completely unnecessary.
My inability to treat money responsibly came largely because I had decided that, as a single man with essentially no chance of ever having children, I might as well enjoy all my money. In my mind, the lack of responsibility toward anyone other than myself meant that the great majority of the savings most people do (college funds, extra health insurance, life insurance, etc.) simply didn’t apply to me. I had a great deal of disposable income (in my own mind, anyway). And since I had come to the conclusion that I would never be able to qualify for owning my own home, why not spend the money on things I really enjoyed? Look, I never said I was known for my sound logic.
After the conversation with my father, where he essentially told me to start looking at my financial life from a slightly more mature perspective, coupled with my conversations with Jodi the Real Estate Agent, and taking into account that my rent was scheduled to go up in a few months,and I no longer liked the community I had called my home for the last six years, I decided it was time for a change. At first, I thought I would perhaps rent a small house or a townhome in a new area—getting away from Redmond. I toyed around with the idea of moving into Seattle proper to be a part of the hustle and bustle of the city, as well as improve my chances for a relationship. But eventually, after some soul-searching, some eye-opening experiences, and a lot of consideration and research, I finally decided the time was right for me to purchase a home.
At the end of August, I had scheduled a week off from work for a stay-cation. I had a couple of audiobook projects I wanted to wrap up, as well as some last-bit-of-summer enjoyment in which I wanted to partake. I decided that this week might be a good time to get started with the house hunting process.
The first step was to get pre-approved for financing. The week prior to my time off, I gathered up my financial documents and sent them over to my Loan Agent. We scheduled a time to meet on Tuesday of the following week. This step made me horrendously nervous. Based on my history with debt, I have this deeply-embedded emotional terror surrounding the process of applying and getting rejected for credit. There are few things in this world that embarrass me more. Put me up on stage in front of 20,000 people naked, and I would be less embarrassed than if I’m in a store applying for credit and my application gets rejected. I’m sure there’s some deep, psychological meaning behind that; all I know is that I hate it more than almost anything. So, I approached this pre-approval process with a great deal of trepidation.
After about 30 minutes of going over my finances in the office of the Mortgage Bank company, I was approved for what I still consider to be a staggering amount. But we ran the numbers, I determined what I thought I could afford to pay each month, and I had my baseline. It was time to start looking for houses.
Next up: The house search.