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It started with a simple misunderstanding. I was on 20th Street NW on a Sunday afternoon, looking for a town-house rental2BR/2BA, with covered roof deckthat I’d highlighted in the real-estate ads. I was new to the District and new to my job, looking for a stable place to live.
A jumpy, fashion-forward young guy greeted me at the door. “Welcome!” he quivered, as if mildly electrified. The place was full of people with blazing, acquisitive faces and penetrating eyes for architectural detail. “Is this natural marble or cultured stone?” one asked. “And is this building Colonial Revival or Georgian?”
Wow, I thought. The competition for rentals is going to be tougher than I thought. Still, I was enthusiastic. I asked Prada Man if utilities were included.
His face fellplummeted, actually. I was in the wrong place, he explained. The rental was the unit next door. He was a real-estate agent, and this was his open house; the keen-eyed appraisers around me were buyers.
But maybe I was in the right place. Without missing a beat, he launched into a litany of reasons why, if I had the money, I should buy, too. Right now. If I didn’t, he said, I’d be throwing my money away, month upon month. I would be missing the surest investment, the best waythe American way!to build equity. “The tax benefits!” he said.
Apparently I had lost my way in more ways than one. Renting, went the blazing text between the lines, was for transients, if not miscreants. My quest for a lease marked me as a financial defective, unable to muster the fiscal discipline to amass a down payment. Prada Man hammered the point: As a renter, I would live “hand-to-mouth” with no “five-year plan,” no “long view,” no “pride of ownership.”
I didn’t feel like telling him that I’d already known pride of ownership. I had spent two years remodeling, landscaping, and house-wrangling an old Victorian. But I’d left pride of ownership back in Rhode Island, in a gruesome, National Enquirer-worthy split-up. Now I was starting over, looking for a place to land. I wanted to proceed in small, careful moves.
Still, Prada Man’s disapproval stung. As an owner, it had never occurred to me to look down my nose at renters. Suddenly I saw myself wearing a scarlet R in the eyes of the agent and the eager buyers around me. I was sliding into downward mobility, splurging my disposable income on Starbucks drinks and green-apple martinis, shirking my role in capitalism’s main event.
Prada man’s pitch worked. Three days later, I joined the ranks of breathless, sharp-eyed house-hunters, seeing four homes a day and weighing the relative merits of soaring ceilings, eat-in kitchens, industrial gas ranges, and koi ponds. I lined up my financing, submitting to degradingly invasive financial strip-searches by sadistic mortgage brokers; I made offers, suffering the often outrageous egos of sellers and the fabulously self-interested counsel of agents on both sides of the transaction. (“Who cares that the price is out of line with comparable values, and there are no competing offers? Offer them $10,000 over asking! You want this place, right?”)
The moment I quit was when, contemplating an offer on an $800,000 town house, the seller’s agent said to me, “Look, make up your mind. This is a low-end deal for me, and I don’t have all day.” I was starting to feel like a pudgy little minnow in the real-estate shark tank.
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I told my agent I was quitting the house hunt in favor of renting. Another meteoric face-plummet. They must practice the look. This time, though, I held my ground. And I began to tease apart the knot of reasons my instinct was driving mefor the time being, anywayto become a conscientious objector in the war for D.C. real estate.
When I weighed it all, I realized that I had more good reasons to rent, in my situation, than to buy. The agents’ buy-side arguments were principally economic, so I framed my decision in those terms too: assets, appreciation, capital. My main asset, and an underrated one, was flexibility. With ownership comes immobility, a certain domestic inertiathe course of an arbitrarily massive financial object requires proportional effort to change. Or, as Thoreau put it, “He who owns little is little owned.”
What I needed was agility. Life had thrown me a curve, and I was in the District to start a new at-bat. If I boughtunless I were some genius real-estate arbitrageurtransaction costs were going to pin me down. Even with ordinary appreciation and a tax deduction for the mortgage, I’d probably have to wait a few years for the value of my property to erase an agent’s $ 48,000 commission on that $800,000 town house. And there were those disturbing reports from places like the Northeast and Silicon Valley, where nobody was taking ordinary appreciation for granted anymore.
There are other kinds of capital to accumulate in lifecareer capital, for instance. I didn’t know exactly where I was going next. Maybe my route to the Wall Street Journal passes through a stint at the Chicago Tribune. Or my next rung on the career ladder might materialize in an exotic, distant land, such as Singapore or Omaha. Complications from owning and selling might deter me from taking a more entrepreneurial, geographically flexible attitude toward my work.
Buying and owning had already educated me on the hidden costs of home ownership: escrow nightmares and closing kerfuffles, inspections and lead-paint disclosures; sociopathic agents and psychotic CC&Rs. Closing the mortgage is just the beginning, opening onto the care-laden vistas of tax escrow, insurance (homeowner’s, fire, flood, tornadoes, earthquakes, or whatever your regional flavor of nature’s mayhem), Murphy’s Law jack-in-the-boxes of bursting pipes, roof leaks, and house-ingesting insects. By contrast, the renter’s life is a trouble-free life; if the refrigerator breaks or the drains clog, it’s a phone call instead of a weekend at Home Depot.
And there was one more reason I was balking in the housing derby. A big, macroeconomic one. Though the moment seemed wrong on a personal level, I was also conscious of broader timing issues. I’d been reading enough of the financial pages to think that caution might be a valuable asset.
I know, I know: Houses are historically a good investment. Over the long haul, finance gurus agree, they perform and prevail. Which is precisely the axiom the same pundits eternally apply to the stock market, tooonly they did it a lot more loudly five years ago than they do today. In the late ’90s, unique circumstances plumpedthen wiltedthe stock market to historical disproportions.
I’m not a financial genius, but it occurred to me that a 50-year low in mortgage rates might qualify as a similarly singular circumstance. And I’ve always been a big fan of the regression to the mean. So maybe my decision not to buy in the current interest-rate never-never landjust having the patience to sit stillmight, in a year or three, be reframed in the rearview mirror as the shrewdest of financial speculations.
A little reading suggested that my doubts put me in good company; Robert Shiller, the Yale economist who called the last stock market meltdown, is voicing insecurity about the housing market these days, too. And a half-million dollars for one-and-a-half baths and no parking in Adams Morgan sure has the feel and heft of irrational exuberance.
A week after quitting the house hunt, I landed in a lovely two-bedroom, two-bath, loft-style apartment between Logan and Dupont Circles, with marble countertops, stainless-steel appliances, a six-month lease, and lovely, open options. I sleep soundly, undisturbed by Alan Greenspan or the anxieties of ownership. I’ll probably still be here in a year, or even two. It feels good and worth the money; living in dynamic times without a house hanging over my head is a luxury. And I occasionally make myself a green-apple martini, without shame. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Fred Harper.