Pat recalls thrill of owing her first home

#72 in a series of true experiences in real estate
October 1994, Hills Newspapers

Almost 30 years ago, I bought my first house. I was so excited about having my own garden that I couldn’t wait to plant it. Before we moved in, I asked permission to put a bed of irises by the front walkway.

There was another, cheaper, house we were interested in, but the agent nixed the idea. She was worried about the neighborhood. I don’t think my husband or I paid enough attention to be worried about the neighborhood.

But we were in our early 20s – innocent and optimistic – and it was a different time. It was the ’60s. I think the house cost $18,000. It seemed like a lot.

We borrowed the down payment from my parents, but there wasn’t enough money to buy a refrigerator. A friend gave us an old one that still kept things cold but nothing frozen. The seller sold us the living room rug. It was lime green, not what I would have picked, but it was clean and made a soft place to sit on the floor.

It may not have been our dream house (we understood that we had to start somewhere), but it had wonderful push-out windows, oak floors, and a fireplace. There was a sunny garden space with a good-sized pear tree.

The house was on a busy Berkeley street, which I don’t think we found of particular note, except that it meant the house cost less than some other houses. We’d been married for a few years, but it wasn’t until my husband finished graduate school and got a teaching job that we could buy, and although the price we paid is a pittance today, it was a stretch for us to make the loan payments.

The contract then was a single page. Simple. It said, “We’ll buy your house for $18,000 if we can get a loan.” The agent wrote it up in a few minutes, and we signed just once at the bottom.

The agent also filled out our loan application, called various lenders until she found the lowest interest rate, and that was that. Loans were for 25 years, no choice, and the interest rate was fixed.

There was no such thing as having a house inspected before you bought it. We had a termite report but knew nothing of asbestos or earthquake proofing. There were no seller’s disclosure or home warranties. It was pretty true in those days that if the roof leaked after the house was yours, either you fund the money to fit it or you lived with it.

Our agent told us we’d have to live in the house for at least five years before we’d be able to sell and get our money back. (I don’t know if she volunteered this opinion or if we had the sense to ask.) As it turned out, we lived there three years before we sold. The agent was right, we did lose money, but I don’t think either one of us was ever sorry that we bought the house.
We moved in and nested. I pored over home and garden magazines and we made improvements. For example, I decided to make over the bathroom. The paint store people told me I could paint the maroon ceramic tile with a special product. I followed the directions carefully but the result was not right. Though the tile looked better white, the surface had an unsatisfactory ripply look.

My husband, who had never built anything, thought we needed a little deck in the garden. He bought the lumber and a saw and began. Unfortunately, he laid the supporting two-by-fours down flat, then nailed the deck on top. We thought it was fine until someone came to the house one day and pointed out the error.

But we did improve the house. We painted and painted. We added sliding doors to the garden so it wasn’t necessary to go all the way around the house to get there, installed a pretty new bathroom vanity and sink, and planted a copper beech tree in the front yard.

Our friends came for barbecues, we acquired dogs and kittens, and bought furniture on credit. We played pinochle on Friday nights around the dining room table and turned the stereo up too loud.

Having our own house cost more and involved more responsibility – but it felt a lot better than renting.

What we were like then seems different from the buyers Anet and I work with now. For one thing, “everyone” does not buy a house these days. And most first-time buyers are older than we were, primarily because houses cost more. It takes longer to save a down payment (it is also harder to borrow it), and people have to earn more to qualify for a loan.

Buyers now are pickier, more careful. They look longer, think harder, expect more. They shop loans and get bids on shear-walling, talk to drainage experts, climb the ladder to look at the roof flashing.

They worry about getting their money back when they sell. They would like assurance that buying makes good money sense.

Still, some things are just as they have always been. Buyers still fall in love. They still find that a certain house will hold their dreams – the one set back in brown and gold maple trees, the one that has an oversized garage just right for working on the Volvo, the one with the gas cooktop, built-in ovens, and a whole wall of pantry shelves.

Even with all the disclosures and inspections and investigations, when the house is the right one, buyers find themselves bending when they have to for the best reason of all: They are getting what they were looking for in the first place – a house that feels like and will be home.

We think this should be every buyer’s minimum expectation.

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