Mortgage Vows

The commitment I made with my house

I’d been complaining about my apartment for years—shouting neighbors, creatures in the walls, the faceless corporation that took forever to repair anything—when my father handed me a book he’d found in a bargain bin: Buying Solo: The Single Woman’s Guide to Buying a First Home. Maybe, Dad suggested, it was time to make a commitment.

And so, in 2009, enticed by tax incentives for first-time home buyers, I went on the market.

“Owning your home is all about putting yourself first and thinking proactively about your future,” Buying Solo counseled. “It’s a statement to the rest of the world (and to yourself!) that you’re smart, independent, and able to take care of yourself.” Don’t wait for Mr. Right to make an investment in your future, the author advised. In fact, lots of women actually meet Mr. Right after they purchase their first home. Go figure!

Shopping for real estate turned out to have a lot in common with online dating: narratives were sketchy and photos were deceptive. I toured a dozen condos and a handful of crappy bungalows across St. Paul. Like finding Mr. Right, looking for a home began to seem like a futile exercise bound to end in settling. I was about to give up when I spotted a small, yellow bungalow in my price range. It boasted no particular features, except a spacious three-season front porch.

“This is way better than I thought it would be,” my Realtor said, unlocking the front door. The freshly painted interior looked much the way it had online. The floors were solid. “And look,” my Realtor noted, “it has a new sump pump.”

It wasn’t sexy: no Viking stove, no granite counter tops, no view of the river, none of the things I had put on my wish list. There wasn’t a dishwasher—or even room for a dishwasher. The exterior wasn’t the wood or field stone I’d dreamed about; it was vinyl. “No painting!” my Realtor enthused. “If it gets dirty, you just hose it off!”

The bones of the house seemed good. It seemed stable. “You’ll want to replace these crappy plastic gutters,” my Realtor said, “but do you like it?”

I’d heard about marriage that when you met the one, you just knew—a thing that had always seemed like a myth to me, until now. The house just seemed right.
“I do,” I said.

For a year, the house was the perfect companion. Then, little by little, things began to break down. First it was the garage-door opener, which went to its reward on a cold January day (along with the emergency release), trapping my car inside. Then the light switch on the ceiling fan snapped off. Then the kitchen light, an ancient, circular fluorescent bulb, permanently dimmed. Soon, I began to notice cracks in the ceiling. The basement flooring buckled. The water heater died. And in spring: the ants, oh god, the ants!

“Well, that’s home-owning for you,” my mother said. “Constant maintenance.” It was the same phrase she often used to describe marriage.

Buying Solo hadn’t mentioned any of this. My house had become like a spouse who had let himself go after a suitable honeymoon phase. If relationships were about communication, my place was grunting for more chips and another beer.

But wasn’t it also true that I’d let a few things slide? I recalled a manual I’d received at a first-time home-buyer’s workshop, and remembered it had a section on seasonal maintenance and frequent repairs. I’d barely given it a glance before tossing it in a closet.

Perhaps there was a deeper reason that I’d bought solo. While signing the purchase agreement, I had pictured dinner parties and beers on the porch, not evenings on a step ladder, fiddling with a broken ceiling fan. And yet the house always welcomed me home—no complaints—with the exception of the occasional creak or sigh.

“Oh,” my mother said. “That’s just the house settling.”

Shannon Olson, the author of the novels Welcome to My Planet and Children of God Go Bowling, is a regular contributor to “Last Word.”