We were on the playground the other day, and I overheard my oldest daughter talking to some kids she just met. She told them, “I used to have a big house. So big it had a forest in the backyard! Now my house is small as a peanut.” The comment made me wince. But then I noticed her voice had no emotion in it, no shame; she was just stating a fact – another chapter in my small house manifesto.
As adults, it’s much harder to do that. I haven’t invited any friends over to our tiny house. I feel like when I do tell someone about it, the description is weighted with all sorts of qualifiers and future-tense verbs. I hadn’t anticipated this. I thought I was above feeling so personally connected—valued – by the home I own. I never felt a similar sense of shame at times when I was in debt or living beyond my means.
Our house doesn’t have a dining room—not one that could fit guests. We have a play table where the kids sit, and a round table that has one leaf folded down so it can be put against the wall for us. This summer, I plan to work on the backyard so that we can have guests over. My plan is to put pavers in a weird gap in the patio so that we can seat 6-10 outside. The backyard is large, with beautiful, expansive trees, I’m starting up a garden, and there’s a trampoline and a hammock, so my plan is to assemble a motley group of chairs as well as tile a table, and paint and seal them so we can have an outdoor dining area.
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When we do have friends over this summer, I am challenging myself not to say why we chose this home, or explain it. I’m not going to talk about debt, consumer culture, the housing crisis or any of that. Those aren’t my typical chosen topics of conversation, but when the house comes up, that’s all I can talk about. The housing crisis had a huge impact on my life, but not because we bought a house we couldn’t afford.
We laughed at our loan officer when he told us what we had been qualified for, and we bought within our means. But the market was blown up to unsustainable proportions at that time, and our home had lost half its value within a year. The local economy started coming apart, and we began to realize we’d have to move or we’d most likely lose our jobs. If we lost our jobs, we’d lose the house. If we moved, we’d likely have to foreclose or short sale.
The short sale wasn’t approved and so we rented it out—at a $400 a month loss–for a year after we moved. A month after we renewed the lease for the second year, the renters contacted us to say he had been out of work for six months and they were going to have to move in with their parents. About six months later, the home was foreclosed. I still check it on Zillow every now and then and it is still 40 percent below what we paid for it.
I wish we’d done the tiny-house experiment then, but we still would have lost. Everything was overvalued. I can’t go back and change that, or will myself to see something no one else saw. But there was a moment that haunts me: I was at work the day the offer on that first house came back approved, I printed it out and I walked it over to where my husband’s office was. I showed it to him and said, “They said yes!” He stared at it, and said, “Oh, shit.” Now, he’s not an excitable person, and he hates being in debt, so this wasn’t an uncharacteristic reaction. I laughed and told him to sign it, but something inside me, so far inside I would have never admitted it at the time, felt the same way. I wanted to grab that contract and rip it up. Call the real estate agent and say no deal. Just go on living in our two-bedroom townhouse and keep all our money, being satisfied that we could have done it. But like a bride walking down the aisle because that’s what you do, I signed. I signed, and he signed. We wanted to be homeowners, and we signed.
I think now, it’s not so much buying the house that I regret, but listening whatever it was inside me that said, “You’re not a successful person unless you can buy a house,” because that voice is still there, and it keeps upping the ante. Now it says, “You’re not a successful person unless everyone in your family has their own room.” I’m sure once I got there, it would change again.
So part of the job of this house is to silence that voice. Not to give it credence. If I paste qualifiers and shame all over this house every time someone sees it, I’ll never shut that voice up.