Editorial Professional Tries to Lose Property Virginity
From a young age people have told me I have an active imagination. It has worked to my advantage, like that time I convinced my mother that my drawing a dotted line in black Sharpie across the length of my bedroom was born out of an interest in pointillist Impressionism and not sheer, dumb boredom. Other times, my imagination kicks into overdrive harder than Patrick Swayze’s dominant foot in Road House and gives me a wild idea like that I can afford a house some day.
On a hot September evening, at a Sheepadoodle’s first birthday party, I found myself making small talk with a realtor.
“I’m a big Costco girl. I’m even an executive member,” I offered.
“What’s the executive membership perk,” Cheryl asked through a pristine Pittsburgh accent.
“You get a percentage cash back on all purchases, so if you’re shopping enough, the membership fee pays for itself,” I started to froth at the mouth, a tray of free samples sprouted up where my hand used to be. “I got a brand new IPad there at a reduced price when my laptop passed away. It’s the cheapest place for an eye exam. Have you ever held a Calvin Klein bath towel in your hands?”
“You know what the trick is,” Cheryl interjected. I leaned forward in my lawn chair. “You gotta let your membership completely lapse, and they’ll start throwing in freebies to get you back in. I let my Sam’s membership go and they mailed me vouchers for a car detailing and a rotisserie chicken.”
“I’ve been giving it away too easily,” I said, flopping back into my seat, stunned by this woman’s know-how on wholesale membership.
Later, while the mother of the birthday boy was showing me around her new house, she filled me in a little about her home-buying experience.
“And Cheryl was so amazing about the whole process,” she said.
“Cheryl? The Sam’s Club woman?!”
“Yeah! I can put you two in touch! And with the mortgage broker, too.”
A standalone home? For me? My fertile imagination was already at work, racing around like a Bigfoot 7 monster truck, ready to run over the nearest Ford dealership a.k.a. any healthy expectations (see: Road House). For a split second, I forgot who I was. A copy editor by trade, someone with both private and public student loan debt used to cover the cost of two degrees, someone whose skill set relegates them to all sorts of “soft-skill” jobs that prefer a Master’s degree but prefer to pay $30,000 a year.
“I don’t think I should even talk to them,” I said, my face deflating faster than Tom Brady.
“All you would be doing at this point is getting an idea of how much you could afford,” my friend, an optometrist, urged. Although she makes astronomically more money than I could ever dream of, I valued her insight as a fellow single woman who navigated the process alone. So I left the birthday party with some new information in tow: that a mortgage broker has the power to offer more loan products than a bank, and that a Sheepadoodle is a cross between an Old English Sheepdog and Poodle and NOT one between a sheep and a dog.
A week or so later I had all but forgotten my realtor chat until I found myself bored in bed one night, unable to achieve any meaningful sleep. I pulled up Zillow’s landing page and toggled to the “buy” tab for the first time in my life. It felt as though I was doing something irrevocably “adult,” like buying a Sonicare toothbrush and discovering my food traps. I still had no idea what I could afford, so I perused the listings below $200,000. In Pittsburgh, this consisted of many post-World War II brick split levels and ramblers, some brick town houses and craftsman-style homes, and a generous helping of residential structures gutted to the studs listed at next to nothing.
Every night for the next week I settled into bed and scrolled, trying to envision myself vacuuming a starter home, not beholden to some landlord who assures me that the black mold spores on the bathroom ceiling are normal. In a sea of cookie-cutter split levels where earnest millennials have tried to paint grey around pink porcelain bathtubs and ship lap perfectly fine surfaces, there she was. In the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh sat a 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom stone home. She featured original hardwood floors, doors, and trim, a stone fire place, and a sun room off the back of the house. The biggest draw for me was the enchanted body of water in the backyard: an in-ground swimming pool. I called her Lady Cottage.
The next morning I called my friend and told her about my dream home. With the zealousness of a person selling fat wraps on Facebook, my friend talked me through the first steps to see if I could even afford Lady Cottage. She put me in touch with both the realtor/wholesale club membership maven and her mortgage broker.
Talking to Cheryl was fine. It went as smoothly and judgement free as our first chat about how to shake down a wholesale retailer for a cooked chicken. I was more nervous, however, to talk with the mortgage broker. I’d be on the phone talking about my personal finances with an older man, someone I would inevitably imagine as my high school trigonometry teacher. I could feel it already that this conversation would feature at least one moment where this guy would have to remind me, “that’s how numbers work.” Before capitulating to his phone call, I braced myself for his delivering the news that I would be approved for a generous loan of $20,000 and that they’d throw in a couple 2 x 4s to make it worth my while.
“So with your income and debt, you could get approved for $120,000 at the most,” the man said.
“Okay, what does that look like a month if I apply the first-time home-buyers’ grant of $7,000 toward closing costs plus my savings for a down payment,” I asked.
“You’re looking at the $850 range.”
I was floored; I could do it. Maybe. Not only that, for the first time openly sharing my debt-to-income ratio didn’t feel like I was showing someone the contours of my butthole.
I started to run different scenarios by him, “what if I were able to save a couple more grand, how much would that lower the monthly payment?”
“Only by a few bucks a month. That couple of grand is spread out over the lifetime of the loan, so it doesn’t do much month to month.”
“Oh.” And this was one of those “this is how numbers work” reminders. “That makes sense. So unless I’m putting down the recommended 20%, I’m not going to move the needle on a monthly payment.”
“Correct. And in order to be officially approved, I’m gonna need something from your student loan provider attesting to the fact that you’re paying a lower monthly amount based on your income,” he added.
There it was. In the midst of any financial decision, plan, fantasy, the student loan debt makes its obvious presence known like a witch’s hump back or the persistent cystic chin pimples I get once a month. On the surface, obtaining a form doesn’t sound like a tall order, but I would be dealing with the folks over at Navient and knew that any request, no matter how minor, would be an immediate bureaucratic nightmare.
On my online account with Navient, there is a special inbox designated for documents. However, when I went to look for my income-based repayment documentation, there wasn’t anything there. And although I had stored my original plan I had signed up for, Navient never sent a confirmation email or document. The plan just went into effect. This meant I would have to hop on the phone and wait for a representative to send over a paragraph stating that I am on an income-driven payment plan because I need to be able to feed myself.
After a 55-minute wait time, I got someone on the phone.
“So I am signed up for lower payments, and I have the original form I filled out, but apparently that isn’t enough. I need something from you guys confirming that my payment plan is based on my income.”
“Sure thing! We have a letter for that,” the Navient employee said.
“Great, can you please email that to me,” I asked, unwitting to the fact that I was being baited and switched harder than my latest attempt to buy a mid-century modern piece of furniture on Facebook Marketplace.
“We can’t email it to you because it is an official document.” I didn’t say anything. I was silently fuming that a company who can sign a bunch of 18-year olds up for a lifetime of predatory lending practices were concerned that a glorified post-it, one which might help someone attain a better quality of life, is too sensitive to send via email. “Do you have a fax machine, honey?”
Do you have an ethical and transparent policy to help borrowers not overpay on loans? “I don’t.”
“We can send it in the mail,” she offered.
“Let’s do that,” I said.
“Okay, that should reach you in around 5–7 business days!”
While I waited for the carrier pigeon to arrive from Navient, Cheryl sent me some listings in my price range. Most of these houses had just one bathroom, and if the listing said two, I knew the realtor was trying to pass off an unenclosed toilet standing in the middle of a dank basement as a second bath (colloquially referred to as the Pittsburgh potty in this region). One home gave off 70s porn-dungeon vibes with a black spiral staircase and red bath tub flush with the floor. Of the five homes in my price range, I found myself gravitating to the ones that looked like they could have housed a couple of Keebler elves.
Once I had Navient’s tablet of testimony in hand, Cheryl set up two walk-throughs. We looked at one brick, 2 bedroom 1 bath that had a very tight kitchen and no yard, listed at $100,000. Perhaps my favorite thing about the entire house were a couple of cut outs in the living room wall. It was cute, but a couple of good surfaces for displaying my knick knacks certainly wouldn’t be enough of a selling point for me to buy an entire house. I wanted to see what else was out there. The second, and last, home was larger, had skylights, and a she shed in the backyard. It was listed at $120,000, the very top of my price range. Walking through this home, I found myself and Cherly more interested in the current owners taste in antiques and home goods than anything else. Neither house was giving me the “I can see myself vaccuuming this for at least a decade” vibe.
Throughout both homes, Cherly spoke in hypotheticals, “If you like this one, I can start the paper work for an offer today,” or “if you’re into this one, we will have to move fast. Not only that, before we were even finished looking through the second home, the next buyer showed up and was walking toward the house with papers in hand. I saw the wedding band on his left hand — the universal sign of two incomes. It was obvious to me that I was shopping in a market where one must put in an offer on the spot, and likely over the asking price, if they merely hope for a shot at being accepted.
Cheryl and I stood on the street after walking through the second home.
“So I liked it,” I said.
“But you didn’t love it.”
“I’m not sure it’s a like-versus-love thing. It’s more of me still calculating risk versus reward.”
“I’d never push you into anything before you’re ready,” Cheryl said. We agreed that I wasn’t ready yet and decided to wait until the spring to start looking again.
In the meantime, I had a number of conversations with friends who had recently bought homes. Further fueling my own self-doubt about starting this process was learning that most of them had offered over the asking price.
“So have you bought a house yet,” my friend asked. It was a variant of a question I kept getting. Did they have more faith in me than I did?
“No. And I don’t think I’m going to. Yes, I was technically approved, but I’m not sure if it’s the way I want to go about it,” I would try to explain.
“You just don’t want to be paying that PMI (private mortgage insurance),” my friend added.
Perhaps she had forgotten about my loan debt; perhaps I hadn’t made the gravity of that situation clear enough. Either way, she was right. I don’t want to pay it, but I would have to. Since finishing school, I can muster a nest egg so long as I don’t have to buy all new tires upon my car’s inspection or the cat doesn’t need some surgery. The smartest and safest way to buy a house would be for me to put the 20% down plus some left over to cover closing costs and initial repairs. Not doing so would put me at much greater financial risk, potentially owing more on a house than it is worth. And by the grace of God, I will not be called an idiot twice over for participating in two of my lifetime’s worst financial catastrophes. Although, if I ever become the victim of some housing crisis, I can say with confidence that I’d be treated with more kindness than those suffering through student loan repayment.
The only way I see myself ever breaking free from renting and making Lady Cottage happen is if I get some form of relief with my student loan debt. But as long as people conceptualize student loan forgiveness as handing a trustafarian a gold-plated bong and a generous inheritance from hedge-fund grandpa, I don’t see a bill like this one passing. Until then, I’ll keep renting, co-habitating, and scraping, while opponents to student-loan forgiveness cry foul that people like me don’t want to take accountability for our financial decisions.
Call it my wild imagination, but I view loan forgiveness not as handing someone something in addition to what they already have, but as giving them something they never had in the first place: a way out of having negative money, to start contributing to a retirement fund, to not worry about how to manage their health, to stop googling “what happens to my debt if I die.” Similarly, I do think a lot of us are already taking accountability. I’ve taken responsibility for these loans as a working adult with a Masters degree who still needs to live with five roommates in an already affordable city. Accountability also looks like consistently under asking for salary because it is engrained in the fabric of our society that it takes roughly the same effort to do things like write this article as it does shoving a handful of flaming hot Cheetos in one’s mouth.
I imagine myself in my eighties, FaceTiming my nieces and nephews: “With my social security checks along with the $2.50 I make off of Medium, I can afford to split rent amongst three people. A two bedroom would be ideal, but installing the walk-in tub and stairlift is gonna drive the cost up. On top of the non-refundable pet deposit for the cat, I just can’t swing it. By the way, you kids watch Road House yet?”