[caption id="attachment_5868" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Looks a bit like a headstone, doesn\'t it?"][/caption]I spent a couple of hours last week on the phone with two money lenders, one in California and one in Michigan. I’ve known I would eventually need to refinance the mortgage on my one-bedroom condo since I first got my mortgage. This, everyone assured me at the time, would be no big deal.
I’ve been putting it off, at my own expense, obviously, because I find this nexus of subjects -- real estate, money, permanence -- at once tedious and unfathomable and kind of morbid. I know people who spent years boning up on this stuff before buying a residence, or, you know, diving into the market -- mature, financially responsible adults who pay attention to interest rates and property values the way I pay attention to what bands are coming to town. For them home-buying is a long-term, consuming occupation, the way planning a wedding is for other people. (Well, a lot of the same people, probably.) While mastering some 101-level finance is surely due diligence for the biggest monetary commitment most folks of my socioeconomic pedigree ever make, it never interested me. Yes, I do know. And I'm sorry. The brain wants what the brain wants.
Forget the homework: Even the actual home-shopping was an activity I engaged in only reluctantly and warily. I’d walk through the front door of a place and try to imagine crossing that threshold thousands of times more in the (Three? Five? Eight? More than eight?) years ahead. I'd try to conjure a happy scene of Future-Me returning, tired but exhilarated, from another fulfilling day’s labors, looking forward to my dinner-pill, perhaps a little anxious over the way the hovercar's repulsor brakes had been squeaking on the ride home.
Home. Would relief embrace me as I returned to this hypothetical, but also right-there-in-front-me sanctuary? The fact that I worked from home, mostly, then and now, increased the difficulty of my search: I needed a place where I could imagine being creative and productive as well as safe and relaxed. You’d think the looking would be the fun part. But like every other stage of the quest to realize the wack-ass American Dream of home ownership, I just kind of wanted to get it over with, to pick something and not think about it any more. I am certain many people choose spouses in this way.
I bought the place no-money-down and moved in in October 2006, a few months before the recession hit. If I’d waited a little longer -- if my landlord hadn’t been pushing me to sign another 12-month lease and/or if my then-housemate hadn't declared her intention to move; if I hadn’t proven so inexplicably determined, in the waning days of my twenties, to listen to my parents and buy -- I probably wouldn’t have qualified for a mortgage, not even the expensive, interest-only one I’ve been shouldering for the last, golly, three-and-a-half years.
I don’t dwell on whether I’d now be better or worse off financially if I’d kept renting. But I do miss it.
I really missed it upon learning, as my neighbors I and did two years ago, that the developer converting our former apartment building into condos had decided to cut a few corners once that mortgage crisis ignited, then to cut a few more. Eventually he stopped with the corners altogether and just kept going, fleeing, you might call it, in a perfectly straight line away from us, without finishing the work. We pursued; he eluded. Then he declared bankruptcy. The expense of making our building habitable fell on us, a bunch of youngish, mostly first-time buyers, already stretching as far as we could just to make our mortgage payments.
Among the items not covered by those monthly payments was the $85,000 cost of purchasing and installing two gas-fired central water heaters so we could at last have reliably warm showers of longer than 60 seconds -- not something most first-world residents regard as an amenity. We had to fix holes in the exterior walls ($43,000) and roof ($11,000). We had to put code-compliant fire doors in the hallways. (Twenty thousand futhermucking American dollars. When someone asks if my building has a gym or a roof deck, I tell them all about the sweet fire doors we've got. I haven't looked into it, but from the price I infer they offer protection against perdition's flames in the afterlife in addition to shielding us from any conventional inferno. Like buying an indulgence from the Catholic church.)
There are 21 apartments in my building. Our shares of the cost for all this work were determined by our percentage-of-ownership as defined by the square footage of our apartments. Mine is a little under 700 square feet. The “Special Assessment” I paid a year ago last winter could have bought me a very decent used car, or a shitty new one. Not that I’d have spent that cash on a car. That’s why I’d moved to the city, on top of a two-line Metro station and with bus service almost literally to my front door. That’s why my cozy, no frills condo was so expensive. I'm the middle of everything I want to be in the middle of -- theaters, music clubs, restaurants. Plus noise, litter, and violent crime, but that's life in the big city, even a little big city like DC.
Anyway. I've held off trying to refi despite the obvious financial benefits because it’s boring, but more because I don’t understand it. Not only do I not understand mortgage lending in the longwave, global sense, despite Alex Blumberg and Adam Davidson's several thorough, patient attempts to explain it to me. I don't really understand it even in the hyperlocal landscape of my own checkbook. And this is deeply embarrassing to me.
I get the basic math: If you’re going to lend me, let us say, $100,000 for a truly decadent set of pimped-out fire doors, at an interest rate of five percent, and I have 30 years to pay you back, I can calculate what I’ll owe you each month. But in practice, there are so many other, seemingly arbitrary add-ons: title insurance and private mortgage insurance and points and funds to be held in escrow for the payment of property taxes and hey, whereyougoin', come back! Any subject speedily comes to seem sexier than this one, never mind that the effect this shit has on my life couldn't be more direct: My mortgage is a black hole sucking in most of the money I'll be paid this month, and assuming present conditions persist, money I'll still be trying to earn when my middle-age is a memory and my youth a farfetched rumor. It's not some incalculable abstraction, like trying to figure out how much I've personally paid into the U.S. occupation of Iraq or the Wall Street bailout. It only feels like one.
But at the highest levels of the financial system, isn’t the whole thing entirely abstract? I’m not saying we should all convert our assets, such as they are, to gold. I’m still hoping against the odds I won’t see the day when I’ll regret not converting mine into shotgun shells and canned food and gasoline and shoulder pads. But reading the reports of the testimonies Goldman Sachs executives gave before Congress last week, it’s impossible to avoid the feeling of all of us having been duped by a bunch of fiscal bullies, forever inventing new games wherein they can change the rules on the fly whenever they like.
So there I am on the phone with a young-sounding guy at a lender in Irvine, pulling folders of documents out of my overstuffed filing cabinet in the closet, asking his patience while I pore over statements to answer questions a more fiscally savvy adult would know offhand. He takes all my numbers, and I listen to him exhale a while until he lays out what all he can do for me, which isn’t much. My building isn't approved for a Federal Housing Authority-backed loan -- wherein the government would in effect cosign for me -- which limits my options. Basically, I'd need to pay down my existing debt significantly before he could get me a lower rate on the rest of it. My goal here, after all, is not to leave myself without savings. Not in my line of work. Not in this economy.
I poke around the FHA website myself, check in with a member of my condo board and our contact at our management company, who tell me at least one of my neighbors has obtained "spot-approval" for an FHA loan. I call up one of the lenders listed on the FHA site, tell the guy who answers the whole boring story, send him a couple of megabytes of my financial documents, and things generally seem more promising this go-round. If I can get a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage at not too far north of five percent, I'll be able to go back to not thinking about it. Which I would like. Even hoping for the best, I expect my life will have far too few 30-year increments for me to spend them on this.