For someone who has dreamed of owning a home for two decades, I’ve come up with some creative reasons over the years for why I shouldn’t. For instance, I live and work in New York City, but the house I want is a retreat in a rustic river valley, and really, who needs the aggravation of upkeep on a place you can’t get to by subway? I’m secure in a rental apartment, and really, who needs the aggravation of a mortgage and a driveway that requires plowing whether or not you’re there to admire the snow? Or how about this one: The deer that look so atmospheric when poised in country woods are purveyors of Lyme disease, and really, who needs the aggravation of chronic illness when you’ve just gotten your sun-shunning skin regimen in working order? Why go out of your way to live in a place that’s out of the way?
These are all practical and reasonable considerations, inventoried over the years as I have obsessively studied real estate listings while traveling north by train to visit friends.
But while I occasionally toured a house or two, I always found reasons why being a houseguest was preferable to being a house host. On my friends’ couch, I’d look up at the starry Hudson Valley sky and think of Laurie Colwin’s short story "The Lone Pilgrim," in which she says, "You cannot be a good houseguest and be married. Single, you carry only the uncluttered luggage of your own personality, selected and packed by only one pair of hands."
There it is. I’ve buried my biggest reason why not: I, a single woman, pack my own luggage with my own hands. I’ve been terrified of home ownership by myself. Shouldn’t I be hoarding my savings, following a conservative financial plan as a bulwark against bagladyship? What if I meet a man who changes the geographic contours of my life? Shouldn’t I remain unencumbered and flexible? What if I’m lonely in my country house — or become too self-sufficient, putting up a barrier against future love? What if I’m ambushed by bank-account-wrecking expenses brought on by catastrophes of plumbing and wildlife? What if a tree falls — on the house — and there’s no one there to hear it but me?
You already know where this is going. A survey from the National Association of Realtors reports that single women represented 21 percent of all buyers in 2005 — and they bought at twice the rate of single men. Nearly half of those women are over 40, including my friend Leah, who fell for a house on a lake two years ago.
I didn’t know these stats when, about 18 months ago, I felt the call of the semi-wild once again. The leaves were turning and the Catskills glowed. I picked up a home magazine — which I am, not surprisingly, addicted to — and fell in love with a photograph of a porch, framed by the nodding heads of late-summer hydrangeas. That old tickle of interest in perusing Realtor.com was back. This time, though, I decided to stare down anxiety: What was I waiting for? Prince Charming, a lottery windfall, a sense of security not likely to return anytime soon to my city, my country, or my planet? The only antidote, I decided, was taking action while I still had the means.
Which is how on a raw November day — the kind how-to books recommend for clear-eyed home shopping, when landscapes are stripped of foliage and charm — on one of many visits to my friends Steph and Paul, I saw A House. And it spoke to me: a dollhouse-small, 140-year-old charmer, cute as a velveteen divan, set at the end of a side road in a rural village by turns guileless and funky. The house had been saved from dereliction by two tasteful gay men, and renovated with thoughtful simplicity. There wasn’t much land, which was fine with me. Turn left and left again for acres and acres of protected woods, none of which I had to weed. But there was a big, bowing willow tree in the backyard and houses down the street, which was also fine with me: I wasn’t looking for the kind of isolation that Jack Nicholson had in The Shining. I could walk to a post office, a tiny grocery, a bakery, and the Hudson River itself. I could see myself living in this house, in this village, no matter who else happened by in my heart, or what else came to pass in this lifetime.
I was 52 years old. I was — as I’d like to think of it — between romantic adventures. I was solvent, prudent, and, in walking the little rooms of that dollhouse, I felt calmly giddy. Or was it giddily calm? "You can do this," I said out loud. And just like that, like getting the hang of a swimming stroke for the first time, I knew I could. In fanciful moments, I imagined planting peach trees, taking up carpentry, meeting sturdy men at the Home Depot, writing a novel. In practical moments, I made lists: get mortgage preapproval, find house inspector, buy power drill.
"And find someone who can plow the driveway," Leah said with the expertise of new ownership under her belt. "And schedule oil burner service. And think about getting an alarm that monitors when the temperature of the house gets too low in the winter."
In short order, I, who had never meted out a sum larger than a rent check, found a financial adviser who could assure me that my big-ticket desire would not bankrupt me. I could even buy the car I would need, he calculated, if we moved sum X, freed up sum Y, and kept an eye on balance sheet Z. I hired a mortgage broker and achieved the existential state of preapproval. I made an offer — my first offer! — and afterward stood outside the real estate office and called friends with the news of my new offer-maker status, shivering with cold and elation not entirely distinguishable from shock.
From 10 miles up the road, Steph said she would be right over to celebrate, as if the offer itself was the goal. From 100 miles away, another friend, Mark, a lifelong city type still living in the ZIP code of his youth, said he would visit, provided there were no mice, bugs, dead animals in the chimney, or tick-infested grass in the vicinity.
A House Is Not a Home
Dear reader, I didn’t buy the dollhouse. At the last minute, it was taken off the market. And if I don’t dwell on how heartbroken I felt — how thwarted, how convinced I was that I’d never love again — it’s only because the house I was meant to buy presented itself two months later under even snowier, can’t-hide-the-flaws conditions down the street from the dollhouse.
The House I Was Meant to Have, as opposed to The House I Thought I Had to Have or I Would Die, was a classic configuration of north and south parlors, with a gathering-place kitchen and a center staircase leading to three bedrooms. The home looked calm but cheery, snug but airy — at least it did once I looked past the mint-green shag carpeting in the master bedroom, the dining room that was painted eggplant purple and hunter green, and the plastic-toy clutter of a time-pressed couple with two small children.
I made an offer. The owners countered. I counter-countered. They counter counter-countered. We reached an agreement, which was followed by the making of lists wherein I concluded that I could spare exactly two city chairs, a floor lamp, an extra set of Ikea drinking glasses, and an inflatable bed. I also unearthed a crimson- and pumpkin-colored kilim that I’d bought on a hiking trip through western Turkey, hopeful that I would one day have a home with hardwood floors in need of its homespun brilliance.
My urbanite brother made me nervous. "Does it have central air-conditioning?" he asked. It does not. It does, however, have a porch and an unrenovated barn and an absurdly fecund pear tree. And my friend Mark reminded me that while people sleep, mice have a tendency to walk on their faces. (How did he know?) But I would not be spooked.
On a gentle Friday in early April, when Hudson Valley trees were blushing a modest yellowy green, I sat at a table flanked by players in the great American ritual of closing: I began, as directed, to write checks, hand over pieces of paper, and release sums of money I never knew could be surrendered so blithely in the face of so momentous and yet so common a rite of passage. That the sellers had forgotten to hand over the keys hardly mattered — I was stunned by my own confidence that I was doing the right thing. I signed more papers, and then I shook hands, and then I owned a house.
Home on the Range
In all those years of imagining homeownership, I couldn’t have known this: A grown woman who has lived a full, adventurous, independent, and self-supporting life can still surprise herself with a newfound sense of adulthood brought on by a 30-year fixed mortgage, town taxes, and a contract for regular oil and propane delivery. My house has rooted me — indeed, it binds me with obligations — yet I also feel more open to change than I have in years. And what that study by the National Association of Realtors couldn’t possibly quantify is how sexy it feels to be the master of one’s domain.
On the afternoon of the first day of the rest of my life as a homeowner, I drove my rental car to my home, parked in my driveway, walked around the grounds under my trees, and opened the front door to the echoing rooms I’d have all the time in the world to fill with friends and love and beauty. And antiques, and finds from Ikea and Target, and walls painted yellow or red, if that’s what I wanted. I spotted my new neighbor — an old, white-haired man — and went over to introduce myself.
"You married?" he asked.
"You’re here by yourself?"
I swear he said this: "So you’re an old maid?"
Hardly, Buster. Truth is, I don’t know why I’ve waited this long. I just know that however long it took, the timing was right for me. "Fulfillment leaves an empty space where your old self used to be, the self that pines and broods and reflects," Colwin observes in her short story. "You furnish a dream house in your imagination, but how startling and final when that dream house is your own address."
From that first night, I felt profoundly content, the very opposite of startled. A year later, with walls painted red and others yellow, with comfortable couches and coffee tables, with yarrow and butterfly bushes growing and hydrangeas sending out shoots, I love my house more than ever. I love having friends and family visit, and I love when they leave too. I’ve met a single woman down the road whose city-and-country schedule mirrors mine, and another who waves as she bikes by with her adopted Chinese daughter. The baker’s girlfriend is a friend of a friend of friends in Los Angeles, practically family! I’ve also met a wonderful man who lives nearby, so it’s a romantic adventure after all. But sometimes I just like to sit alone under one of my maple trees, watching the sunset over the river, listening to the birds peck as if engrossed in their own private cocktail party at the feeders I’ve hung in a — my — pear tree.
One final note: Did I mention that I’m listed as a single woman on the mortgage document? "What the heck is that about?" I barked at the time. My attorney assured me that it was merely the legal language of transaction, and were I an unmarried gentleman, I’d still be defined by my singledom. I’ve since come to appreciate the stark designation. Yes, that’s who I am. And I’m home.
Entertainment Weekly critic Lisa Schwarzbaum is the proud owner of a top-of-the-line power drill.
Originally published in MORE magazine, December 2006/January 2007.