Like many young people, I thought buying a house was a smart, realistic financial choice, a significant step on the way to adulthood. Nine years ago, at age 27, my then-boyfriend and I looked around at what we could afford based on our income and savings, and determined that we could probably get a nice condo or a single-family home that needed some work. We were both young, had grown up in homes we had helped maintain, and were handy — not afraid to delve into plumbing, figure out how to do basic electrical repairs, and not only do all our own yard work, but had grand (and ultimately realized) goals for improving the lawn and garden.
We bought a lovely Victorian home in Fairfield County in Connecticut, aka "The Gold Coast"; some of America's priciest real estate was nestled to the east, west and north of us. We were lucky enough to find something in our (very) modest price range, a house that needed some cosmetic work (floors refinished, backyard overhaul), but was structurally sound, a well-built home that had been maintained by people who cared over its 100-year existence.
But like marriage and kids, buying a home before you are ready (in my personal opinion, before your early 30s at the earliest) can be a huge mistake. Because like saying "I Do" or going without birth control, buying a house is a long-term commitment; to the place you are living and to the person you are buying with (if it is a joint purchase). It is also a commitment to the work you are doing (changing jobs while owning a home is almost impossible since job-changing means that you will likely be earning less for a few years while you 'catch up'), and a decision to forego lots of other things that are fun to do in your 20s, like spending too much on drinks, going on once-in-a-lifetime trips, going back to school, focusing on personal projects, or any of a number of things that making a mortgage payment while also being responsible for the unexpected home expenses impossible.
I've never regretted any decision I've made as much as buying a house. Because while buying a house is a bit of a trial, what nobody ever told me is that selling one is like having a second (or in my case, a fourth) job. I will probably never buy another home again — I've already lost so much owning the first. Owning a home has, for at least four of the eight years I have lived there, kept me from doing many things I want to do — and been a huge drain on my already-stretched finances. Because the furnace needed replacing, and the hot water stopped working one day, and then the dryer went a few weeks later. And those are just the obvious costs — there are so many insidious smaller costs that renters don't have — and most of all, the time of your life that needs to be invested in a home. Time I could have spent doing more of what I love was — in my mind — stolen from me by my house.
"The reality of maintenance and repairs, and being 'house rich but cash poor,' can negate much of the perceived happiness people may have had about home ownership," a senior financial analyst for Bankrate.com told the New York Times.
I'm not the only one put off by the "American Dream of Homeownership." Studies show that owning a home is not as rewarding as most people expect before they make the plunge. A 2011 study of women in Ohio found that those who owned homes weren't happier than those who rented. The same study found homeowners spent less time with friends, and according to Dr. Elizabeth Dunn, an associate professor of psychology who studies happiness at the University of British Columbia, when it comes to what makes us happy, "there are a lot better things you could be putting your money toward" than real estate.
As for those 'long-term financial gains' that were the motivation for my outlay of time, money and years of my life? They are mostly disappeared thanks to the volatile housing market. Supposedly it is picking up now, and I've put my house back on the market after being unable to sell it a few years back. I might break even financially, but I'll never get those years of my life back, when I could have taken jobs in other places, lived in other cities and had a completely different life.
Related on MNN: Tips for buying an energy-efficient house