Buying vs. renting, city vs. suburb

Disclaimer: This post doesn’t try to solve anything or judge anyone. Just like all the other posts on here. 

Real estate angst is a real thing.

Are you renting or buying? How much did you guys pay for your house? Hope I’m not being too forward seeing as I don’t know you, but what’s your rent?

Searching for a house to buy is kind of like high-stakes dating.

It’s become a cultural expectation that, as young people, we live it up in a city, make disastrous (read: “interesting”) dating and fashion decisions, attend events with free wine, take late-night cab rides we barely remember and stick up our noses a little when visiting home for the holidays – where life is even-keeled, shoes are flat and the sun is shining.

But, suddenly, boom, we become responsible and expected to abandon the once-beloved concrete in favor of home ownership in a manicured, quiet town an hour or two away.

Maybe it’s my Soviet, collectivist upbringing. Maybe it’s an obsession with big cities, particularly on the East Coast, where I always find myself – and then take “just a little break” in the West, stretching into years.

But somehow, I haven’t been bitten by the home ownership bug. It seems like the adult thing, the right thing to do, so I keep waiting.

And wondering about the two questions most Americans, at some point, face.

First, why does our culture prize isolation when building a family over the proverbial urban village? Is it about economics? Safety? Education? If cities are that bad, how do we make them livable for all, not just for a pocketful of the historically privileged few?

Image from

Second, how do young people buy a home, knowing the costs: a generation of hard labor to pay off enormous debt and repairs? Especially in the Bay Area, where ownership is becoming an unattainable – or a risky – dream for most of the local workforce? Why not, say, take 500 backpacking trips around the world, buy 20 self-driving cars and sponsor a bunch of cleft palate surgeries instead?

Renters have it easy. Give a one-month notice, sell that IKEA furniture, perhaps flash the middle finger at the rowdy neighbor’s door and be off with a suitcase and a pocketful of dreams. Before family, I’ve moved more times than I care to admit (per year) and owned my share of Billy bookcases. That’s all fine for like, Carrie Bradshaw, but not for a growing family. Or is it? Because I still wish I lived above a pizzeria,across from a rumbling subway station, with a sliver of a view of a tall building or a monument of some kind.

2012-11-23 16.19.18 HDR

My Navy coworker had a saying: “Just look at the egg and bacon breakfast. The chicken is involved. But the pig, my friend, is committed.” I feel sort of like that pig when thinking of buying a home.

This fear of commitment and white picket fences puts my family at a disadvantage. The landlord gets richer. Rent could double any time or take the place “off the market.” All that gardening and home improvement will some day be for naught.

It also lumps us in the “renter” category, which some mothers I’d met at new mom’s groups (and decided to not meet again) see as cause for socioeconomic alarm.

Recently, stories have been popping up about young families moving back to cities. While admirable – and enviable – it’s more likely in Seattle or Minneapolis than in San Francisco.

In the Bay Area, homes prices have skyrocketed by more than 10% in the last year in most counties, with costs in San Francisco and neighboring (read: commutable/workable) areas reaching one million or higher, on average.

One bedroom apartments in San Francisco go for an average of $3,500, the highest in the nation.

Apartment rents nationwide

Apartment rents nationwide

“Rents and housing prices are increasingly out of reach unless your paycheck is signed by Twitter or Google,” writes Heather Knight of San Francisco Chronicle.

Nor is San Francisco family friendly. Just 13.5 percent of its population is under 18, the lowest of any American city. Knight mentions a typical family grasping onto the shreds of loyalty to their metropolis, while their baby sleeps in a closet of their one-bedroom apartment. Eventually they bought a huge house with a backyard in the suburbs and left. Their housewarming party was called “James is coming out of the closet.”

I wholeheartedly, earnestly rejoice when friends buy homes, till their gardens and let their toddlers roam safely in the backyard. I love to visit them as often as possible, to appreciate and celebrate every new crop, molding and every piece of furniture that fits perfectly. I even peruse Better Homes and Gardens for inspiration, for their homes. Because the home of my dreams looks different. And perhaps I’m not the only one.

So in the meantime, here’s to those who either can’t afford a home in the Bay Area, who fear commitment or are city obsessed. Maybe, for us, a top-floor balcony with an urban garden, the clanging traffic and radiator, and a city park within walking distance would be a welcome relief. Maybe there are cities out there, where playgrounds aren’t ridden with either hypodermic needles or requisite Botox – playgrounds just right for the pitter-patter of tiny feet and heels, alike.

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