I can’t say I wasn’t warned. I’d watched enough shows on HGTV to know the drill: Don’t fall in love with a house. Sandra Rinomato was always chuckling at those aw-shucks “property virgins,” the ones who let emotions get in the way. Sandra, of course, would never make such a mistake.I am nothing if not rational, so I went into the house-hunting process determined not to make any snap decisions. I paid attention to things like neighborhood, resale value, and the age of the roof. Sure, I was swayed by pretty hardwood floors, granite countertops, and tiki bars (because, really, who wouldn’t want a tiki bar in their home?), but I always kept the big picture in mind.
Months dragged on, and nothing was quite right. My temporary living conditions with my parents put me on edge; condensing the 900 square feet of stuff I’d accumulated while out on my own into my childhood bedroom left me with nowhere to sleep, save for the couch in the living room. After eight years away, it was strange to be back. It felt as if I’d failed somehow, even though the opposite was true — a year and a half into self-employment, I was supporting myself just fine, with ample opportunities to travel and the freedom to set my own schedule. So why was I sleeping on my parents’ couch again?Blame it on the American dream. I wanted an investment, some roots, a tangible show of success. And even though conventional wisdom up until now had told me I should only buy something if I really needed it or really loved it, I was supposed to make the biggest purchase of my life without any of those pesky things called feelings coloring my view.I tried to do just that. When I walked into an old Victorian from 1890, I was appropriately skeptical. It was more room than one person needed; heating it would probably cost a pretty penny; the siding on the carriage house clearly needed to be replaced. But its charms were tough to deny. The fireplace, banister, stained glass windows, and hardwood floors were all original. The electrical and plumbing systems were updated. The layout was open and airy. It seamlessly combined the best from the past century with the comforts of the present — and it was, miraculously, in my price range, thanks to a foreclosure.So when my offer was accepted, I was giddy with excitement. But then there were the nerves. It felt a lot like, well, the early stages of love. I made plans for us. I would host Christmas; I knew just where the tree would go. My housewarming party was going to be spectacular, and the antique furniture I was hard at work looking for would complement the living room perfectly. My cousin who went to high school nearby already had the bus route mapped out. My house would be a gathering place, filled with warmth and laughter and cookie baking and a really cool under-the-staircase coat closet. Everyone needs one of those.
So when a short time later, I made the agonizing decision not to get the house — committing to 1,800 square feet of a 120-year-old structure as a single person with no home improvement skills to speak of ultimately struck me as too risky and confining — it felt a lot like breaking up. I sat in my parents’ living room on that dreaded couch that had become both my bed and my office and I sobbed, my body heaving in convulsions. As an infrequent crier, it was like an out-of-body experience. “I’ve never felt like this before,” I remember thinking. But then, crumpled into a ball and starting to become dizzy with dehydration, familiarity washed over me, and I remembered that one time, I had felt just like this.That memory crawled into my mind and took hold until it and the house were all I could think about. With my defenses weakened, I broke a 9-month-long silence with something else that hadn’t worked out — or in this case, someone else.I started the online chat with small talk. He wondered why I was saying anything at all.“I made a major life decision recently to let go of something that had the potential to be awesome but ultimately was probably going to be more trouble than I could handle,” I wrote. “And it did remind me of you.”The house, as far as I knew, wasn’t a compulsive liar prone to depression, a crippling phobia, and criticizing me for everything I’d ever said, but it had its fair share of small problems that added up: lack of insulation, an unsafe chimney, a cracked window over the front door, a skirt board in need of replacing. I’m pretty sure I could’ve made it work with the house — but I would have had to compromise much that I loved to do it. All those plans I had probably never would’ve worked out the way I’d imagined. Eight years later, I might look back and wonder what I was thinking. But then I’d have sunk eight years into the dream, and letting it go would be that much harder. Maybe it would’ve been worth it. In the end, it wasn’t a risk I was willing to take.On the day I would have closed on the house, I succumbed to the urge to communicate again, explaining the situation. “You made the right decision,” he said.“You don’t know that,” I responded.“I have faith in you.”“I was going to decorate it and become the person I wanted to be,” I pressed on. “But now I’m not.”“You will have no problem being the person you want to be,” he said. “I have confidence in you — you are one of the strongest people I know.”It may have been the only time in eight years he ever told me the truth.Experts say never to fall in love with one property. If you do, you might miss its shortcomings, might bid more than you can really afford, might get discouraged if it goes off the market, might not know when to walk away.The house sold a few months later for $41,000 more than the list price — someone else must have loved it, too — and the boy had a girlfriend he didn’t bother telling me about until I dragged it out of him a month into our resumed conversations.My first-time homebuyer mission failed. I loved that house and I felt like I lost it, even though it was never mine to begin with. I haven’t looked at another property since — and it took a year before I went on a date. Some lessons can’t be learned from HGTV. Some, it turns out, just have to be learned the hard way.