How We Got Here

In the beginning…

Even before Mr. Smith and I met and fell in love, we knew that we belonged in the city, and felt strongly about home ownership for a couple of different reasons:

  • Home ownership literally ties you to the community. You are almost obligated to care way more about your neighborhood because you have ownership in a part of it.
  • Neighborhoods with a good ratio of homeowners tend to be more stable because it’s not normal to see people moving in and out constantly.
  • We undeniably love Milwaukee, but also acknowledge that there will be unique challenges in living in a city that has serious segregation and poverty issues. We knew that it would be important to be able to create a sort of “haven” in the city; a place that we could retreat to if we needed and reset our focus and our commitment to one another. Both of us having rented for most of our adult lives, we knew it can be difficult to find a rental situation that you can truly create this sort of shelter and make it your own space. If we wanted to stay in the city for a long time, we needed to enjoy the place we were staying at!
  • This is a funny numbers thing (he’s a financial advisor, after all), but even with the extra costs of property taxes, repairs/maintenance, and home insurance, owning a home is a better investment than renting.

So, we agreed that we would rent a little apartment in the eclectic Riverwest neighborhood during our first year of marriage, just to be able to relax and have some fun together. We planned to be on our way out and settling into our permanent neighborhood right around our one-year anniversary. We were initially interested in the Washington Park neighborhood, and decided to focus our efforts on that area.

Fast forward THREE years later, and we were just signing the papers to purchase our home. Why so long? I’ll tell you. But before I do, please keep in mind that we had an extremely unique set of circumstances surrounding our house search, and not everybody will have as hard a road to travel as we did. Hopefully. But if you are in the process of buying a home, and maybe in the process of buying a home in a less-than-coveted neighborhood of a less-than-coveted city, hopefully you can learn a few lessons from this saga!

Now, if you are good and settled, I will begin.

Why you should always pay your bills on time

In January of 2010, we began the process of getting pre-approved while simultaneously browsing through home listings. Because he was a small business owner in his first five years at the job, we needed to list my income on the loan application as well. Because he’s a) older than me and b) probably much more financially responsible than I was, he had a respectful credit score. I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t have much credit at all, and what I had was riddled with a few very late hospital bills and quite a few late fees that I’d racked up on a credit card during a summer I was unemployed. No bank would give us a loan, and in fact no program (WHEDA, HUD, etc) would give us a loan either. We were stuck. We needed my income on the loan application in order to qualify, and yet my credit score was keeping us from qualifying.

We soon found out that there’s really no sound, proven way to improve a credit score.  All of the information out there is somewhat cryptic and jumbled, leaving you wondering if you’re actually helping the situation or making the whole situation worse. At the tentative advice of a banker, we ended up applying for a prepaid credit card and using that to pay our phone bill every month for the next two years. Basically, the credit card paid the phone bill and then the balance on the card was automatically paid off every month by a withdrawal from our account. It felt a bit like gambling when we started but a few years later I can safely say that it seemed to do the trick. While I don’t have an awesome credit score, I can at least qualify for a loan now.

After being denied by a half dozen banks and home buying programs, our bank made some vague mention of a new loan program they were piloting to help people with not-so-great credit scores purchase homes in the inner city. They didn’t have much information but gave us a number to call and find out on our own. We called the number several times. We left messages. We never heard back. Finally, out of frustration, Mr. Smith asked to talk to the supervisor of the person he had been leaving messages for. He ended up leaving another voicemail, and mentioned we wanted to buy a home in the Washington Park neighborhood, which was our main area of interest at the time.

We are both stubborn people, Mr. and I. And sometimes, our stubbornness pays off. It turns out that the supervisor was the brains behind this new program, and she was really interested in helping people purchase homes in Washington Park because she and her husband lived nearby and were personally invested in the area. About three months after initially beginning the search and the preapproval process, we met with this woman and signed the paperwork to FINALLY get things rolling!

So you wanna buy a foreclosed house?

The process of getting the preapproved took a good 2-3 months. The economy had tanked a year earlier, and this meant that the housing market was flooded with foreclosed homes. We initially thought this was ideal; we could salvage an otherwise vacant property, and we could purchase a home at a low price.

We had a lot to learn.

I will do my best to keep this short, but, suffice to say, the foreclosure process is a black hole, riddled with a million different complications and variables and timelines. If you jump into it, you find out quickly that you carry no weight whatsoever, and that it’s almost impossible to get your bearings. It wasn’t long before we started to see just how ugly the housing situation in our city had become.

Almost all of the homes we were looking at were vacant (either foreclosed upon or at some point in the foreclosure process). When a house sits vacant in the inner city, it doesn’t take long before somebody desperate takes advantage of an unprotected source of income. Overnight, windows are broken, wires are stripped, pipes and fixtures are ripped out and the value of the home plummets. The longer it sits vacant, the more vulnerable the house becomes to weather damage. Within a few months of a home being vacated, you now have a boarded-up skeleton of a house with no electricity, no running water, buckling floors, and an overgrown yard. We drove down entire blocks of empty, boarded-up buildings, and while it was discouraging for us to encounter house after house in this condition, I can only imagine how demoralizing day-to-day life has to be for the people living in those neighborhoods.

So, here you have two steadily employed, enthusiastic people in a fairly stable life situation who actually WANT to purchase one of these homes. Obviously, the whole process should have been easy.

It wasn’t easy. When I look back on it, I feel like I’m about six years old, watching my older brothers play some complex boardgame. I can guess at what some of the pieces do, maybe two or three of them. But for the most part, there are moving pieces all over the board, and very few of them work well with one another, and even fewer play fair. That’s what trying to buy a foreclosed home is like. We were asked to pay in full with cash, to cut separate checks under the table, to enter into a bidding war with an investor, and to petition the city to collect owed property taxes, among other things. The most absurd, appalling part of the whole situation is that we weren’t being asked by a private homeowner. We were working with large, international financial institutions.

The corruption, lack of organization, and overall chaos of the process was shocking, not to mention painfully discouraging. We had a lot of conflict in our marriage over how far we were willing to go for certain houses. We had to move around several times in search of a short-term lease because our living situation was so unpredictable. All being said, we invested a significant amount of time, hope, and anxiety over 6 different houses before we finally found our way home.

It was April of 2012. We had begun our home search over two years before. We had changed target neighborhoods, moved three times, had some terrible arguments, and were overall feeling pretty apathetic about the whole thing. So, what happened next? Dreadlocks happened, naturally. I had long, red dreadlocks at the time, and was already used to the funny phenomenon of how much attention they attracted, specifically in inner city neighborhoods. Like, entire groups of teenage boys coming up to our car and making a big deal out of it. It was never scary or threatening, it was just sometimes rather awkward. Hi, welcome to our neighborhood…WHOA! Are those dreads?

On one fateful Sunday, we were going to drive by a house that met all of the basic prerequisites. Neither of us were really in love with it, but it was for sale, it was affordable, it seemed to have some yard, and it wasn’t a sardine. As we approached the house, we encountered a smaller group of teenagers who noticed my dreadlocks and started to make the usual commotion about them. We just didn’t have it in us to deal with it, so we continued down the street, which ended in a cul-de-sac.

And there, near the end, was a pretty little cape cod, with one of those hardware-store “For Sale By Owner” signs stuck in the scrubby grass. There was nothing particularly fantastic about it, except that the yard stretched so far back we couldn’t see the property line. And friends, if you know anything about city living, you know that yard is really special. We weren’t certain it was all part of the property, so we called the number on the sign and sure enough, it was. We got the price (it was in our range!) and set up an appointment.

After years of going through realtors to talk to other realtors to talk to banks to talk to their worker drones, simply talking one-on-one with the owners was a drastic improvement. We sat with them in their backyard, on the weathered wooden bench that someday, we would drink our morning coffee on. It was warm, for April. I remember the wife hanging t-shirts on the clotheslines, and thinking, “Oh. A clotheslines. Glory.” We told them we wanted to buy their house, and they said they wanted to sell it to us.

I would like to tell you that the rest of the process was easy, but, ironically, our bank was really difficult with us and made us perform some significant repairs on the house before they would agree to give us money to buy it. We have to be one of the only homeowners in history who had to lay down topsoil around the foundation of a house they didn’t technically own yet. We made calls to a dozen contractors and repairmen, had to get inspections, had to get the results of those inspections on company letterhead with an official signature, all in about a month before the closing date.

That wasn’t a great month.

But, obstacles have a way of moving when they’re meant to. Rivers parting, pillars falling, and all of that. We closed May 23, and moved in less than a month later.

Does God care about what house you buy?

I asked myself this question many times throughout our long two years of searching. There were moments in the process when I was really mad at God, and I entertained the thought that perhaps he was just being vindictive towards us. Or that perhaps God doesn’t care about temporal things, like owning a home, and therefore, praying, or even just expressing my disappointment was a moot point.

There are things that I DON’T have answers for yet – like why banks are being allowed to do so many terrible things to neighborhoods, or what is faith, what is function, and is there something in between. But I think I’m comfortable saying that, yes, God DID care about what house we bought. Not that He really wanted us to be in a little cape cod house with a big yard more than He wanted us to be in a stucco house by a community garden. No, more so that he knew us so well, he wanted to make sure were in the right place. He wanted us to be in a neighborhood where we could raise a family and still be challenged to confront stereotypes. He knew how important it was for me to plant a garden, and for Jason to be able to work in his yard among his neighbors. He knew we wanted to stay somewhere for a long time, and so we ended up in a place that we’ve grown to love.

All of the tension and frustration that resulted from the process really caused Mr. and I to look at some deeper issues within our marriage. While that is a whole separate story, it’s been a relief to bring those things to light and to start working through them.

And finally, I’m not going to explain all of the ways that the neighborhood and the house are great for us, because, well, that’s what the blog will mostly be about. We’re just happy to finally be home!




One Comment to “How We Got Here”

  1. I will follow so I can come back and read more of your blog. I am looking forward to more from you.

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