Saturday, October 07, 2006

Gimme Shelter

Yesterday was a beautiful Harvest Moon, and hence the beginning of Sukkot, the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, or Feast of Booths. I've written before about the meaning which the Jewish holidays have for me, and this one is no exception. No, I don't build a sukkah for the family, but I do find this holiday as good a time as any to think about the blessing of shelter, of having a place one can call "home" while sojourning through the world. For serious Jews, it's actually a rather joyous holiday; unlike holy days like Passover, which points those who observe it back to the bitterness and redemption of the past, as well as committing them to the future, Sukkot is in some ways very much like America's Thanksgiving Day, another celebration of the harvest: it refers to the past--to the Jews who wandered in the desert, dwelling in tents, depending upon God--so as to emphasize the blessings and bounties and many reasons to celebrate they enjoy today.

We have many blessings and bounties and reasons to celebrate today ourselves, but I can't say my thoughts about about shelter have been particularly joyous of late. Mostly because finding shelter is a pain.

Oh, we're not living in a box; we're renting a nice apartment here in Wichita, and have no complaints with it. No, the problem is that we are, at long last, finally looking to buy a home, and we really don't know how to go about it. Which is fairly embarrassing: I'm 37 years old, practically my whole family is at least partially involved in real estate, and yet the prospect of buying a house--even the prospect of figuring out what you need to know in order to buy a house--is as intimidating as hell. I know what you're thinking: "That's why you get a realtor!" Well, have a realtor, and he's a good guy (though he can't seem to take seriously our desire to live close enough to Friends University so I can ride my bike and thus we can avoid buying a second car). But there was a great home in our neighborhood which became available just the last week, and we jumped at it...but they didn't want to work with a realtor; they wanted everything to be settled just between our two families (well, and the bank, and the titling company, and...). We tried every way we could think of to work something out that would allow us to make an offer on the house while also bringing along someone as a buyer's agent at least, just so that we didn't accidentally sign away my retirement fund or our oldest child or something (don't laugh: you don't know how bad I am with details), and it just fell apart. Depression ensued. We've been at this--looking at dozens of homes, talking with lenders, checking out MLS listings, going over our needs and desires with our realtor again and again--for two solid months now. Of course, I don't know what to expect; maybe that's a reasonable amount of time to spend looking for a home in a city like Wichita? Or are our demands unreasonable, simply incompatible with our price range? Everyone we ask, of course, has a different story, a different answer. So the weekend comes and there's this other possibility...but it would require us to completely redo the kitchen when we purchased the home, and it's possible the trees in the front yard are dying. At this point, a sukkah is looking good.

I remember when Laura McKenna was going through this whole process--which school districts do you think you can work with? just how far are you willing to live from neighbors/job/family? how much work are you willing to put into your home long term? how long do you expect to live there anyway?--and so I know nothing in the above paragraph is a unique or original concern. Buying a home is tough, especially the first time around. And we've got a lot of help that most other first-time home-buyers don't have, that's for certain. But then, we're also so far along with our family: four kids, with the oldest about to enter middle school. And I guess we make things harder for ourselves with all our "crunchy" and "slacker" attitudes. All we want is a nice four-bedroom suburban home along a quiet street with sidewalks from which the kids can walk to school and I can bike to work, one with mature enough trees that I can build a treehouse for the girls. Oh, and we want to live in it for 20 years, or at least until most of the kids are gone. Is that too much to ask? (Yes, it probably is, especially on our budget. Even in Wichita.)

Oh well. Life goes on. Today, having shook off some of the grumpiness of the last few days, I'm feeling better, confident that something will come along...eventually. (Who knows? Maybe, especially if we can find a contractor who is willing to build us a kitchen that doesn't aspire to be a whole-hog, Martha-Stewart special, this next house may be the one.) It's just a matter of looking carefully and rethinking as necessary and, most importantly, waiting until that day comes to pass. I suppose the whole reason we have holidays, breaks in the calendar, events to remember, feasts to celebrate, is to make it easier to keep with the daily routine, to stick with the important tasks that you really do desire but have a hard time seeing the end point of. A shelter from the daily-ness of open houses and lender forms. A sukkah that we can take a nap in, say a prayer in, remember gratefully how much better thing are today than they used to be, and so find the strength to get up and call your realtor once more.


David said...

Sympathies. I've been through real-estate ignorance also. A more recent discovery is how helpless I am in relation to the law--no one in my family or circle of friends is a lawyer (well, one immigration lawyer), so each dealing with the law induces bewilderment and fear. I don't know which holiday will produce consolation for this phobia.

If you're in Wichita, I imagine a practical knowledge of plumbing--knowing how to prevent ice in the pipes--will be useful. 

Posted by Withywindle

Anonymous said...

Okay, I'm far from the most educated Jew in the world, but I have to say that the idea that Sukkot is more "joyous" than Pesach (Passover) just strikes me as wrong. Both holidays have a serious element; both have a celebratory element. Both are more joyous than Rosh HaShanah, because of the latter's connection to the Days of Awe and repentance and all that; but I think what you said about Sukkot compared to Pesach just isn't right.

(The one, very minor, way in which this might be true is that if one does Pesach seriously it is a genuine pain in the tuchus: all that cleaning! But that's a practical grumble and has nothing to do with the actual spirit of the holiday.)

Great to have you back, Russell!

Russell Arben Fox said...

Withwhindle--thanks for the sympathies. If nothing else, with our each failure to purchase this home or that one, we're learning more about the process, or specifically about what shouldn't  be part of the process. As for holidays...I don't know, maybe an expansive reading of the Jewish sabbatical year could give us a once-in-seven years respite from lawyers?

Stephen--I confess, I've never been a direct part of a Sukkot observance, only an observer. So my assessment of the holiday comes from that outside observance: the kids playing camp-out in the sukkah, the family decking it out in various season-appropriate decorations, etc. I didn't mean to suggest that Passover was a mournful holiday, only that--again, from what I've seen--the "celebratory element" in Sukkot seems a lot more pronounced. But you would surely know a lot better than I! 

Posted by Russell Arben Fox

Jeff said...

If it's any comfort, we had similar struggles a couple years ago. We looked off and on for a few years, and then we hunted seriously for about four months or so. Many times we were tempted to compromise and get something that didn't meet our desires. We relaxed our standards and looked at fixer uppers and things that were too small or too old or in the wrong location, but we couldn't feel good about them. Then we found a great house and made an offer but an annoying real estate agent did some shady stuff and caused the whole thing to unravel.

Toward the end we were terribly discouraged about the whole process and considered giving up. Suddenly things clicked. We found the perfect home and everything fell into place smoothly. We've been thrilled with the house, the location, and the neighborhood.

Anyway, be patient and keep at it. Something someday will work. And it's worth the wait to get what you want. 

Posted by Jefe

Russell Arben Fox said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Jefe. Most of the people we know and respect who have gone through the promise say the same thing: just be patient, keep looking, wait for the right one to come along. I'm sure it's good advice; I hope we can follow it.

A question for anyone who reads this: how long should you stick with a realtor, if the homes you're seeing aren't fitting what you're lookin for? Is it at all likely that a different realtor who knows what you want could find you more options, or do all realtors basically work from the same pool of homes, no matter who they are? 

Posted by Russell Arben Fox

Jeff said...

We had various realtors who tried to help us, but we never contracted with any one. (We'd call them about a home they had listed and they'd offer to show us a few others.) Those that did help us would look up homes and show us things, but they all worked with the same database and had access to the same listings. They would find the same homes or different homes—it all depended on how they entered the search criteria.

We didn't find different realtors more or less helpful in the finding  effort. They were all equal. And none of them, in our experience, went to a lot of effort (but maybe that's because we weren't contracted with any of them). They sat down at their computers, entered a few criteria, and printed off a list that they showed us.

One big drawback we found: at least here (Utah), the realtors were only pulling homes that were listed by other realtors. They never found homes that were for sale by owner. We scoured the papers and drove around and found many things that realtors didn't know about because all they did was search the computer listings.

We found the house we purchased through a owner-listing in the classifieds, not through an agent.

Posted by Jefe