How I Loved—and Lost—the House of My Dreams

Home is where the heart is: There’s a reason why this saying has been cross-stitched onto pillows generation after generation. For most of us, no other place is as warm with meaning and memories or as devastating to leave behind. Stephanie Booth shares her family’s own difficult loss—and their struggle to move on.

Photo by Christopher Barth

I left the house without saying good-bye. There was no sentimental walk-through of empty rooms, no wistful glance at the swing set in the backyard or rueful reminiscing about the eight years my family had spent there. Instead I shepherded our children to the car, immediately turning on the portable DVD player to distract them from asking me the same questions again: Why are we going to stay at Grandma’s? When are we coming back here? Who’s going to live in our house now? They had heard my answers before, all cheerfully vague: Because. Never. Not us.

My husband and I are living a postrecession love story: Girl and boy buy dream house. Give up life savings to keep house. Girl and boy lose house anyway.

Our three-story Dutch Colonial, located on a tree-lined street in a quaint New Jersey town, was old and creaky. Squirrels lived in the eaves, and the shutters were in desperate need of painting. But as soon as Chris and I walked through the front door in 2004, we knew we’d found The One. “We’ll take it,” I blurted out to the real estate agent before we had even gone upstairs.

It wasn't the home’s size—six bedrooms and three baths—that enchanted us, but rather the future we saw for ourselves there: The screened-in porch foretold family barbecues and neighborhood parties. Built-in bookcases lined the living room, waiting to be filled. And in the spacious kitchen, surely I would finally master a pot roast.

At the time, Chris, a freelance photographer, and I, a writer, owned a cozy house less than a mile away. But I was six months pregnant with our first child and had no idea where we’d put him, let alone his crib and all the other necessary baby accoutrements.

This new house was well out of our price range, but a representative at our mortgage company assured us it was affordable—just $300 more than the monthly payment on our tiny home—as long as we opted for an adjustable-rate loan. It was like the scene in a movie when the most gorgeous girl in high school points to the geeky wallflower and whispers, “Come here, you.” We were seduced by the house. And even more so by the prospect of being people who could own such a house.

Like all new romances, our first years living there were dreamy and effortless. Sure, the place required tons of maintenance: painting, refinishing floors, weeding and planting garden beds, replacing windows. And, yes, it was sweltering in the summer and numbed my toes during the winter. Still, we adored it.

Then the economic crisis hit. My husband’s work assignments dropped off radically. Certain home projects had to be postponed: “Sorry we haven’t replaced the weird turquoise carpet on the third floor,” I found myself apologizing to guests. “Oh, and don’t use the toilet downstairs. Or, um, the shower.” Our savings began to dwindle. On the advice of my father, Chris and I switched to a traditional fixed-rate mortgage, but that didn’t solve our cash-flow problems. In fact, our monthly mortgage payment skyrocketed 300 percent.

To pay our bills, we started living off our credit cards and liquidating what few stocks we had. We applied to our bank for a loan modification, a Kafkaesque process in which, depending on the day, representatives informed us that our application was complete, incomplete, or not received at all.