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.
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.
We consulted with a financial therapist. A HUD counselor. A credit counselor. All pointed out that Chris and I were no longer able to afford our home. That prospect terrified and saddened us; we couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. And so we turned to the one person who promised to try to keep us there, even though it would mean forsaking our financial reputations: a bankruptcy lawyer.
Sitting on a hard wooden bench in the federal courthouse, waiting for a judge to wipe out our debts, Chris and I held hands, bewildered. How had this happened? We were once people with excellent credit, who paid bills on time. We didn’t drive expensive cars or wear designer clothes. The only truly nice thing we had ever owned was our house.
When we returned home that after noon, I walked through the rooms. Was declaring bankruptcy worth it, just to stay inside these four walls? For the first time since we moved in, I didn’t feel at home. I felt trapped.
Every serious relationship I’ve had in my life has ended gradually, with a whimper rather than a bang. Falling out of love with my house was no exception. I was optimistic one day, nihilistic the next. I'd be sure that Chris and I couldn’t make ends meet. Moments later, I’d feel just the opposite. Confused, we put the house on the market, then took it off. And finally, in the winter of 2010, when we could no longer afford the monthly overhead and a foreclosure notice from our bank arrived, the pages peppered with threatening legal phrases, we put the house back up for sale.
Discussions about the house became so stress-inducing that Chris and I could have them only in small, barely tolerable spoonfuls—a few minutes between TV shows or while washing dishes after dinner. I found myself whispering most of the time, as if the house could hear.
After months of searching, we finally found a buyer. But our bank refused to approve the short sale and the deal fell through. It wasn’t the house's fault, but I resented it anyway. The flower beds went untended. The toilet stayed broken.
Chris began drinking at night to fall asleep. I became a door slammer. “Why do we have to move?” our son and daughter took turns asking. “This is a great house.”
“I know,” I said. “But just wait—we’ll like our next one better.”
The next year, we found yet another buyer. And once again the bank refused the short sale. Chris and I were distraught. The institution wouldn’t modify our loan, but it wouldn’t allow us to avoid foreclosure by selling, either? We filed countless complaints with banking entities and pleaded for help from our congressman. Each effort was a dead end. Our lawyer tried to make us feel better, assuring us that foreclosure proceedings would take two, even three years. That was plenty of time, he said, to settle our affairs and gather our things before the sheriff nailed an auction notice to our home and locked the doors. Horrified, I tried to imagine what that would look like from my children’s perspective: coming home from school to find their house off-limits, their stuffed animals and books jailed inside. I woke up in the middle of the night, my heart slamming against my chest.
Chris and I knew what we had to do: We sold most of our belongings. And last May we took our kids and left the house for good.
We moved to the West Coast. Our Portland, Oregon, rental home is a thousand square feet smaller than our New Jersey house. The kitchen has no space for a table. The bathroom was last updated in the 1980s. But my promise to my children—that we’ll like our next house even better—has come true. Living here, and living within our means, has opened us up to a significantly fuller life. Instead of spending weekends angsting over home-repair costs, we take family hikes. Once again Chris and I have conversations about things other than whose turn it is to call the mortgage company. (Technically, we still own the house; the bank hasn’t reclaimed the property or allowed us to off-load it.)
Not long ago, a friend asked if Chris and I had “just walked away” from our home. Walked away? We clung to that house as hard and tightly as we could, even as it wreaked havoc on our lives. No, I told her. I ended a destructive relationship the only way I could.
I will not lose myself in this house in the way I fell for my last one. And that’s a good thing. Some passionate romances aren’t worth the cost.
About the Author
Stephanie Booth, a frequent contributor to Real Simple, has also written for the Washington Post, Salon, and Cosmopolitan, among other publications. She lives with her family in Portland, Oregon.