When I first saw the flyers all over the telephone poles in my neighborhood announcing a community meeting to debate the proposed opening of a transient home for battered women, I didn’t think: “I should go, to stand up for my less fortunate sisters.” I didn’t even worry: “Uh-oh, how will this affect my bourgeois-aspirational lifestyle?” No, I thought: “If enough people get worked up, maybe it’ll drive down housing prices.” It’s come to this: trying to make white flight work for me.
My husband and I decided to become homeowners last spring, the same time we decided to try to have a second child. We approached the new stage of our lives with gusto. Conception turned out to be remarkably easy and reliably enjoyable. Then came house-hunting. Interest rates, friends and bank ads reminded us, are at an all-time low. Surely that would compensate somewhat for the fact that housing prices themselves remain at a mind-bending high?
Buoyed by the triumphal sagas of our home-owning friends-rock-bottom-priced fixer-uppers, condos that later tripled in value-we quickly obtained our credit reports and a mortgage broker. We may be the kind of academic, artsy people whose incomes don’t quite jibe with their pretensions, but we considered ourselves a typical middle-class family, with a little under half a million to spend-more if we went for a place with rental income.
We knew we couldn’t afford Manhattan, and I’d already informed my mate that if he tried moving me to the suburbs, I was going to start drinking and having affairs. Ideally, we’d stay in our modest, comfortable Carroll Gardens neighborhood.
It’s easy to see why it’s desirable: rows of stately brownstones, a lively playground, an up-and-coming elementary school, hip restaurants and shops on Smith Street, easy F-train access. Still, the area retains a gritty je ne sais quoi we hoped would translate into affordability. It’s a place where cigarette-smoking grandmothers in housecoats yell out the window when dinner is ready, where the pork store is guarded by an oversized, apron-wearing plastic pig.
Call us naïve: We just hadn’t banked on $1.75 million price tags on houses with plaster front-lawn Virgin Marys.
Our salvation, I decided, would be to find a rundown home with “good bones” and a low price. I pestered an agent for days when I saw a sign in his window advertising a two-family home “with details” that “needs work” for $575K. The details included a basement with no boiler, just an intricate labyrinth of rotting pipes. The walls on the owner’s duplex were wet and peeling from leaks of mysterious origin. I looked out in the yard and saw something small and furry darting through waist-high grass. The tenant upstairs indicated she wouldn’t allow us in, but it was hard to make out what she was saying above the basso profundo din of her dog. Lesson No. 1: There’s always a dog. It will bark menacingly the entire time you’re looking, and it will be named Happy.
We looked at a windowless duplex on Court Street for just under half a million. We looked at a small condo with a fully mirrored living room and bedroom that sat directly on the B.Q.E. for the same price. I stopped by a house near the Gowanus Canal going for $625K. The ad was addressed to “someone with patience and vision.” The front sidewalk was entirely occupied by an overgrown tree. A neighbor came by and said, “That house? Nobody’s lived there for 25 years. They say there are mushrooms growing inside.” I’ve gone so far as to harass the city about an abandoned brownstone on President Street, only to discover that the owner, disappointingly, still pays taxes on it.
We came close to bidding on a 750-square-foot co-op for the bargain price of $350K, until my husband had an anxiety attack. The owners had two children, and the kids’ room could barely fit a bunk bed and small chest of drawers. It was too much, or rather too little, for a man from Westchester.
Lesson No. 2: “Recently renovated” is real-estate code for “architectural assault and battery.” Someone at Home Depot is laughing cruelly as they issue the same ersatz-wood kitchen cabinetry to every potential seller in the County of Kings. Somewhere, someone is adding a “Florida room” and a fiberboard drop ceiling. Somewhere, a yard is being cemented over, and the owner is smiling at how he’s just upped the property value.
My hopes rose when I saw a two-family advertised on Wyckoff Street. It was on a pretty stretch of street bookended by housing projects. The asking price was $775K. It smelled of zoo. The ad had said it was a three-bedroom. But when I asked the realtor why I could only count two, he informed me he’d been including the bedroom in the rental unit.
We discovered that other neighborhoods we’d been quick to dismiss, like Park Slope (too crunchy), Fort Greene (too trendy), and Williamsburg (too New York Times Styles section), had almost nothing to offer in our price range, either. Lesson No. 3: The boy you think you’re too good for doesn’t like you anyway.
We started to look farther afield, within strict guidelines: not too far out, not inconvenient to public transportation and in no neighborhood that regularly appears on Live at Five in flames.
If the title hadn’t already been taken, our story would by now be called Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. I saw a lumber nightmare in Windsor Terrace with wood-grain vinyl siding, dark blue paneling in every room and a pennant-shaped yard with a long drain pipe running through the length of it. “It’s very low-maintenance,” the realtor cooed. I looked at another in Windsor Terrace that had no eating space and one small bathroom downstairs from the bedrooms. This is a pregnant woman’s worst-case scenario. “You could keep something near the bed,” the realtor helpfully offered. “Like a jar?” I asked. I looked at a house in the South Slope described as a “cottage.” The seller had miniaturized everything in it: the table for two in the kitchen, the love seat in the living room, the twin bed in the bedroom. “I want to live here!” my toddler declared. Sure she did-it was a dollhouse.
It wasn’t long before my husband started begging off. My rock, my stalwart, my soulmate had started returning from viewings and sobbing himself into a deep sleep. My young daughter was enthusiastic about peeking into other people’s homes-until I took her to five open houses in one day and she developed an accusatory case of scarlet fever. Now I go out on my own, and realtors love nothing more than an expectant lady waddling through the door. I reek of the desperation of a reality-dating-show contestant.
A friend whose kitchen can’t accommodate anyone over size 12 despairs, “At what point do we give up and leave?” But I still prefer Prospect Park to a yard, great takeout over a dishwasher. My daughters will never say: “I grew up in New York, and I couldn’t wait to run away somewhere interesting.” So we stay. There’s a vacant parking lot I recently saw advertised at $350K. I wonder what public school it’s zoned for, and how close it is to the pork store.