After my interview landed the teaching job in Durango, Colorado in 1976, I drove back to find a place to live. I looked at houses, found one I liked, and made an offer. I went back to Austin, Texas, packed up my gear, and hired a moving van to deliver my furniture and books.
Lesson #1: Just because you have a contract, doesn’t mean you bought it
But when I returned in my tiny car with Mom who volunteered to help me get settled and two hot cats who desperately needed a place to chill after that eighteen hour drive, I learned that the seller had changed his mind. Mom saved the day when she had her hair done and found an interim place for me to live, even with my two cats, with her stylist.
That arrangement lasted a few months while the realtor beat the bushes for another house. I simply couldn’t impose on a single mom with two small daughters and her own two cats any longer.
My new house was a two-bedroom, one bath cottage on a tiny lane between two streets–similar to an alley but with five houses like any other street. It was a brisk forty-five minute walk to the college, a fifteen-minute walk to the grocery store, and a mile round-trip running around the park. Best of all, I could afford it, even on a teacher’s salary.
A few years later, I sold that house to buy one with my future husband. Real estate values exploded, and I learned my second lesson, sadly, after the fact.
Lesson #2: Keep your property
The marriage lasted two years. Selling my investment to help finance that marriage has lasted more than thirty, because the house I’d bought for $30,000 was suddenly listed for $67,000 a mere two years later; now it’s over $300,000. Men understand this; savvy women are beginning to. I learned this lesson the hard way when I told a woman my story at a college cocktail party.
She waved her cigarette holder in the air while she laughed out loud at my naivety. “Never, never, never sell your property to finance a joint venture.” Keep it as a rental property and borrow against it if you must, but never sell your property.
He bought another house; I moved into a condo. After a year with noise so loud I could not tune my guitar inside my own apartment with the windows closed, I was desperate to find a home of my own.
Meanwhile, trouble brewing in the trailer park meant two new friends were about to be homeless. I said, “If I find a place big enough, would you like to join me?”
In December 1981, we moved into an old adobe house converted into three apartments. It was in horrible shape, and part of me felt so sad that this was my life. I used every cent I had to get it and had no money left to fix her up.
Holes in the wall around the door to the studio apartment meant it could not be rented until they were patched. Mike and Cindy took the one bedroom downstairs; I took the attic apartment, nailing towels over the broken windows to keep the snow out.
When the snow melted, Mike tested formulas for stucco to see which one stuck the longest and covered the best, while I learned how to repair holes in the walls of adobe houses.
Lesson #3: Fixer-upper = Money Pit
When you buy a “new, turn-key house,” you pay a lot up front. When you buy a “fixer-upper,” you pay the same amount or more, but you get to pay as you go. In these past thirty-one years I’ve had to deal with some major repairs: replaced two broken water lines (>$10,000 each) and flooring and floor coverings in both downstairs apartments from water damage ($15,000). I’ve also replaced all windows and doors and all appliance for three apartments–twice. The stucco has been redone twice ($3,500, then $11,00). The outside has been painted three times. All this in addition to routine maintenance.
Lesson 4: Refinance = Higher Mortgage Payment
These extraordinary expenses involved refinancing. Every time I refinanced, the mortgage payment went up. I now owe twice what I bought the house for–the one I might have paid off by now.
Lesson 5: Routine maintenance continues Even if the water line breaks
To keep apartments rented, they must be maintained no matter what calamity you’re facing. Each apartment has had floor coverings (vinyl and carpet) replaced three times. Furniture has been bought and disposed of to appease renters’ wishes. Routine maintenance continues no matter what, including plumbers, electricians, carpenters, yard work/snow removal and painters.
Lesson 6: Renters See it differently
After the recent round of disasters, I had to raise rents. IRS has warned me twice that I can’t take expenses off taxes unless my rentals are in alignment with Durango rentals. The loan I needed to replace emergency funds recently wiped out by water damage would not be approved unless I raised the rents. But when I informed one renter that I was raising hers, which has always been below market value, she said, “I don’t mind–if you DO something.” I don’t hold it against her; she’s young and she’s never owned property.
Lesson 7: Get clear on the purpose of your property before you buy
When I first bought the triplex, it was to shelter me and my friends. Over the years I’ve felt a kind of pride that my rents were low for Durango and that I was helping people like me who can’t afford the high rents and high cost of housing in Durango. But that renter helped me see that my purpose for property has changed. Now I’m looking for a place I can afford all by myself, for myself.
Till next time, I’ll be Skating Thru this relocation process, learning what I can. How about you? Are you also in limbo? Are you wanting something different?