San Francisco Homebuyer's Guilt
By Michelle Tea
I never thought I’d be a homeowner. I never even thought I’d want to be one. Most of my experience with home ownership has been scary and secondhand. I grew up moving from rental to rental, and when my mom finally figured out how to buy her own place, she lost it in a foreclosure soon after. One of my friends managed to buy something in Oakland, only to get rid of it; being a homeowner was expensive and stressful. Then there were my homeowner friends who couldn’t get rid of their places, people who bought cheap in faraway states and, unable to sell, had to fulfill landlord-y responsibilities from afar while trying to make rent in their current cities. Maybe home ownership was like most of the other parts of the American dream, a total farce, a scam, a lie.
In San Francisco, this is particularly true. The people I know who own here had fallen into a pile of money either by luck or by tragedy, and they bought many, many years ago, before this second boom that has buyers outbidding each other with stacks of cash. Surely, I’d never be a homeowner. I never even expected to be. But for the past few months I’ve been waking up in a brand new bedroom, slightly confused as to where I am. When I remember that I’m in my brand new, very own house, the confusion does not dissipate.
I married someone who grew up in Sacramento, and my husband-wife (not sure what to call her – and we’ll get to that in another essay!) always presumed that someday she’d own a home, just as her parents had. In San Francisco, this home may have been located on the boulevard of broken dreams. But the Internet start-up that she worked at for nearly a decade, accruing stock options in lieu of a decent salary, IPO’d. Did this make her – us – a millionaire? Nope. Most people who benefit from these things don’t hit those numbers. But holy shit, we could afford a house. In San Francisco. So, we bought one last year.
We were looking in the Outer Sunset, because it’s full of single-family homes that aren’t a million dollars – which they are in the Castro or Bernal Heights. We actually looked at the crappiest, smallest, most awkward home situated on the steepest street in Bernal Heights, and could not believe they were asking a million dollars for it. It made me so mad, I wanted to just stay in our rent-controlled one-bedroom apartment for the rest of my life. But in the Outer Sunset, the prices dropped. The homes all tended to look the same – boxy and small, in need of a remodel (except for those groovy rec rooms in the basement that stood, Pompeii-like, as a record of 1960s décor – those I’d keep as is).
Some parts of the Outer Sunset seemed charming, and other parts seemed depressing. It could change for me block by block. I’d never lived so far away from what I’d considered to be the center of San Francisco – the Mission. But neither of us liked to be there very much anymore, and we really couldn’t afford a place in that neighborhood. So I tried to have an open mind.
We looked at a ton of homes, because my wife-husband has more of a love of going to open houses than for seriously considering a purchase – we hadn’t talked to a bank or done any of the stuff you’re supposed to do. Every house seemed potentially great and potentially not-great; as someone who has lived most of her life in shitholes, my standards were warped. But when we walked up to this little cottage, plopped like a Cape Cod saltbox among the Spanish-style stucco jobs that run in unbroken lines through the Sunset, I felt it. Buy me this house, I hissed at my wife-husband, clutching her wrist as I gazed at the lavender bushes in the front yard, the rustic bench on the front porch. Who was I? A woman who asked her spouse to buy her a house? I had clearly lost my mind.
As we entered the dwelling and roamed from room to room and back again – sticking around not for our usual five minutes but upwards of 20, the seller’s agent cracking jokes about how we were still there – the feeling grew: this was our house. It was humble but roomy. It had skylights that would brighten the place even during the Outer Sunset’s famously gloomy season. It had a yard and the yard had a big wooden studio, bigger than a shed and smaller than a barn, with a loft. I grew dizzy with fantasies of the books I would write in the studio, the dinner parties I would throw, the miniature donkeys I would rear!
Through a series of frantic maneuvers involving agents and banks and the writing of a letter to the seller, praying she found aspiring lezzie parents charming and not abhorrent, we got the house. And then we had to tell our friends.
In other economic regions, buying your first house is a cause for community celebration. There are gifts, parties, congratulations. Here in San Francisco, I was terrified to tell anyone, especially those closest to me. What I would really be saying to them was, We have so much more money than you! Sorry you’re trapped in your run-down studio ’cause you can’t afford to move out, but we’ve just purchased 1,300 square feet in the priciest city in America! Aren’t you happy for us?
Of course they were, my friends love me. But as awkward as it was for me to pretend that this news wasn’t a class bomb, it was surely harder for them to rise above their conflicted feelings to share in my good fortune. I could see it in the looks of wounded shock before they plastered smiles over them; meanwhile, I was masking my nervous tension with the brightly chipper exterior of a Stepford Wife. Somewhere under our strained conversations was grief – their disappointment that home ownership wasn’t currently an option for them (and may never be in this city); that I had jumped classes while they weren’t looking; my sadness at causing them grief, at being tugged apart from people I once had everything in common with by this complicated good fortune.
It’s a bittersweet feeling I have toward this dream house. It has tied me to San Francisco more than ever, at a moment when all my closest friends are leaving, moving to cities where their dreams of home ownership are more likely. I sit in my office – I have an office! – and email with them from my computer. My wife-husband and I burn logs in our fireplace, we invite friends over for TV parties. Our dog basks in the sunny backyard all day – we have a backyard! – no more interrupting my work to take him out to pee every couple hours. We have a washer, and a dryer, and a dishwasher. We are, seriously, blissed out. We understand how fortunate we are, and we talk about it often. Very often. As if by voicing our gratitude it somehow makes it okay that we get to have this when so many others don’t. As if knowing that we’re lucky could spread that luck around, just by magic.