underwater in mortgageBy Jennifer

I thought clever people like me didn’t end up underwater in a mortgage.

It seems downright unjust.  Far from buying at the top of the market, I bought more than a year after the crash.  At the time, I and everyone else marveled at the bargain I snatched from the wreckage of the economy: a totally remodeled two-bedroom, two-bath condo in a pleasant midtown neighborhood for a monthly payment less than the 25% of my take-home pay recommended by conservative lenders.  I’m only moderately bright with money matters, but combined with $8,000 back on my taxes, my decision to buy seemed brilliant.  In my hubris, I pitied the creatures who paid half again as much for it at the top of the market.  Two years later, I look like a chump.

The instant I closed, there were disquieting hints that the market might fall further: Three homeowners put their units up for sale, hoping that I was the first of several buyers.  A couple of places went into foreclosure.  Then, a year and a half after I made my move, my developer went bankrupt, throwing several freshly-remodeled units identical to mine on the market at once.

Hm, I thought.  I must be upside-down in my mortgage.  In a moment of perverse curiosity I checked the listings online.  Sure enough, the unit next door — the one with the “upgraded” berber carpet and zinc fixtures — was listed at precisely half what I paid for mine.  As of four months ago, the value of my house has plunged more than 50 percent.

At that moment, I started up the internal pep talk that has warded off jaw-grinding chagrin ever since.  It sounds like this:  I love my home.  I wanted to own a home in 2009, and I’ve enjoyed it immensely in the intervening two years.  It’s not like I mean to flip it for profit.  I can easily afford the payment, so being underwater only matters if I need to sell.  This place fits my needs as snugly as it did when it was worth twice as much.  My condo isn’t an investment, it’s my home.

And, in fact, I do love it.  I chose it for its sound bones, and that hasn’t changed.  Built in 1962 along vaguely modernist lines, it enjoys a dramatic picture window view of the Catalina mountains and shelter from the blazing summer sun.  The slump block construction is sturdy, the HOA replaced the roof a year before I bought, and the neighborhood boasts a small Trader Joe’s, a chain health food store, and a bewildering variety of stores specializing in paint, flooring, and furniture.  My aging parents live minutes away, and my commute is modest.  Really, it’s unlikely that I’ll ever sell it.

The devil in me mocks the arctic stretches of white walls, insipid speckled tile and practical counter top.  Sure, she whispers, it looks “tasteful” now, but in 10 years, when the melamine cabinets begin to warp and sag, it will seem cheap.  In those dark moments, I remind myself that the generic interior is part of my fiendish plan.  I can work on it gradually, at my own pace, instead of having to tear out ancient cabinetry or stained carpet the minute I unpacked the last box.  I don’t have to remodel, so I can revel in the process of redecorating.

I spent the first several months assembling furniture and savoring the pleasant agony of deciding where to hang each painting and print.  I chose soft furnishings in bright, clear colors and bedding in restful shades of green and rose.  Through it all, I managed to smother a growing sense that I need to take more dramatic steps.  My prized artwork faded into fields of white, and the quirky architectural details that still captured my imagination — the nifty West wall of brick, the angle of the staircase slicing into the living room, the pleasing nook between the closet and master bath — eluded my attempts at drama.  Something was missing.  Long working days left me with enough energy to keep things tidy, but not to cook or garden.  Occasional visits to Home Depot or Lowe’s to educate myself about window treatments left me shuddering with something approaching existential despair.  I desperately wanted to nest, but I didn’t know where to begin.

I should point out that I have a better head start than most.  Unlike many women of my generation, I spring from an honest-to-God Home.  My parents have been married for more than 45 years now, and sit-down dinners were the norm.  My mom worked part-time and though she seemed largely indifferent to the art of homemaking, skills absorbed during a girlhood on a Minnesota farm have served her well.  To this day she disclaims any special knowledge of cooking, but she would no more pour flour into a measuring cup than she would sunbathe naked.  I never received systematic instruction, but I, too, instinctively assemble ingredients before I cook and stow them again as I go.  I somehow know that you can’t freeze broccoli without blanching it first, and that it’s a bad idea to put a used spoon in salsa you hope to eat the next day.

My knowledge goes deeper still.  During my childhood, both parents ruthlessly pressed me into service for a variety of home-improvement projects.  Very much against my will, I know how to mix mortar and lay block.  I’ve never installed flooring, but I’ve seen both parents patiently lay and grout thousands of square feet of saltillo tile.  Together they’ve torn down walls, jackhammered up the floor to rearrange plumbing, yanked out thirsty trees to install xeriscape, and built the three-car garage that houses my dad’s race car.  Within the last few years they’ve painted the exterior a bold coral that’s become notorious with the local pizza delivery guys.  I know that a determined couple can transform any house with a good floor plan into a most excellent nest.  I needed time, though, and I needed a plan.  Really, what I needed was Ken’s taste and expertise.

Since we met, my sterile pad is well on its way to becoming a home.  For a few hundred dollars, we’ve painted all but a few rooms and installed some basic moldings.  From the crimson gallery wall to the sunny orange landing, the change is breathtaking.  Along the way, I’ve discovered that I have excellent taste and plenty of ideas, and executing them has given me deep pleasure.

More importantly, every time I look at our creations, I’m delighted to be here, in my hometown, underwater.