About three years before I planned to retire from my job in the southwest part of the country, I purchased a house in the southeast part of the country.
To fully grasp the significance of that statement, you probably need to know something about my general disposition. I am probably the most risk averse person on the face of the planet. I took an extremely responsible federal job in 1981 that paid the paltry sum of $10,900 per year solely because I figured I would never have to worry about getting laid off or eating cat food when I was old. Any extra money I ever had went into a plain old savings account. I own one share of stock, in the Disney Corporation, not because it was financially sound, but because I thought the ornamentation on the stock certificate was appealing. When employees all over the federal government were converting their old, tired defined benefit retirement plans to more aggressive investment plans, I stuck with the original plan. The last time I moved anywhere was in 1991 when I purchased a tiny condominium located less than five miles from the rental property where I was living at the time. I never turned that condo over for a detached home when the real estate boomed or busted.
This fiscal conservatism served me well. Through inflation, gradual progression and promotion, and, frankly, simple longevity, I ended my career making about 17 times the annual salary I made when I started. The savings accounts, while not resulting in huge wealth, are liquid and secure. The tiny little condo ultimately increased in value by about $80,000 in the time I owned it. And the Tinker Bell graphic on the Disney stock certificate graces the wall in my new home very nicely. As to the tired old defined benefit plan, it enabled me to retire right on schedule. Many of the people who changed plans to take advantage of the nineties stock bubble are postponing their retirement now because the bubble burst.
All this goes to show that purchasing a house 3000 miles away to rent out while I was awaiting my retirement was completely out of character for me. However, real estate prices and interest rates were way down and I happened upon a real estate agent in the new location whose main line of business was managing rental properties. She also had a history of living near our home in the old location. If I was ever going to take a chance, this seemed to be a good one to take. Since I had saved a nice chunk of change to put down on the house as a result of “practicing” paying another mortgage, I was confident that I could afford the house even if I did not get tenants. I wasn’t thrilled to have the house sitting vacant, so I did have a few anxious months until the property manager found tenants. After that point, everything was easy. The rent, minus the property management fees, went into an account every month and the mortgage payment magically deducted itself from the same account every month, as did the HOA fees. Once in a great while, I wrote a check for some insurance or some minor repairs. I even had positive cash flow. The only pain was doing my income tax return to show the rental income and expenses.
In fact, things went along so swimmingly, I sort of forgot that, one day, I would be turning my life upside down, moving 3000 miles from my little one bedroom condo in the west, and taking up residence in that rental property.
The neighborhood where Max, my longtime boyfriend and POSSLQ (Person of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters), and I were living in my tiny little condo had been declining over the past several years. The real estate bubble burst rather messily, leaving quite the aftermath in our quiet little community. Many of the owners, wanting to move on to detached houses but unable to sell their condos for what they thought appropriate, rented their small units. They were not too particular about who paid the rent, as long as someone did. Noise, crime, and general shadiness increased. The police visited as frequently as the UPS truck. Sometimes, we were the ones inviting them to stop by, when the neighbors’ “disagreements” seemed to cross the line to “potentially dangerous domestic disputes.” People also often hosted parties on their patios, during which the entertainment seemed to involve the guests regaling each other with tales of their various criminal activities. Since drunkenness doesn’t exactly come with a volume control, we heard it all… at any hour of the day or night. The people below us, who seemed to be away from home at least 13-14 hours a day, had two yappy yorkies. The people insisted the yorkies did not bark, or, if they did, they barked no more than average dogs. Technically, they might have been right. It wasn’t so much barking as ear-piercing screeching that went on for literally hours some days. However, in my mind, the real issue was HOW WOULD THEY HAVE KNOWN IF THEIR DOGS WERE BARKING, SINCE THEY WERE NEVER HOME?!
In short, the neighborhood transformed. It changed from a quiet community of young married couples and older retired people into something resembling a compound of frat houses. During that iteration, we tried to ignore the irritants, but ignoring things became more difficult when Max retired and was exposed to the issues all day long. Ultimately, the transformation took a more sinister turn and the frat house occupants started talking about guns and drugs and beating each other to a pulp.
With all this being said, one would think I would have been anxious to go. Max certainly was. In the year before my retirement, he kept counting down the days until we could move. He researched television cable and satellite companies near the new home. He studied possible internet companies. He made decisions about these items like A YEAR before the planned move. He made frequent suggestions that maybe it was time to check out realtors, contract moving companies, and put the condo on the market. I really wasn’t ready. The condo still felt like it was home to me. I didn’t feel any need to begin the moving process months and months before it was actually going to happen. Plus, remember that my rental property in the southeast was doing just fine and I had kind of forgotten that I was one day actually going to live there.
Still, I agreed that it wouldn’t hurt anything for Max to begin working on the moving issues, which he did with great aplomb. Finally, I yielded to pressure and interviewed a couple of realtors… six months before our expected move date. I agreed to put the condo on the market because the realtors all said it was a good idea to have the house for sale during the summer, but I didn’t believe it would actually sell any time soon because I couldn’t see anyone buying the condo and waiting for six months to occupy. I had no intention of vacating the premises before our ultimate move across the country.
Silly me. The condo actually sold within a week of listing. The buyer was purchasing the condo with an occupant mortgage but said he was fine with waiting until December to move in. It soon became clear that he had no intention of ever residing there. He was buying it to rent and was perfectly happy to have built-in tenants for six months. So, I would be paying rent on my own house for months before moving! Okay, I know that it was no longer my house after I received the very healthy purchase price from the escrow. That transaction not only paid off the remaining mortgage on the condo, but also allowed me to pay off the mortgage on the house on the other side of the country. A rational person could not argue that the condo was “mine” any longer. It still felt very, very odd to write that rent check every month… and that probably also helped me let go of the “home” place the condo had in my heart.
There were other factors in the last several months in the condo that helped ease the blow of actually leaving. Because we had packed away much of my “stuff” when we put the condo on the market, most of my personal thumbprint was buried in storage and a safety deposit box. For several months, when I looked around the condo, I no longer saw my history. Those four walls became a place to sleep, watch TV, and make millions of arrangements for the big move. That space was no longer where my life happened. In the last few weeks, there were so many things happening, between my retirement celebration and the impending move, I didn’t really have time to think about what it would be like to be gone. In short, the emphasis of our lives was on the process of leaving, not the result.
Still, when the day actually came for us to begin our great adventure and the movers finally removed everything left in the condo, it wasn’t easy. Max and I stood in the empty condo and I looked around a last time. I remembered how it felt when I first moved in, some 23 years before. I was so proud and so happy and so excited. I bought the condo all by myself and I pleased only myself. When Max moved in about a dozen years ago, it was because his presence increased my joy. Many of the people I loved who have since passed from this life spent time with me in this condo. My father, who died in 1996, spent a couple of weeks with me when I first moved in, doing odd jobs and helping make the place home for me. I raised my little welsh corgi mutant here and she went to doggy heaven as I sat on this floor and held her in my arms. My work life morphed from a job to a career during the time I lived here. I met the love of my life while living here. In this condo, I first learned how to be truly happy with myself and evolved into the person I am today.
The moment of nostalgia was intense, but it passed as suddenly as it had come. I shed a tear or two, but never felt the hurt I expected to feel. It was a little disorienting to walk out the door, but not particularly painful. I think, as I looked at the empty condo, I realized that the history I made there was not in the space, but in my heart. And I am taking my heart with me, wherever I go.
So what are your thoughts? Please leave a comment to share your perspective. In the alternative, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.