What a delightfully entertaining gift the Seattle P-I has given us this Friday in the form of guest columnist Sarah McCormic's amusing thoughts about the Seattle housing market:
Several years ago, on a stroll around my Ballard neighborhood, I stopped to gawk at the huge price tag on a For Sale sign in front of a modest 1920s-era bungalow. A young woman joined me, grinning ear to ear. "Isn't it great how all our values are going up?" she said.Hah! That is probably my favorite analogy so far of Seattle's housing market—a planet that's about to explode. Only, I have a feeling that Mrs. McCormic may have it backward, about who has missed what chance.
"Actually, I rent," I said.
Her smile vanished. The woman cleared her throat and we shuffled awkwardly away from each other.
I walked back to the tiny house my husband and I were renting nearby, and felt a little seed of bitterness taking root in my stomach. I thought about the guilty look on the woman's face. She had been crowing about the same rising prices that might keep me out of the market, and I had caught her red-handed.
I was in my early 30s, newly married, and we had just started talking about buying our first house. Our friends were meeting with real estate agents. Everyone we knew was getting hungry for equity. A lot of people were starting to talk about getting "left behind" and we wondered if we might already be too late to the home-owning game.
With friends who have also been lucky enough to land a Columbia City cottage or a Shoreline rambler, there's a sense of shared joy and relief. I remember feeling like this in fifth grade when my best friend and I landed parts in the school play: "Thank God we both got in." We toast our hefty mortgages and spend long evenings discussing hardwood floor finishes, crown moldings and our all-important soaring equity.
But with friends who have not yet "squeezed in" to the housing market, I am reminded of how I felt when I got accepted by my first choice for college and my best friend got nothing but rejections. What do you say to each other? I try to offer soothing assurances: "I hear there are still some great deals up north." "600 square feet is plenty of room!"
But no matter what I say, I know we all feel like they have probably missed their chance, like they didn't buy their ticket on the last spaceship flight off a planet that's about to explode. I fear they're doomed to move back to Missouri in order to afford more than a studio condo on the fringes of the city.
I just don't understand the appeal of spending 2-3 times as much money (or more) for less space and more upkeep. Throw in the very real possibility that all of that "all-important soaring equity" could easily disappear into thin air, and I just don't see how "owning" (aka renting from the bank) is at all more desirable than renting in Seattle right now.
Is it just people's mindset that owning is always better, no matter what? At what point do you step back and say: "wait a minute, renting just makes a lot more sense right now"? If mortgage payments were 5 times comparable rents, would that do it? 10 times? When does the home ownership above all else mindset finally apply the brakes?
Congratulations on your "little house in Ballard," Mrs. McCormic. May you still be so elated about your purchase three years from now.
(Sarah McCormic, Seattle P-I, 10.20.2006)