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What You Buy When You Buy a Home
Home making has never been a more fraught enterprise
This is the mid-week edition of Men Yell at Me. A newsletter about the places where our politics and policies meet. I am not sponsored by a corporation. I don’t sell ads. I am supported by readers, like you. So, if you’d like to support this enterprise, subscribe.
This summer, I was standing in Menards looking at bags of grout. There was pre-mixed grout and ivory grout and white grout and white white grout. I texted my handyman a picture. “Which one?”
I stood there waiting for him to respond. “Confused?” asked a man walking by.
I glared at him. Ever since the Great Home Depot Blowup of 2006, where I yelled at a man, who was too aggressively trying to help me purchase a coupling for my dishwasher, and was told by an employee to stop shouting—I try to avoid talking to men in hardware stores.
The text came through: “white not pre-mixed.”
As I reached down to grab the bag, my phone buzzed again. It was my handyman.
“wanna go on a motorcycle ride with me sometime”
For months, I’d been ignoring his comments about how nice I looked or how great my smile was. I’d had a hard time finding someone to help me out with my house projects—tiling the kitchen, renovating the bathroom, fixing that hellhole of a laundry room. I’d call people, and they’d give me estimates that ranged anywhere from $30,000 to $10,000, or sometimes they wouldn’t give me estimates at all. Just come. Walk through. Talk to me. Then never reply. But always, always, they said, “Is it just you?” or “Do you want to check with your husband?” I got good at handling those comments.
“Yes! Just me. You should see what happened to the last guy.”
Or, “I’d check with my husband, but I don’t have a shovel.”
That guy didn’t ever send me a quote, and I don’t blame him.
But then one day, Max* showed up. Just walked right up to my door and explained he’d done the siding on the house, and he wondered if a potential client could come look at my house. I agreed and then showed him a place where the vinyl had melted due to what, I can only assume, was a previous owner’s grill situation gone wrong. And he fixed it and then told me he’d fix other things too. He did. And it was great. Until the comments started coming. I looked nice. He loved my smile. But listen, the quote on the work was low. Real low. When I showed it to my brother, he was like, “Listen, I’d date him for that.”
But I said “no.” To the motorcycle ride. And then, I never heard from Max again.
When I moved out of the house I bought with my ex-husband, my mom, friends, and neighbors, everyone told me to rent. “You don’t want to take care of a house as a single mom,” they all told me.
I had some money from being bought out of my half of the home, and I could have bought a house then. But it made sense. What did I know about fixing a home? Did I want to manage all of that?
And so, I rented for 18 months, and then I realized landlords are no better than husbands. But at least you don’t have to sleep with them. Which sounds great, until you realize it’s you texting someone “the basement is flooding again.” And them replying, “Okay, I’ll fix it.” But it never gets fixed. And you are the one paying them money. Also, I was tired of men promising to do repairs and never doing them. At least, if I bought a house, I’d be the one responsible.
I know what that sentence looks like. She bought a home. Bought a home. Bought. A. Home. A millennial who bought a home. I did it, and it wasn’t because I gave up avocado toast.
It was 2019 and the market in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was still reasonable. But I had a hell of a time convincing bankers that I had a real job. I had to get an offer of employment, even though I had the tax records to prove I had an income. It all worked out. And just barely. But it never would have been able to happen if I didn’t have the buyout money, wasn’t working one full-time job and still freelancing and writing a book.
Homeownership is the swiftly fading American dream. Rising housing prices are the primary reason millennials, people my age, cannot buy a home. We are a generation that was born into the boom of the ’80s and ’90s but graduated during the recession and housing crash of the ’00s. I know it’s crass, but my ex and I were able to buy our first home only because he had money from his parents and we live in Iowa where prices were low.
If you ask the National Review, the solution to the housing problem is to just move. Move to somewhere more affordable. But as Addison Del Mastro points out in his newsletter Deleted Scenes, just because a home is affordable doesn’t mean a person can afford it. Despite the much-heralded rise of remote work, many jobs require that you be in a specific location. If a home is affordable in Cedar Rapids, the odds are that the salaries are low as well.
Nine years ago, when I was pregnant with my son, I was asked to interview for a job at a local marketing company. The job was for a position as the head of its creative department. At the interview, I was told the starting salary was $35,000, with no paid maternity leave, and the corporate culture encouraged “working extra hours.” It’s not better now. In 2021, I was invited again to apply for a similar position at a different company. Out of curiosity, I asked the salary; it started at $40,000 with only a week of vacation.
I was paid $48,000 for my job at the local newspaper. Barely enough to live on as a single mother, even though I know so many people would kill for that. And I can only stay here because I’ve created this newsletter and sold books. (My income is completely separate from the place I live.)
Divesting opportunity from affordable living and divesting affordable living from, well, everything, creates a fractured society.
Del Mastro writes, “All of this, in other words, is a problem of collective, national importance. It’s a terrible thing for our country—politically, economically, culturally—to have entire cities or regions where you go to be an ambitious careerist, and others where you go if you want to start a family. Every region needs to accommodate a broad cross section of the country’s people.”
One of my friends who recently left Iowa left because she had been working in a job for several years and despite her incredible performance was never going to be considered for a promotion. She’s a woman of color and a single mother. No one saw her as a corporate leader. She left. She’s doing amazing.
When we talk about buying a home, we of course mean money, but what we also mean is opportunity and labor. Single mothers. People of color. Immigrants. And so many other identities are often pushed out of the stability and comfort of home and place because the economic realities of our culture move them to the margins, and then people shout “bootstraps” every time anyone voices a complaint.
Home creation is just as much a profit-seeking enterprise as the tech sector, but the concept of home is so seeped in mythology that it leads to the undervaluing of the work of home making. People mock moms for their Target runs, as if they’re luxuries. But ice cube trays and yogurts for your lunches don’t just appear out of no where. Meg Conley in her Home Culture newsletter makes this argument when she writes about the American home as a “private enterprise with an operating model,” and that model is two partners, one working and one doing the bulk of the unpaid domestic labor. The success of the American home relies on unpaid and under paid labor. Someone is getting shortchanged: if it’s not the wife, it’s the nanny; if it’s not the nanny, it’s the housekeeper.
I once tweeted, in a silly moment of honest transparency, that the only reason I could afford a home was because I divorced a man who had family wealth. I remember a response that asked me if I felt bad taking someone else’s money. I still bristle at that response. Someone else’s money? As if I hadn’t been the primary caretaker of two kids, cooked, cleaned, and managed a home. I remembered installing a dishwasher, tiling a bathroom, hanging drywall, cleaning and restoring an old chandelier, sewing throw pillows, finding garage sale furniture and cleaning and painting it, shopping sales for rugs and curtains. I had made that home. But the labor seemed invisible. We only value labor when a man does it, it seems.
And I realized how much labor that was, when nearly one year after I purchased my home, an in-land hurricane tore through my town. The process of mending and rebuilding—making calls, handling insurance, getting bids, making more calls, moving debris, moving trash. All of that was labor that I simply didn’t have time to do. I was completely overwhelmed. More than once, in a moment of exhaustion, I snapped at a friend, “If only I had a wife to do all this work for me.”
Houses can offer refuge, but home-building—the maintenance, the creation of it all—can pull us under too.
I’m so grateful for my friends and neighbors who helped me during the derecho. Home-building, as it turns out, is actually a community effort.
So much of homemaking is vested in the heterosexual family unit. HGTV shows, YouTube videos, blogs, and Instagram influencers, are filled with couples with power tools and a little bit of paint renovate and rebuilt the physical embodiment of the American family: the home. They mirror back to us what our culture believes a home should be. One man. One woman. Some kids. The man swinging the hammer. The woman putting “Live, laugh, love” signs on the wall. And the way we’ve conceived of the American home, it is almost dependent upon the hidden labor of a wife to make it all possible.
But that image of home, is also a kind of trap. Try to build another kind of home – as a single mom, as a person of color, as an immigrant, and you quickly realize how difficult it can be. Contractors want to talk to your husband, Home Depot employees don’t think you know what you are doing.
Now I am in the process of home creation once again. This time, I’m doing it as a single mom. And it isn’t easy. I’ve been living in this house for three years and only now am I finally getting some of the work done that I’ve been hoping to do. I found a new handyman (thanks to this community!), and tile is going up in my kitchen. My daughter’s room has a new floor. I’m looking for cabinets and buying paint.
I didn’t have to go on any motorcycle rides to make it happen.
I think so much about this space I’m creating. How it’s both labor and a luxury. And how economic forces are making spaces like this a rarity. Homes are the places where our money truly meets our self, our dreams, and our frustrated realities.
I really love Meg’s newsletter Home Culture.
And I recently discovered and (so far) love Deleted Scenes.
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