Opting Out

Jason and I began house hunting at the beginning of March. Last week, we gave up. During the time we were looking, we saw nineteen houses, and made offers on four. The last house we offered on, we got—though not immediately. Our offer came in second, but then the winner’s financing fell through, and suddenly we were the winner. We were briefly ecstatic. We went through the inspection; we told our family and friends.

And then it sunk in: we had just offered to pay $275,000 for a 1000 square foot, 2 bed, 1 bath house. The main level, though comparable in size to our apartment, felt significantly smaller due to the layout. The nonconforming “bonus room” in the upper half story was basically an attic. When we added up all the things we planned to use the basement for, we realized we were dreaming. “It can be a family room. And my office. And an exercise room. And a craft space. And band practice space. And laundry room.” It was a good basement, but not that good.

Don’t get me wrong: it was a perfectly nice house. But it was smaller, and far more expensive, than what we’d hoped to find when we started looking. We’d gotten way off track. The frenzy of the Minneapolis housing market had swept us up, and we’d lost sight of whatever it was we wanted in the first place. As Jason put it, “I’ve seen so many houses, I feel like I can’t tell a house from a block of cheese.”

So we sent our realtor a Dear John letter, telling him we’d decided not to buy the house, and that we were going to take a break from looking at houses altogether. We spent the next weekend cleaning and organizing our apartment, and scheming on how to turn the second bedroom into a shared office.

Having gone to so many showings in the last few months, I do think there is validity in the initial gut feeling you get when you walk into a house. In some of them, it was so easy to picture us living there, going about our lives. Cooking in the kitchen, reading in the living room, drawing in the office. But with other, perfectly nice houses, there was nothing. No emotional response. The problem is that, when a housing market is as competitive as this one (the second house we offered on received eighteen offers in less than forty eight hours), it’s easy to stop listening to your gut. You feel so grateful to get any house, after so many unsuccessful offers. So what if it’s more than you hoped to spend! So what if it has fewer bedrooms and bathrooms! So what if it has an octopus furnace and a twenty-year-old roof! This is the house you got, so you’d better take it, because if you don’t, there are a dozen more motivated buyers in line behind you.

At first, I felt a deep, delicious relief that we didn’t buy that house. But relief was quickly followed by the reality that we still didn’t have a house, or any idea how or when we might get one. All the things I’d been looking forward to (a yard, a basement, a dog, a dishwasher, a functional washer/dryer…) remain elusive. It’s frustrating, but more than that, it’s exhausting. It makes me want to opt out altogether. If this is what Minneapolis has become, if we’re getting just as bad as the super competitive housing markets in coastal cities, then I’m not sure I should be here. It’s a sad thought, because this city has always felt like home. I’m a fickle, uncertain woman about many things, but my certainty that I’m supposed to be in Minneapolis has rarely wavered.

I was just so ready to get a house. Jason and I are both such anxious, rule-following oldest children. We paid off our college loans as soon as possible after graduating. We stick to our Mint budget. We take few vacations, and those few are mostly of the “renting a cheap VRBO in Wisconsin” variety. We have been saving for this theoretical house basically as long as we’ve been a couple, which is coming up on seven years. We didn’t start looking until we were truly ready, financially and emotionally. But it turns out the joke’s on us, because it would’ve been much smarter to buy a house five years ago, before the market picked back up. It would’ve been better to be the grasshopper than the ant.

I am embarrassed by how strong my reaction to this has been. I know I am a deeply lucky, privileged person. The fact that I remain for now a renter instead of owner does not make me any less lucky. But this process has left me with an uncomfortable feeling of limbo—a milder version of the feelings of someone who is trying unsuccessfully to have a child, or find a longterm partner. Once you’ve decided you’re ready for a new stage of adulthood, you’re ready. It’s disorienting to have that stage pushed into the distance by circumstances beyond your control.

What I’m left with is a strong desire to give up. To say no thank you to this frenzied market, and to cities in general. No thank you to ambition, to career. To opt out rather than lean in. Reading an interview with Dr. Alexandra Stein, an ex-member of The O., a fringe Marxist-Leninist cult that originated in Twin Cities Co-ops, I found this line oddly resonating: “While she couldn’t quite work out what baked goods or computing had to do with the coming revolution, she didn’t have the mental faculties or the strength to question her way of life.” I thought, “Yeah! I totally get that!” And then I thought, “No, Athena, you’re just burned out from work and house hunting. You’re not in a cult. (Don’t call your dad.)”

The same thing happened while reading Cat Marnell’s How to Murder Your Life. Passages about Marnell’s descent into drug addiction, and the way the addiction made her apathetic towards things she used to care about, I thought, “Yeah! I totally get that!” But then, I also identified with Hannah Horvath in the penultimate episode of GIRLS. When Elijah, on learning that Hannah plans to leave New York to be a professor and raise her baby, sarcastically asks her, “What are you gonna do? Teach? Write? Live in a house?” Hannah answers, “Literally all of those things.” And again I thought, “Yeah! I totally get that!” Basically: I can’t tell my desires from a block of cheese. Both drug addiction and the suburban nuclear family fantasy hold equal temptation. Both have an appealing sense of succumbing; of letting go of a struggle; of giving up.

“Giving up” is a complicated and interesting concept—and one that feels relevant to our current state of affairs. In some ways, it feels like the desire to give up (on ambition, drive, accumulation of wealth and power, etc.) could be a positive reaction against the problematic ideal of “having it all.” Jo Piazza appears to have explored that in depth in her new book, How to be Married. I plan to read it. And I plan to chill the hell out for awhile. Take a break from house hunting, and from other obligations in my life wherever possible. I hear my generation is forgoing mortgages in favor of avocado toast. Maybe I’ll give that a try.