My greatest regret in my long life as a barren spinster-slut is that I failed to take my father's advice in 1988. I had just returned from a teaching stint in Saudi Arabia with a modest nest egg of $25,000. He suggested I use the money to snap up a condo in the Denny Regrade area of Seattle. I resisted; I didn't feel ready to take on the responsibilities of property ownership because I was so unsettled in my personal and professional life. I had a vague, screwy notion common among women my generation that I should wait until I was "settled" (married?) before acquiring my own house. Big mistake! How was I to know that ten years later seedy Denny Regrade would morph into ultra-hip Belltown? I could have practically retired from the sale of that property alone. Argh!
Ten years later, when I relocated to Seattle, I had the opportunity to buy a nice little fixer-upper in Ballard (another gentrified area near the city center) for about $65,000. Again, I dragged my heels. Of course, today, that same property is going for $400,000+.
Finally, I took the plunge and bought the house I am living in now. It was right before the housing bubble crested, so I didn't make a killing -- but nor did I lose even when the market inevitably crashed. It's a pleasant little house in a pleasant little suburb, very convenient to my job, and it has served me well. It's no McMansion, but rather the sort of housing that will always appeal to young families, retired couples, or singletons like me. It's fifteen minutes from downtown Seattle and is considered a safe, quiet place to raise a family.
When my mother passed away, she left me a small inheritance that allowed me to finish paying off my mortgage. Suze Orman is right about this: Nothing beats the psychological security of owning your own home free and clear. Not having a mortgage payment also helped me live comfortably on a low salary while continuing to sock away ten percent of my income in tax-free retirement savings, even as I indulged my taste for travel and other small luxuries.
A couple of months ago, my partner (a former contractor, she has an eye for real estate) noticed a HUD duplex had gone on the market at a very tempting price. She strongly urged me to take the leap and establish a real estate "portfolio." Being a HUD property, the duplex was a bit down on its heels, but my partner assured me that it really only needed some cosmetic improvements, which she would be able to perform, or at least oversee. It's located across the street from an elementary school and on a major bus line. Again, it's perfect for young families, retired couples, or professional singletons. Plus it's zoned for commercial development, which makes for some interesting future potential if the area continues to grow. I tried to resist, but it didn't seem like I could lose on this deal, so I acquiesced to my partner's demands and put in a loan application.
Anyone who has bought a property through HUD recently knows the paperwork is formidable. The past month I thought I would go out of my mind getting qualified for a mortgage. Everyone held my hand and assured me, in the long run, it would be worth the intense hassle. The fact that I'd paid off my previous mortgage, had sterling credit and no debt helped, of course. Seriously, how could they turn me down?
This weekend I became the proud owner of a rental property. It's a little scary taking on a mortgage again. Financially, I'm very conservative, thanks to Depression Era parents, and have always (just) managed to live within my very limited means. But I'm keeping my fingers crossed that we'll have the duplex whipped into rent-worthy shape in the next several weeks. Ultimately, I'll have two rental houses providing a "semi-passive" source of income in my dotage. My partner also has a couple of rental properties, so between the two us, her small Navy pension and my job, we should do all right.
As the author of bodycrimes recently pointed out, one of the ways that marriage benefits men (and women) is that it often prompts them to put down roots in the form of real estate. Real estate is a kind of forced savings program that, if one is lucky and astute, can really pay off in the long haul. Buying and fixing up residential properties is how my paternal grandparents lifted themselves out of the grinding poverty of the thirties. And my partner's parents, working-class folk who scrabbled for their livings and never dreamed of playing the stock market, were able to leave a significant estate to their children in the form of savvy real estate investments.
They bought what they understood: modest residences or empty waterfront lots that, back in the sixties, went for a song. Sometimes they miscalculated (one riverfront property has now been lost to the vagaries of the Snohomish, for example) but overall and over time, they did very well. The irony of that generation is, of course, that they wound up spending the last decade of their lives sitting on a million dollars while continuing to clip coupons and rejecting out of hand such minor treats as a trip to Hawaii as "too expensive." Self-denial had become such a firmly entrenched element of their life styles that they could no longer live any other way.
Of course, what I failed to realize in the folly of my youth is that one does not have to wait to marry to invest in real estate. Young women are waking up to this. An acquaintance who sells downtown condos reports that at least 75% of his clients these days are single women. No marriage is as permanent or secure as a deed. And frankly, back when I was dating, most men thought it was kind of attractive that I owned my own home. Contrary to what the manosphereans will tell you, a typical man is pleased to discover that the woman he fancies is also "a woman of property."
I've never been particularly frugal except insofar as necessity dictated. I spend what I have, but I don't accumulate debt. When the cash runs out, the spending stops. I buy used cars, I pay in cash, and drive them until they are dead. And I'm not a risk-taker, nor am I an optimistic person who believes that if it's not raining today it won't rain tomorrow. In fact, I'm a person who keeps a six month supply of canned goods (and spirits) at all times.
And I'm not anticipating a lavish lifestyle in my retirement. I will be happy to continue to live modestly at the same level I do now. Honestly, all I need to be perfectly comfortable is plenty of hot water, access to a public library and decent medical care, and quality food and drink. All I need to feel "successful" in life is the sense I am contributing to my community, and that I am loved and appreciated by those I love and respect. I don't want to be a burden; I'd like to leave a little more than I took. If a few good people remember me fondly after I've gone, I reckon my life will have been "successful" enough.
I am optimistic that I have moved one step closer to my goal this weekend.