What my house taught me

As an architect, it’s kind of interesting to me that I have learned several major life lessons from a
house. This structure was our family home for eight years. We bought it less than a year after relocating to Cleveland, OH from Phoenix, AZ in order to be closer to my ailing parents. Just the fact that we had relocated at all meant staring down some of my biggest fears, saying goodbye to a city we loved, good friends and professional opportunities, resigning from boards and commissions. So, I thought I’d done it. Made my big leap. But the house had more lessons in store for us. It seemed a pleasant enough house, cheerful and light-filled, with a big backyard and an attached garage. Built in 1942, it was a “newer” home for the community. But we passed it up, citing the too small kitchen and dining room. Only after looking for several more weeks and finding nothing did we come back to it after we noticed that its owners, long moved away, had decided to cut the asking price for their vacant house significantly. We bought it conditionally, with every intention of putting on an addition, adding central air, and on. Fast forward eight years, no addition or central air and we were faced with the need to relocate for work after spending several months unemployed. We put the house for sale in the worst possible market, it sat empty for a year, was broken into by a copper pipe scavenger, and finally became a rental. Two years after moving away, I think I have finally learned the final lesson I needed and am willing to let it go. This is a huge step for me because I want to at least break even, but know that whatever it costs me to be free of this house, it will be nothing compared to the cost of continuing to own it. What a great metaphor for all the things we hold on to in our lives. We are afraid of losing things we think we should want, but in truth offer us very little value.

Lesson one: Never, ever settle
We had become weary of looking. I let the fact that the house was “OK” and cheap due to the price cut lure me into saying yes to something when my gut had originally said no. I passed up the house the first time because it really wasn’t what we were looking for. Instead of having faith that we would find a great house, I almost felt obligated as an architect to transform this one. We had completely remodeled our home in Phoenix, I reasoned, so why not this one? Well, for starters, the level of addition we would have needed to undertake was not financially worth it, and even if we could have done it, we would still not have had the home we really wanted. While there are many life situations that require a little extra effort on our part, there is a difference between the effort to make a good thing great and the effort to improve something that even after being improved will never be what you want. We do this not just with homes, but with our jobs, even relationships. When you invest your energy in the “good enough” opportunity, you stop being open to receive the amazing one.

Lesson two: Place yourself in situations that bring you joy
Parts of this house just downright irritated me. I shudder to think about how much negativity I carried around. Every time I had to carefully open the dining room door to avoid hitting a chair or maneuver around the too small kitchen or deal with the lack of counter space in the bathroom, it annoyed me, if even on a subconscious level. Even though we bought new high end appliances and decorated and painted, everything about the home’s limitations subliminally said to me that my life had limits, had lack, had need. I might have realized it sooner if the situation with my ailing parents, raising two small children and having a stressful and demanding job had not been looming so large in my life. Given all those things, my home needed to be a positive affirmation and regenerative environment, and yet it was only reinforcing all of the other stress. What things in your life are you “putting up” with that are actually draining you? The things in your life should feed you and affirm not only the person you are, but the one you wish to become. Choose wisely.

Lesson three: Know when to walk away
When the time came to put the house up for sale, I knew the market was bad. While I was willing to price the house aggressively, it was important for me to be able to at least break even from the sale. Although it would have been well below comps, one realtor I talked to suggested pricing the house at about $2000 higher than we owed on it to really make it move. I chose the realtor who suggested that we list at only $15,000 below our original purchase price instead (that the house had lost that much of its original value considering all of the improvements we made was shocking enough). I had tapped out all of my savings and was fearful of getting into debt. Two months in, we dropped the price another $10,000 and still nothing. I was hemorrhaging money. Debt, the thing I had been so afraid of, began to pile up. It was not sustainable to have two households, especially when one of them was vacant. Finally, a year into this ordeal, we were able to get renters, which covered the cost of our mortgage. However, it’s hard to manage a property in a city far from where you live and our maintenance costs for their months in the house have exceeded that of the entire eight years we lived there. Operating from that place of fear, I considered my self lucky we at least had the mortgage covered. What I now realize is that even if we had sold the house at a $10,000 loss and had to be in debt in order to pay off the outstanding portion of our loan, we would have been so much further ahead financially. What seemed like practical and sensible thinking was really fear in disguise. Fear costs you so much more than the risk of losing. It traps you in a situations where you can never win.

Lesson four: Question your assumptions
I had an epiphany the other day. I don’t want to own this house any more. It’s that simple. There is no value to me in being a landlord. I need to let go. I started talking to realtors and learned that the Cleveland market is starting to turn around and that people are actively home shopping again. My fears had caused me to make assumptions about the market, based on the past. Making a fresh inquiry brought me facts. While property values are still abysmal, the market is moving along briskly. I can list this house and I might actually break even or come out just a few thousand dollars ahead on the sale.

I’ve moved on in my life to a great new career in a city I love. No need to be tethered to anything that might limit me. The sales agreement will be my diploma. It’s time for my house to teach a different pupil. Lessons learned!
You don't always have to learn the hard way.  My new book Career Crisis helps you to uncover the fears and assumptions you may be making in your own life so you can unblock them and move forward to what you really want.