Who’s in charge of your life and your priorities, you or your house? When we were neck-deep in a big mortgage, we weren’t making the decisions, our house was. Are we flying to Phoenix to be with my parents at Christmas? No, we aren’t. Our house made the decision for us.
I’m never going back to that way of living, and I know I’m not alone. Here are three ideas that can help guarantee you’ll never be a slave to a mortgage:
1. Sell your house and rent a house that’s half the size you think you need.
Renting will give you the courage to downsize. When we sold our dream house, we grabbed the nearest rental house, and we weren’t picky about it. It’s small, and it’s a bungalow, but we live in a village that is 86 percent owner occupied, and people pay a premium in housing costs to get into our school district. If you find a good rental, you sign the lease now and ask questions later. As it turns out, our rental house has an excellent floor plan that makes it live much bigger than its actual square footage.
No matter what you say, I will never believe you need as much square footage as you have, if you have anything over the U.S. average of 2,500 square feet. You know why I believe that? Because my friend and her husband owned a nearly 6,000 square foot house in Parker, Colorado, before moving to New York City. My friend now lives in a 600 square foot apartment, and she told me that downsizing by 5,400 square feet wasn’t that big of a deal. Sure, she’d prefer a few hundred extra square feet and more closet space, but her family, which includes two teenage sons, is just fine.
2. Buy in a location that’s just outside an established suburb or neighborhood.
Buy a home adjacent to an expensive suburb or neighborhood, and send your kid to private school, or homeschool. For example, in the Chicago area, a good alternative to the popular and established suburb of Evanston is next-door neighbor Skokie. Skokie is very close to Chicago and has a new CTA stop at Oakton, near the growing downtown. While its taxes are a fraction of Evanston’s, Skokie offers really good services, including an excellent park district and library. If you’re so inclined, Evanston has a bunch of good private schools — Baker Demonstration School, Roycemore School — which are a short drive from Skokie.
Before the housing crisis, it was a good idea to pony up for a house in a good school district, because you’d be investing your money in an appreciating asset, as opposed to spending your money for a private school, with no appreciation. Today, that’s been turned on its head. Act accordingly.
3. Don’t buy anything for your house for a year.
People get obsessed with the idea of having the perfect house. They think that if they have the perfect house, they will have the perfect life, and they buy all the accoutrements in a misguided effort to get it. I am here to tell you that when you buy and decorate a house, you are not buying the perfect life. You are buying bricks and mortar and pillows and candles and vases. Your life can be crappy, or it can be great, but the kind of life you live has nothing to do with the shell that contains you.
Plenty of retailers are ready to encourage you in buying your way to the perfect life. Don’t get sucked into the fantasy portrayed by the pretty room pictures you see on Pinterest. Unsubscribe to Crate & Barrel and Pottery Barn emails. Recycle the Williams-Sonoma catalog without a sidelong glance at the gorgeous table settings. Delete your bookmarks for interior design blogs. Stay away from the mall except for essential items for which you have a list.
Go on a home decor fast for one year. Not one fuzzy throw, not a single cute pillow for your bed — nothing. Forget about your house. I assure you, it’s fine the way it is. Once you shift your attention away from the house, you are free to get out and live your life.