Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Housing Wars

As a follow-up to a May 30 story on the Bay Area’s housing frenzy, the Examiner asked readers to contribute first-person accounts of their efforts to purchase a home. The following was my submission which was printed in the hard copy edition as well as online.

In 1997, San Francisco’s housing crunch was the best thing that ever happened to us.

We had outgrown our one-bedroom apartment in the Richmond District ($820 a month). Our life could no longer be contained in the 800 square feet we called home, and Jim’s freelance marketing consulting business wasn’t exactly going to thrive in a home office that was literally in a closet. It was time to move up to a two-bedroom apartment.

One Sunday, while perusing the classifieds over lattes at our local coffee house, it occurred to us that the skyrocketing rents in The City meant we could probably own a house elsewhere in the Bay Area with the same monthly payment – or so we thought.

Jim and I (ages 28 and 31), made well into six figures annually. But even before we talked to a mortgage banker, we knew any housing in a decent neighborhood in The City would be out of reach. After eight years of living in San Francisco, we were forced to start looking in Bay Area suburban hell.

An enthusiastic agent began showing us homes we could get for our minuscule preapproved $265,000 mortgage loan: a beat-up condominium in San Bruno under the flight path of planes from San Francisco International airport; a smelly, dirty town-home in a gang-infested area of Daly City. For two months we looked at homes, and as the prices got higher, the housing options only got worse.

In early 1998, we grew tired of looking and took a short vacation in a nearby rural area. The day we were to return home, Jim and I walked past a local real estate office on Main Street.

Just for kicks, I scanned their window filled with local housing market info: “Three bedroom house with workshop and two-car garage on one-half acre: $109,000.

I burst out into tears. There we were, working our asses off, stressed out, tolerating rude apartment neighbors who stole our laundry, terrifying bicycle commutes to my downtown job, and Jim’s daily three-hour commutes to the Silicon Valley. After some long conversations about where our lives were headed, Jim and I agreed Bay Area life wasn’t living.

During the next six months, we plotted our escape. We wrote a business plan for the start-up that would provide an income. We found a local real estate agent and scanned her web site for homes. In the end, we took ownership of a four-bedroom home on a one-half acre, along with a significant business loan from the local bank. All this for much, much less than if we had simply purchased a Bay Area town home.

It’s been more than a year now. Our business is flourishing, and our little garden out back is starting to blossom. Jim and I work together at home and take lunch breaks outside beneath the trees with our dog. Of course, our income is quite modified, and we have limited choices of entertainment and cuisine.

But we love how our neighbors look out for one another, strangers smile and say hello on the street, children say “please” and “thank you” and buildings remain free of graffiti. The act of human beings actually caring about their community more than makes up for this little town’s shortcomings.

San Francisco is still geographically close enough to visit on a weekend, and as the adage goes, it’s a nice place to visit, but we sure wouldn’t want to live there (again).

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