When I was back in my hometown of Colorado Springs, Colorado, recently, on a whim, I drove by the house I’d grown up in. There was a for sale sign in the front lawn, and an open house coming up. I knew I had to go.
I still dream about that house. It was a big, blue Victorian, with white trim and a red door. Out back there was a deck and a concrete slab, where I rode Big Wheels with my older brother and let him destroy me at basketball. I hadn’t been inside since junior high. Now here I was, 30 years later, walking up the front steps with my husband and my own two kids.
My old blue house is taupe now, with white and purple trim. The old hand-cranked doorbell my dad put in was still there. When we went inside, I half-expected our old furniture to be there, too. The black Naugahyde couches and swirly black and white curtains. The wall-to-wall gold carpet. This was the '70s. But the house was empty, the carpet replaced by gleaming hardwood floors.
“Oh, do you want us to wear booties?” I asked the real estate agent, noticing a basket of shoe covers by the door.
A lot was the same, though. The ornate wood molding, the French doors my parents closed when they watched TV at night, the broken drawer in the butler’s pantry. I climbed the creaky stairs to my old room, took a deep breath and opened my closet door.
Sure enough, down near the bottom of the door frame, where I’d hoped my mom wouldn’t see them, were my initials. I’d carved them into the wood with a ballpoint pen the day we moved out. My mom was getting remarried, and we needed a bigger place. I was 14, kind of a crappy age even when your world isn’t blowing up. I didn’t want to leave.
My mom still lives in the neighborhood, so after the open house I went over. We pulled out the old photos and kept the nostalgia going. In one photo, I’m sitting in our dining room on my 10th birthday.
“Mom, look at that perm,” I gasped. I looked like a mushroom with braces.
My parents bought that house — their first — in 1971, for $19,500. My dad was a new college professor, making $5,000 a year. My mom worked part time for the Girl Scouts.
“I can only remember one other house that we were kind of serious about, but it would have been a stretch because it was in the 20s,” my mom said. “In retrospect, I think we got the best house for us that we could afford.”
In today’s dollars, $19,500 would still only be around $122,000. But my hometown is booming, and my parents’ starter home was now listed for well over half a million dollars.
“It makes me kind of sad that I don't even think Alex and I could afford that house,” I said. “You know, that would be a real stretch for us.” And we’re not just starting out.
Nor are we alone. Houses almost everywhere seem to have more earning power than most of us do. Buyers are running out of stretch, which may be one reason my old house wasn’t selling. I went back to talk to the seller to find out what was going on.
Molly Cassidy and her dog Oney greeted me at the door. Molly’s in her early 60s, with long, blond hair. She wore a cowboy hat and hiking boots. She’d bought the house in 2000 for $262,000. (That would be about $387,000 today.)
“Did that seem like a lot at the time?” I asked her.
“Oh, absolutely,” she said. “However, when I started seeing the market go up after I bought this house, I thought, ‘Well, if I ever do have to leave this house, it's probably been a good investment.’”
Over the years, she poured herself into that investment, filling it with antiques that fit the period. She mixed her own paint colors, adding gold dust to the paint in her bedroom and staining the walls above the molding with Red Zinger tea.
“I had so much fun doing the work in this house,” she said. “It was a labor of love, which is why a lot of people can't appreciate it, I don't think, because it's not their love.”
Today’s buyers want the charm of an old house but the amenities of a new one. They want a master suite, not the bathroom down the hall.
“It has stymied me,” she said. “I had no clue that it would take this long to sell this house.” She’s knocked the price down several times to $559,500. And for some divine assistance, she’s also buried a figurine of St. Joseph, believed to help sell homes faster, in the front yard. “I'll take voodoo at this point if it will sell this house,” she said.
Before I go, I ask Molly about the memorial I left in my closet, whether she’d ever thought to cover it up.
“No, never,” she said. She’d grown up in an old house much like this one. “You know, it's all just part of the character of the house,” she said. “That’s why I wanted an old house.” Whoever buys it now, I hope they feel the same way. I’ll be back to check.
“I think the best compliment I can give is not to say how much your programs have taught me (a ton), but how much Marketplace has motivated me to go out and teach myself.” – Michael in Arlington, VABEFORE YOU GO