Late this past January I had to crawl under my house with a cutting torch and a flashlight because I had gotten cocky. As a so-called “polar vortex” slammed the upper Midwest and crept down to my own home in the Balsam Range of the Great Smoky Mountains in far western North Carolina, the Fahrenheit slumped to minus 8. I had been smart the previous evening and left a faucet trickling overnight. The next night, with a predicted low of 14 above, was when I got cocky. I didn’t run the faucet. So, there I was on a Friday morning, and instead of working on an article revision, and instead of attending a scheduled meeting, I was under my house, cursing the Floridian who originally built it as a second home, and trying to unfreeze a copper pipe without lighting any joists on fire.
It was my first winter of home ownership, and when I bought my house (or rather, indentured myself to a local bank for it), I realized that I was, to some degree, making a career decision. I was in some sense committing to the university and the locale, both financially and emotionally. In terms of more day-to-day concerns, the routine demands of homeownership, which in my case consist primarily of cleaning leaves from the gutters, maintaining a badly rutted gravel driveway, and keeping the local bear population fat on chicken bones and banana peels, would add another layer of responsibilities to the schedule of my life.
The decision of whether or not to buy a home when you start a new academic appointment is an enormous one. Just contemplating buying a home prior to tenure, or when you are not on the tenure track, presents a strange dilemma, in that it creates the feeling in oneself that perhaps you are committing to the institution without its having reciprocated the commitment (for whatever it’s worth, as I write this I’m on the tenure track myself, but still two years from going up for tenure).This is, perhaps, not the best perspective though. Most people in most fields of work have to make decisions such as whether or not to buy a home without even the prospect of anything akin to tenure.
Sick of dealing with landlords, tired of failing to build up any equity, and, frankly, ready to commit to western North Carolina, my university, and the life I’ve established amongst both, I decided to go for it. I bought a small ranch that required more renovation than I had initially realized.
When I accepted my current position, I was so enthusiastic about landing a job in an area where I wanted to be that I briefly considered buying a home immediately. And it’s a good thing, as it turns out, that the reality of my graduate school financial situation dampened that enthusiasm, and nixed it as a legitimate possibility for a few years. Even without having to worry about family affairs such as the quality of local schools, it took me a considerable amount of time to learn the local communities, their characters, and the merits and demerits of each one’s physical proximity to campus. By waiting a few years, I was able to make a much more strategic, informed decision about where to buy.
Plenty of variables beyond the obvious financial ones contribute to determining if and when buying a home is a good idea. Do you have an entire family to house, or just yourself? How insanely overpriced is the real estate market where you work? How far are you willing to commute? What amenities are absolutely necessary for your quality of life, and which aren’t? What do you see as your short and long-term career trajectories?
My own university is a rurally located one, and the largest nearby city is Asheville, N.C. (so-called Paris of the South, but really just a self-conflicted, semi-urban preserve for underemployed hipsters, massage therapists, Yankee retirees, and Florida tourists), exactly an hour to our east. Historically, the culture of my university has been somewhat judgmental toward faculty members who chose to commute to campus from Asheville and were, often unfairly, seen as disconnected from the campus community. Depending on the type of institution where you work, such considerations may matter.
In my own case, it was very, very good that I ended up renting for several years before buying a home. My first major decision once I decided to pursue home ownership was whether to stay within the rural communities near campus where I had rented for the first three years of my appointment, or whether to become a commuter and head on over to Asheville. I chose the rural route, because it was more financially viable, and I didn’t want an hourlong commute.
I have to admit that as good as purchasing my home has seemed so far, it has cost me in terms of my productivity, at least in the short term. Even though I was able to time the closing to occur after the end of the spring semester, the back-and-forth of that process consumed hours and hours and hours, and a ton of energy. Once I finally did close, my carefully, and I thought pessimistically, calculated renovation schedule quickly disintegrated. I lost an entire summer of writing time racing to prepare the home for habitability. Eradicating the ravages of the chain-smoking previous owners meant repainting throughout, pulling out carpet, and the like. New discoveries meant massive rewiring projects. Several weeks’ worth of work ballooned into several months’ worth. I spent the first two months of the fall semester sleeping on my screened-in porch, on an old couch and with the refrigerator plugged in several feet from my resting head. Finally, over fall break in October, I was able to install new flooring and move back into the house proper. Plenty of other work remains.
Despite all the work, and some lost career productivity, it’s a decision that I’ve been very happy with. I’m not suggesting that everyone in every situation should go out and buy a house. That’s clearly not for me to say. But what I am suggesting is that this is, at least in part, a career decision when one works within academe. For better or worse, many of the faculty members at my university treat me differently since I have bought a home. I attribute it to some sense, perhaps unconscious on their part, that I have made a larger commitment to the community. Then there have been the tangible costs of working on and maintaining a house, time that cuts into my ability to write and prepare for teaching. Those time costs are manageable, but real, and worth considering if you yourself are contemplating home ownership.
In the long term, I know I’ll be happier, and more productive, in a home environment that I have shaped and have control over. Maybe you don’t need that nest space, but many of us do. On October 20, 1968, while teaching in my department at my current university, Edward Abbey recorded in his journal, “Haven’t made up the feeble mind yet if I’ll stick it here through the winter, or quit at the end of this quarter.” Abbey quit. Abbey was not a nesting, rooting-down sort of guy. He lurched into the prevailing winds and headed back west. Good thing he hadn’t bought a house here. Good to know, as well, what your own needs are, and how those needs for a home, or a certain type of home in a certain place, will affect one’s career.