Editor’s note: In this guest article, writer Jennifer Baldwin shares her personal experiences in weathering the housing market decline and economic downturn.
By JENNIFER BALDWIN
Whenever I feel overwhelmed about my upside-down home in Bakersfield, Calif., I remind myself of the mantra I’ve heard over and over from real estate and financial planning professionals: "Any time is the right time to invest in real estate."
During the boom earlier this decade, when home prices were skyrocketing here, it was the "perfect time" for first-time homebuyers to get into the market. Interest rates were low and homeowners were upgrading to bigger properties, leaving many starter homes available for sale.
Now, after the bust, it’s also the "perfect time" to buy. Prices are rock bottom and the high rate of foreclosures in Bakersfield means a lot of bank-owned properties are on the market.
I sure wish I could buy a few investment properties now. Instead, I bought my home three-and-a-half years ago, when the market was at its peak. With zero down, I bought with an 80/20 interest-only mortgage totaling $235,000 in November 2005. Today, comps in my neighborhood are selling for about half that price. I had felt somewhat sheltered from the tanking market because I figured I’d live here long enough to ride it out. But then, two weeks ago, I was laid off from my job. Now I’m worried. What if I don’t find another job here and have to move?
I do feel lucky, however. Yes, my loans are interest-only for the first 10 years. And no, I have not paid a cent toward the principle. But my interest rates are fixed, so I don’t have to worry about my mortgage payments suddenly going through the roof. My monthly payments, including insurance and property taxes, are $1,660. Not too bad, except that my unemployment checks equal just $1,800 per month. Good thing I got a severance package.
Close eyes. Deep breath. Repeat: "Any time is the right time to invest in real estate." Open eyes and look around.
The truth is, I love my home. It’s a 1917 Craftsman-style, 1,271-square-foot bungalow set in an older central Bakersfield neighborhood. Mature trees line the streets, along which quaint bungalows that are mixed in with larger estates. A park is within walking distance, where the local orchestra gives free summer concerts. …CONTINUED
In the evenings, we can hear the "squawk-squawk-squawking" of a flock of exotic parakeets — the offspring of aviary escapees — that live in the neighborhood palm trees.
Since the day I first got the keys to my house and ripped the carpeting out of the living room, I have been working to restore the home. The most labor-intensive project has been stripping layers of white, brown and teal paint off of all the wood trim and built-ins in the living room and dining room, then sanding all of the wood and staining and sealing it.
The restoration is a painstakingly slow process on which I’d planned to be working for years. If I do end up moving for a job, my heart will break to rent my house to new occupants. Will they care about the home like I do? And what about all of the unfinished projects?
Obviously, selling the house is not an option. And I certainly am not going to just walk away and let the bank have it back. When you love someone, you don’t leave them just because they’re having a rough time. I am committed to my upside-down home, and will try my best to find a new job locally.
Besides, my partner still has his job here, and we just finished painting the baby’s room. We’ve never planned on living in Bakersfield forever, but at least for now it’s home.
Jennifer Baldwin is a freelance writer in Bakersfield, Calif.
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