Bittersweet Grapes of Freedom
In the same week we visited the upscale, safe, affordable, convenient, booming Dallas suburb where I grew up, my wife and I put in an offer on a house in mid-city L.A., in an area I would consider the hood. Asking price was $849,000 for 1,397 square feet.
Now, this wasn’t our first drive down Rodeo. Our indoctrination in this reality-warping real estate market began more than two years ago with experiences like the Kevin Durant house.
Knowing asking prices to be more launchpad than anchor, we went in well over 849 and tossed a bunch of 8’s in the digits to get the attention of the Asian owner. (Eight is a lucky number in Chinese culture. But it’s a paradox because if nine is not your favorite digit as a a seller, then you’re not good at math and cannot be Asian.)
Our aggression was rewarded with being in the lucky half of 18 over-asking offers given the privilege of countering. Keep in mind this was for a neighborhood with awful schools, bars on windows and a liquor store on the corner. Chris Tucker rode by on a bicycle talking about knocking someone the F out.
For the final offer, we calculated our max after putting income and expenses into a spreadsheet and backing out the absolute highest we could go on a mortgage payment. We were prepared to drop our standard of living halfway toward the poverty line, so long as we could do it in this house.
A buddy who just closed escrow was convinced the letter he and his fiancée wrote to the owner helped beat out the other top offer. So my wife and I each crafted honest notes that worked beautifully juxtaposed.
We also included a beaming wedding picture Photoshopped in front of the house. It was a little creepy and might have hurt our cause in retrospect:
Really I just wanted to provide a visual aid to my last name to make sure the seller fully comprehended I’m Asian too. For example, back when my wife was a second-grade teacher, she had to deal with an intense tiger mom who specialized in making life difficult. Partially to build goodwill, my wife subtly mentioned her husband was Asian a few times. The one time she showed a picture, it finally sunk in. The rabid tiger actually grabbed the phone, pinch-and-zoomed on my face, and said something like, “Oh he’s really Asian.”
Alas, in a high-stakes housing market, my yellow glow could not outshine a whole lot of bling. We lost to a $965,000 all-cash offer.
Way to run up the score and leave no doubt, Coach Boone. All cash, really? Does that mean you can write, like, one check? Why does Floyd Mayweather want to live four miles east of Culver City?
Whoever it was might have saved us from a mistake though. I know that sounds like sour grapes, so let me concede we would have been ecstatic to win this house.
Losing it, however, got me thinking a little harder about tradeoffs and priorities. Equity is huge, but it is not the only component of wealth.
When I think about people with F-U-level money, they don’t really have physical things I want that I can’t buy for myself right now (except shelter in Los Angeles, of course). The important things they have are freedom, options and the most precious asset of all: time.
My latest idea for a next career is some kind of China-related business that would require me to develop my garbage Mandarin skills. Happy bonuses would include being able to communicate better with my aging parents and force our future ugly biracial children to be bilingual at least.
Maybe I would have to take a pay cut or hiatus to learn Chinese full-time to make this happen. Maybe I would want to live in Shanghai for a year. Maybe I wouldn’t even look for a job for a while and just blog every day from the beach or write another book.
Maybes are more bountiful without a mortgage. I can do all this stuff right now. I have enough rent saved up to last years. I feel like I can do whatever I want.
When I was tipsy at a company happy hour, I asked our head of production if he wanted to get a sweet two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment with me in Hermosa Beach just like I had with my old roommate before we got married to other people.
But this is not a viable dream for the director. He has a house and twin boys. This is what happens when you weigh yourself down. Opportunity costs rise.
My wife and I went so high on our bid that had we won the house, the mortgage would never stray too far out of mind. I couldn't take a lower-paying position at a company that excites me. Being laid off would start a ticking bomb in my head.
Basically, I would have been a slave to keeping the house, not to mention filling it with crap from West Elm, maintenance, property taxes and insurance. I don’t even have renter’s insurance right now. I don’t care. I don’t have anything, and I’m free.
I also don’t have equity, and what a pot of gold that would be at the end of the 30-year rainbow or whenever we would sell it. The thing is, we envisioned this as our forever home.
So we wouldn’t get that payoff until we’re too old to go on epic benders in Vegas. Odds are we would end up just passing it down to our ungrateful, Meghan Markle-wannabe biracial adult children. (I am experiencing anxieties about reproducing and annoyed because kids defeat the thesis of this blog post.)
All things considered, it was probably too much money for us to sink into one asset. Owning is the dream, as long as you’re not owned in the process.
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