It was a hot, hazy day in late September. Wildfire smoke from the most recent Northern California fires obscured what would otherwise have been a pleasant view from the main bedroom of a house in the East Bay hills. But I had been to far too many open houses to be thinking about the view. Instead, I was fussing over the rusty latch of a single-pane window that I guessed dated to the 1970s. When I finally pried it open, I craned my head out into the dense air to examine the property line. At my ankles, my overheated children clamored for water cups, cheese sticks, cuddles. As I retracted my head, I knocked my temple into the window crank. I lost my footing and steadied myself against a piece of staging shaped, as it turned out deceptively, like a king-size bed. I came to a few seconds later, with my family hovering above me. I’d fainted and fallen to the floor—finally winded, it appeared, by a four-year-long house search. It was hard not to read the moment like a sign; there was no way we could make an offer.
I was born nearby in Oakland and grew up mainly in a new-build house constructed hastily after the mid-1990s hills fire. My family moved a fair amount in my earliest years before settling permanently in the East Bay—already, at that time, a central site of the growing housing affordability crisis. I stayed in the Bay Area for college, then moved around Europe in my early 20s. I met my husband when I began a master’s program in the U.K. We first crossed paths on the day we moved into a shared house. In 2016 we set up our lives together in California. We found a great rental in Berkeley: the bottom floor of a duplex walkable to the university where I was then a grad student. We’ve been here ever since.
From where I now sit at my kitchen table, I am about 200 feet from where I went to elementary and middle school. If I turn the other direction, I’m just 100 paces from my daughter’s preschool, which has sat on its current site, like so much I love here, since the ’70s. In this indisputably urban place, I rarely leave my house without colliding head-on into the landscapes and people who have surrounded me in nearly every season of my life. The smell of the neighborhood sycamore trees after autumn rain is familiar to me from my childhood. As a third grader, I picked up trash during neighborhood cleanup days on the very street where I now rent. I am deeply embedded in this place; like the crows and squirrels, I’m a native species. I’ve never felt it more distinctly than when I was seven months pregnant in the surreal, dislocated spring of 2020. When it came time to decide where to give birth, my instinct was to shelter in place. I had both of my children at home. It seemed to me that they entered our world directly—straight into the neighborhood.
But now, nearly eight years after we first arrived, we have outgrown our 800-square-foot space. Our stroller lives permanently in our living room, where it marks the site of a constant battle to keep sand, crumbs, sticks, and other artifacts of the outdoors off my carpet. When we’re all home together, we literally collide in the halls—bumping into and shuffling past one another in an effort to get out the door. No longer able to work inside our apartment since the second baby colonized our onetime office space, my husband now conducts a full day of business from a small hand-me-down desk wedged between boxes in the far, dimly lit corner of my landlord’s garage. She is terrifically gracious; she tolerates our increasing incursions into shared spaces and the raucous noise of my naked babies running loose in her once well-groomed garden. There is a great deal of sweetness in all of the proximity, and yet, like so many families, we wish for the permanence of a home.
To search for a house in this particular phase of life is, to say the least, exhausting. It often happens late at night, when the kids are finally sleeping and we should be too. We’ve lugged our kids to open houses with fevers and all manner of seasonal illness. We have potty trained in and around countless properties—whether or not they were equipped for use. Despite our objectively reasonable income, we can barely afford preschool, let alone a mortgage. Back home in our crowded confines, my 3-year-old daughter plays contractor. She assures me that her latest Duplo creation has a foolproof foundation. Or, more often than not, that it is likely to need onerous pest work or unaffordable retrofitting.
At times, the experience of house hunting feels truly alienating. I have shed tears at nearly every stage of the process. I know more about asbestos than I ever wished. I have considered the feasibility of everything from living in a former bed-and-breakfast to constructing a composting toilet to owning a property with an oversized and seismically threatening rock formation in the yard. I have contemplated purchasing a partially tenant-occupied home and becoming a landlord, against all of my instincts. I have lain prostrate on a bathroom floor, with our beloved real estate agent standing above me, wondering aloud whether I could bathe my children in a totally sunken bathtub. I have spent upward of $1,000 this year seeking professional advice to better understand the costs of properties I will never have anything more to do with. My 3-year-old has attended meetings with contractors, structural engineers, and a real estate attorney who charged in six-minute intervals. At our price point, every home we consider has a hyperbolic problem, or three. My job is to decide what I can tolerate.
Sometimes, we offer on a house. Once, crushingly, we were outbid by a hair on a home around the corner from where we live, which was owned at the time by my elementary school. It is now owned by our pleasant neighbors, whom my kids play with at the park. In a fairly typical scenario, we bid 30 percent over asking, offer 30 percent down, and, within two hours, are asked to offer more. We can’t. And we don’t know whether we’re wasting our time. I often think of a British TV show called Grand Designs, which my husband and I used to watch before the kids were born. Wishful homeowners would take on immense projects clearly disproportionate to their means and bandwidths. Sometimes it paid off. Other times they made themselves insane, they trashed their otherwise decent marriages, and their kids simply grew up around the pursuit of a childhood home—but not in one.
Friends and strangers alike, both here and elsewhere, constantly suggest that we move. My dad, who has lived in the Bay Area largely uninterrupted since the 1960s, sends real estate listings for charming properties in rural Maine. Moving would evidently be the thing to do; it is clear that many things would be easier for us elsewhere. But the only time I seriously considered it was in the intensely smoky and COVID-y month of September 2020, when the sky burned orange and my newborn daughter howled amid the hum of air purifiers and hastily constructed window fans. Ash rained from the sky. I donned my N95 mask to walk around the block and wondered what in God’s name we were doing here.
But what we’re doing here is, in fact, living in our home. Despite its episodic alienation, our search for a more permanent home has counterintuitively tied us even more deeply to this place. For one, there’s our agent, Cammy. The first time we saw a house together, my daughter was 4 months old, cooing in the stroller. Cammy now knows the whimsies of our anxieties. My propensity to curse a lot under pressure. That my dad eats most meals with chopsticks. She has sat in our living room, such as it is, held my crying babies, chased my toddlers, coached my parenting, talked to me about my career, and told us about her family. Seeing a house with Cammy is a routine family activity. My 18-month-old squeals, “See house, visit Cammy, Cammy, Cammy too please!”
With Cammy as our guide, the process of searching for a home has felt like one intimate exchange after another. Each house we consider takes on a vivid quality. I know who’s lived there, the extent of their termite trouble, and the depth of the water issues in their crawl space. When our competitors become our neighbors, I know exactly who has left their $7,000 wood beetle problem unaddressed. I house the stories of so many properties—properties I will never have anything more to do with. And yet they form the tapestry of my neighborhood. Read as composite, they are the place my children are growing up. A few weeks ago, we visited a house with an almost-usable attic space. My daughter scaled a small ladder and squealed with delight when she reached the top. Finally, she’d found a ceiling she could touch.
It’s not quite right to say that I fall in love with houses. It’s more that I fall in relation to them, or in some cases quite literally in them. In this entanglement, I know I’m not alone. We recently scoped out a small house that was beloved by its previous owners. Amid reports of…
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