You can't always get what you want

On forever homes and shifting priorities.

The other day, I saw this viral Reel of Elmo, deadpanning to a camera zoomed in on his fuzzy red face in front of a house. He looked like he saw a ghost. The caption read something like, “The moment I realized my starter home with a 2% interest rate wasn’t a starter home at all.”

I would’ve laughed, but also, that’s me. I am Elmo, stuck in my home forever.

Alright, forever is dramatic. Maybe a little bratty. We have a home that we own, which is comfortable in many respects, while other people in this country face a massive affordability crisis around housing. Please don’t think I’m unaware of this fact as I risk wading into a proverbial tone deaf pond to share with you a universal lesson.

You can’t always get what you want when you want it.

Let me set the stage for how we ended up in suburbia in the first place. In 2016, Doug and I neared the end of a one-year lease on 63rd and 2nd Avenue in New York City. We secured the junior four, as they call it, for its large dining nook that we used as a nursery, but the apartment was plagued with unfixable problems from the day we moved in. Couple these issues with my postpartum epiphany that I didn’t want to raise kids in the city at all, not even for one minute (a dramatic pivot from how I thought I’d feel), and suddenly, our weekends filled up with open houses all around New Jersey, baby in tow.

We were in an okay position to throw all of our cash at a down payment; okay as 30-year-old parents could be, I guess. Our jobs still required us in the office, so we had to remain close to our city, even though it’s the most expensive city in the world. Our priorities were also a bit skewed after a decade that dealt us everything from temporary walls, mini toilets, gas leaks, mystery smoke, and mega-construction directly out our window. As is life in New York City, where the acquired Stockholm Syndrome dilutes all of your standards away–standards we probably could’ve used in buying our first home.

No garage? No problem! No front yard? We love our knoll, let’s call it Mount Boneparth! Proximity to the main road? Perfect, we LOVE hearing the train whiz by! No office? Who needs one of those—we have a dining room!

With three days left to resign our lease or find a new place to live, we entered into contract on our home. It wasn’t perfect, but it didn’t need to be. This house was not forever. I was so certain of this fact, I wrote a newsletter about retraining my brain to allow the kids to make more messes, because houses are meant to be lived in. Live, laugh, destroy the whole house. Put it on a kitchen sign. I didn’t care, because we had a plan.

The plan looked like this: forever home in 7-10 years; Heather joins Doug at the firm sometime after that. That was the order of operations, the priority for our goals, the why behind the work we put in each day at our jobs and the hours stuck on New Jersey Transit and I-78.

But make plans and God laughs. Isn’t that a common theme?

The pandemic shifted the lens through which we viewed our home. We needed a dedicated office, a garage, a front yard, and a street children could safely play on. When we started searching for our forever home earlier than expected, we found something even bleaker than we expected. Older, larger homes in our neighborhood at the tippy top of our budget still needed six figures of renovations. Builders faced supply chain issues, inflated labor costs, and occupancy delays. Worst of all, with a home to sell of our own this time, we had no bargaining power whatsoever. The competition wasn’t just hot–it was desperate. Buyers were expected to make concessions I’d never consider, like waiving home inspections. I get that’s what the market commanded, but I negotiate for a living. I know when our backs are against the wall.

You have to really need something to throw that much caution to the wind, and our definition of “need” has definitely narrowed with age. We started our second home search thinking it was a need but realized we weren’t so sure.

Around the same time, I learned my employer wanted us back in the city four days a week. Given the cosmic timing of these events, it suddenly seemed like a goal slated for the indefinite future was meant to happen now, just as our home goal felt like it was meant to happen later.

So we flipped them. I could leave my job, but then we couldn’t move. Not right now, at least.

On my last day of work, my best girlfriends left a bottle of rose champagne on my doorstep. I was supposed to be celebrating. They knew this was all part of my plan, but if I’m being honest, it felt out of context. This wasn’t the way things were supposed to go. Sure, financial goals are not always linear. But the pivot left me a bit shook.

A part of me felt like the decision was made for us. Your mind sets these expectations, and when you can’t meet them in the timeframe you thought you would, it’s disappointing. But then reality kicks in: these decisions were not made for us. We could’ve gone against our better judgment and battled prospective buyers to upgrade our home. I could’ve sucked it up and commuted again to help us pay for it. But that’s not reflective of our true priorities. We are disciplined. We are patient. And we know what risks make sense to take and when.

You can fight desperately to reach your goals in the order in which you imagined them. Or you can look around and accept when it’s time to shift the plan.

Getting caught up in mourning your own expectations takes away from the true accomplishment, which is your ability to re-prioritize what’s most important to you and then execute on it. That freedom to decide is worth more than any property on Zillow.

I still feel the slightest tinge of sadness writing our next book on the floor of my bedroom, hiding from my kids. But I am incredibly grateful Doug and I are well enough aligned to have made this choice together.

Live, laugh, love the home you’re stuck in. Put it on a sign. Publish it in a newsletter.


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