We Bought A Home We Couldn’t Afford — & We’re Never Looking Back

Kayla Lewkowicz

Refinery29 is proud to partner with the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR) to share real women’s stories about finding, buying, flipping, and paying off their homes. Ahead, read one woman’s testament to homeownership, and discover the power of a REALTOR®.

Editor’s note: We recognize that every individual’s financial journey to home ownership is unique there is no one-size-fits-all narrative. So, in place of prescriptive advice or guidance, we’re providing transparency into the process by way of one real woman’s authentic experience.

It all began with a napkin. It was January, and my husband and I had spent the morning in a coffee shop, scribbling notes on complimentary coffee napkins about our potential future home.

With the help of Sandy, a member of the National Association of REALTORS®, we set our budget at $400,000 based around the hope that our mortgage would be no more than 28% of our pre-tax income (Sandy advised us that this was wise). We had been saving for years, and now we felt it was finally time to take the plunge. We tried not to let ourselves get nervous about the whole process — after all, we weren’t looking for our forever home, just a starter home. We wanted a small fixer-upper to test out the home-buying waters somewhere in the greater Boston area.

But…that’s not exactly how it played out.

When we looked at our first house, I remember admiring the way the snow blanketed the quiet, suburban street. Upon entering, however, we found that the inside of the house looked strangely similar to the street outside: Every surface was painted white — including the doorknobs (we later learned that this was not an aesthetic decision but rather a way of hiding water damage).

And so began our long and wild roster of Massachusetts home tours. There was the house with an in-ground pool less than a foot away from the back door. There was the house filled with big-screen televisions (yes, even in the bathroom). There was the house with shag carpeting, wood paneling, and a leather-covered fridge from 1972, followed by the “definitely not haunted” house with doors to nowhere and dolls strewn across every available surface. 

No house in our price range was newer than the ’70s, before lead paint was outlawed as a building material, and we were growing more discouraged by the day. Friends and family tried to console us, claiming that as long as our future children weren’t prone to licking doorknobs or windowsills, we would be fine. But here’s the thing: How am I supposed to know what my future children will or will not lick? 

As the clock ticked down on our apartment lease, I clicked obsessively through listings and email alerts, swiping through blurry or poorly taken pictures, all of which Sandy reviewed with me patiently. She guided me encouragingly to endless open houses full of couples and families, the scent of desperation in the air, mixed with fresh paint and baking cookies.

Each time we found a house we liked (or honestly, didn’t hate), we’d learn that there were already 10 offers in — or that someone had just volunteered $20,000 over asking. We decided to expand our search to other towns and to include a higher price bracket, leaving the “safety” of our 28% rule behind.

And then, we found it. 

I knew it was ours as soon as I drove down the long, winding country lane. Even though the basement was unfinished, even though the kitchen screamed 1999 with cherry cabinets and speckled granite, even though there were ugly yellow and brown curtains, I felt like I had come home. 

A starter house this was not — not even a little bit. At $550,000, It had two floors, a backyard, and three bedrooms — to say nothing of the significantly higher mortgage. Even though it was $150,000 over our budget, I could picture us here — could envision this as our forever home. I liked it so much I was terrified. If we took the plunge, we knew we’d have to shift our lifestyles. We’d leave behind vacations, going out to dinner, and buying new clothes. We’d have to abandon the possibility of renovating or rebuilding the kitchen. But even with all the sacrifices looming over us, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this house was ours. That this was what mattered.

As soon as I clicked “send” on an email to Sandy that evening to tell her we wanted to make an offer, I began to alternate between worrying over the numbers, pacing around our tiny apartment kitchen, tinkering with commas in version 20 of our offer letter, and panicking about whether we were even making the right decision in the first place. Sandy helped us to lay out a 30-year fixed rate mortgage plan that would keep us above water while we paid off the house. And sure enough, two long nights later, she called with the good news: “You got it!” 

It’s been 10 months since we sat down to write out our real estate dreams on napkins. And now, sacrifices and all, we’re so happy to be settling into our forever home.

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