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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

The Search for "Home"

Oakwood Homes, Inc.

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey

One of the major steps in a relocation is finding a place to live.  Our situation is more than a little fluid, since I'm retired and Cheryl is a Travel Nurse, working a series of 13-week contracts in a variety of locations.  

Part of the adventure of being a Travel Nurse, or Traveller, is the excitement of going to a completely different place for each new assignment.  Since we haven't really decided where to live yet, that's an important opportunity. Visiting someplace for a few days doesn't really provide the best perspective. Living there for a period of time, however, gives you a chance to "try it on for size."  You not only see the front parlor of the community, but also the dirty basement, allowing you to make an informed decision.

For us, the list of possibilities is long and varied, driven by factors such as economics, proximity to grandkids, and available activities.  Included on our roster are places like Las Vegas, Denver or Colorado Springs, Kansas City, Amarillo or Lubbock, Seattle, Honolulu, Phoenix, and Provo, Utah.  Yes, their all decidedly on the western side of the country. We had our fill of the east after 12 years of high costs and ridiculous traffic and now yearn for more agreeable surroundings.  Each place on the list has its own set of charms and flaws, and some are more affordable than others.  But the most important factor is that indescribable and unquantifiable sense of "home."

Home is not so much a place as a feeling.  It embodies all the positives of safety, privacy, comfort, and sense of ownership (even a rental).  And family.  For so many, "home" is a place of memories.

I've lived in a lot of places, but there have only been one or two that met that nebulous definition.  On the road for so much of my life, when people ask me where home is, I simply reply, "Wherever the motorcycle's parked."

In the four months that we've been in Colorado, it has begun to grow on us.  The hardest part was acclimating to the altitude after living at sea level.  When we first got here, going up a flight of stairs was exhausting.  Now, we're finding it much easier to get around without wheezing and whoofing.  Lately, we've begun to explore the possibility of settling here.  The drawback, something that lies at the very heart of our considerations, is cost.  Denver and its surrounding areas have been defined as a "hot market" for real estate.  That's never good news for buyers.  The houses are uniformly expensive and selling rapidly, even though hundreds more are being built every month.  And prices continue to rise.  In January, we looked at a particular new home, but couldn't pull the trigger.  Last week, we discovered that same home had increased some $40,000 in price since then.

We've lived in both new and existing homes, and that experience keeps us looking at new construction. A house, when it's built, is the visible expression of someone's dream, a necessarily personal expression.  Buying an existing home, means buying someone else's idea of perfection.  The hard part is making that dream your own.  But no matter how hard you try, it never feels quite right.  Plus, existing homes usually come with their own set of warts and boils, from plumbing to electrical and the roof.  Buying new, even a standard plan from a home builder, means having the opportunity to add the details and personalizations that make it yours.  We did that in Virginia and as a result, the house felt like home the day we moved in. It's not that we didn't give the existing home market a fair shot.  We toured more than 70 homes before deciding to build.  What we liked, we couldn't afford; what we could afford, we didn't like.  Building meant we got it right from the get-go.

Loved it.  Couldn't afford it.

Could afford it.  Hated it.

Loved it.  Could afford it.  Made it our own.

On that list of possible settling places, there were those at either end of the spectrum.  Honolulu is home for Cheryl.  Always has been, always will be.  People born and raised there have a unique spiritual and emotional bond with the islands.  Plus, nearly all of her family still live there.  But Honolulu is one of the most expensive places on planet Earth.  Being an island, land is at a premium, and hence very pricey.  New homes there start within spitting distance of a million bucks.  The existing homes are nearly all at least a half-century old, small, and quite frankly, not very attractive.  For those, the prices start at only a half-million.  But its not just real estate.  Almost no food and very few manufactured goods are produced there.  Everything has to be shipped in.  Even simple things like eggs, bread, milk, and Ramen Noodles carry eye-popping price tags.  If you became a millionaire during your work life, or started saving for retirement when you were about 12, you just might make it.  Otherwise, prepare to live on the knife-edge of poverty.  Paradise hath its price.

Kansas City, where I grew up, is very affordable.  There's plenty to do, and the people who live there exude that midwestern warmth and welcome.  The summer weather is, unfortunately, something that has to be endured.  But it lies far distant from our grandkids in Maryland, Colorado, and California.  At this stage of our lives, that is a vitally important consideration.

The rest of the places on the list involve states where the tax structure is retiree-friendly, important because when income falls to the level of pension and social security, we resent every penny we have to send to the government.  

But deciding on a city only opens up another worm-filled container:  what to live in.

Touring new home communities can be frustrating.  The price point we can qualify for is substantially less than what it was before.  My federal pension, after decades of service, can charitably be described as disappointing.  Being a contractor means Cheryl has gaps between employment, something lenders don't like to see.  The halcyon days before 2008 when bankers would issue a mortgage to anyone having a pulse (and sometimes not even then) are long gone.  The hurdles to leap and hills to climb have gotten taller and steeper.  And in an area like Denver, the options for non-wealthy retirees have shrunk considerably.  Still, there are a few choices available.

Model homes are a curious mixture of fantasy and reality.  The homes are staged by professionals with impeccable senses of design well beyond the ability of mere mortals to replicate.  They are spotlessly clean and organized (and tell me that isn't fantasy). The furniture is free from the inevitable nicks, scratches, stains, and tears that separate a showplace from one that tells the story of family.  Young parents may find it odd to walk across a stretch of floor without having a piece of Lego driven into the softest part of their foot.  The hardest part is mentally translating that Better Homes & Gardens into the kind of furnishings most of us have.  Still, it's exciting to see what perfection looks like.

Yeah sure, we can decorate like that...

Everyone would like space, but very few can afford it.  So we end up regretfully turning our backs on the palaces and looking at something much smaller. Sometimes we lie to ourselves -- "Yeah, we can make this work" -- even though that chancy statement usually results in a garage stuffed full of things that wouldn't fit inside, relegating the other major purchases -- the cars -- to meteorological exposure.  Downsizing is difficult, and painful. Nevertheless, it is a necessary task to undertake prior to moving.  I'm constantly amazed at families who have boxes they've moved multiple times, yet haven't opened in ten years.  By any reasonable measure, our next home will be at least a thousand square feet smaller than the last. Some things simply have to go.

We continue to look and explore.  Somewhere out there is a house that will embrace us like family; that screams "home" to us loud and clear.  It may be in Denver.  It may be in Kansas City.  It may be in some podunk town we've never heard of.  But we know it's out there.  Our job?  Find it.

This is, after all, part of the adventure we call life.
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