Should We Sell Our House and Move Our Family into an Apartment?

When I was 26 and working my first job out of law school, a manager of mine was expecting his first child with his wife. I remembered that he lived with her in a brownstone apartment in Philadelphia, and without even thinking about it, I asked if he was planning to move out of the city and buy a house.

The answer was no, and the conversation continued. It was only years later that I realized that my question was kind of presumptuous, and probably rude. I can’t say exactly why, but at some point I had ingrained within me the belief that in order to properly raise a family, you need to (a) not live in the middle of a city, and (b) live in a standalone house, which you own. I don’t think I was even conscious of how laden with judgment my question was at that time. It had just been my expectation, however mistaken, that given a choice, parents with sufficient income who planned their families would naturally aspire to become homeowners as soon as possible. In fact, I remember being surprised that my old supervisor had chosen to live in an apartment in the middle of a major city after getting married. I had assumed they were saving money to buy a house in a suburban community.

I ended up marrying a guy who very much shared the “first marriage, then homeownership in a ‘good’ neighborhood, then kids” viewpoint of what adult life should look like. I did want to live in the West End of Hartford because I loved the old houses in that neighborhood, but my husband was aghast. What about the schools? And insurance? And expensive repairs on an old house? So I abandoned that idea.

About ten years later, I think we’re both really happy with both the house we ended up with. Our kids actually attend a magnet school in a nearby district. They also seem happy with our three-bedroom “starter home,” so things are all good until we outgrow this house. However, a new problem has surfaced with our living situation. For the first time in our lives as homeowners, we’ve had trouble paying our mortgage. And let me tell you, that is a really scary freaking feeling if you’ve never been through it. I remember being broke as student and new attorney, especially in my old government job. But putting my groceries on credit cards was a lot less unnerving back when I was buying microwaveable frozen lunches to get me through my work day, instead of fresh meat and vegetables to feed growing children.

The current problem is really a cash flow issue, which should be remedied when I begin a new gig this fall. I guess that’s what happens when you decide to take a break from gainful employment to spend more time at home – especially without a budget – but, um, that’s a topic for a different post. Suffice to say that as responsible homeowners and parents, my husband and I could have made somewhat better choices earlier in the year to avoid this situation. At least now that we’re in it, we have a plan for working through it, and I know everything will be ok.

But the expensive mortgage and cash flow problem got me thinking … did we get ourselves into this mess all because we mistakenly assumed that we “needed” to live in this house – and to own our home, rather than rent – in order to raise our kids? And by the way, where did we get the idea that homeownership would naturally bestow upon us some prerequisite condition for child-rearing? In the midst of our money woes, I noted that our mortgage was draining us despite having refinanced, and I asked my husband how he felt about selling the house. He balked. There was no way he was willing to move our family of four into a rental situation, end of story.

In contrast to 25-year-old me, who had assumed that children need to live in a house that their parents own, I find myself 14.5 years later considering the potential benefits for families who rent instead of owning. Sure, there’s still rent to pay, but no taxes, homeowners’ insurance, or maintenance costs. The money renters save could be used to pay off debt, allow a two-income household to try living on just one, or invest in a college fund. And while things might be a bit more cramped in an apartment situation, requiring a family to downsize their possessions, is that really such a bad thing?

If recent headlines are to be believed, young adults are increasingly less interested in buying a home. Some still view the move as an investment, even though it seems generally agreed that real estate is no longer the surefire profit center it once was. I think there is something more emotional and symbolic at play for those of us who continue to seek out or maintain homeownership: whether you are a parent or not, owning your own home brings with it a sense of control and self-worth, despite the realities of a turbulent real estate market and the high cost of maintaining a home.

So how important is that symbolic value when it comes to raising our children? At this point, I think it’s funny that I used to believe kids could only be raised properly in a home. After all, it’s what happens within the home, and not the home itself that makes healthy and happy children. While environment and community counts for something, it’s the parent’s efforts that largely shape the child’s future. If homeownership helps bolster the parent in those efforts, even if only in some psychological sense, then I suppose it’s helpful — just not necessary.

Do you own your home, or rent? If the latter, are you saving up to buy a home, or planning on renting long-term as your children grow? I’d love to read your comments on this topic below.

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