When I was 25, a whole lot of things conspired to work in my financial favour. My then-boyfriend and I were living in a commune, but we’d started to need our own space (those other guys and their stinky socks!). A good friend of mine had bought a lovely house in Orange Grove for an affordable price. And I was earning enough money to get a bond. We could do this thing!
So we started looking in the area where my friend had found such a good deal, and soon enough, we came across one of those houses that gives you a sinking feeling at the same time as it makes you giddy with excitement. The sinking feeling was because of the magnitude of what suddenly lay ahead of us, and giddy excitement because… well… probably for the same reason.
The house is beautiful. It was built in the 1930s. It had three bedrooms, bay windows, a front stoep, a manageable garden and a small forest of trees. The best thing about it was that it was untouched. No one had installed awful built-in cupboards or fitted melamine kitchens, or built a faux-Tuscan extension. We knew we had to have it.
That was way back in the heady days when banks were granting 110% bonds, and before we knew it, we were homeowners. Because we’d bought a house, rather than an apartment, our home became the ultimate party destination for our friends. We danced until many a sunrise in our lounge. We got cats and a dog. We were living a domestic dream and having the time of our lives.
It was all going so well we got married. And then we had kids – and those were great too. But all of a sudden, our little heavenly party palace started seeming a bit small and unglamorous. It was a little old fashioned, a bit crumbly round the edges, and a little far into the arty but dodgy suburb of Orange Grove. We started looking for someplace better – a more grownup house.
And we found one! We even made an offer. And we had an offer on our old house. Everything was lining up perfectly. Then, our seller decided she wouldn’t sell, and because we hadn’t seen any other houses we liked, in a panic, we cancelled on our buyer.
We found ourselves back at Square 1, Orange Grove. But somehow, the process of almost selling our precious little home changed something for us. The house’s old-world beauty, its convenient location, the nice neighbours, the bustling busyness of the area and our pathetically small monthly bond repayments all came back into focus. We realised that we’d been mad to think of leaving.
So we built an office for me to work in, and did some repairs and renovations. And now, the party house has a white picket fence and a pool, and we repaired the sagging wooden windows and installed a granite countertop along one wall of the kitchen. Ta-da! A grown-up house.
We didn’t have to move an inch. The house that we partied in, the house we returned to after we were married, and the first house we brought our children home to will be the house that they grow up in – and quite possibly the house that we grow old in. It is filled with the echoes of first steps and first words, the memories of homecomings and the familiarity of the scuffed corners, chipped tiles and scratched floorboards that tell our story.
Recently, I was interviewing a financial advisor for an article I was writing, and he mentioned to me that one of the biggest mistakes people make is buying the largest house that they can afford, and then not putting enough money towards their retirement. “I have to have somewhere to live,” is their justification – which is true, but they didn’t necessarily have to live in the best house in the best suburb, at the expense of their retirement savings.
I thought to myself, “Phew, I dodged that bullet!”
The interesting thing for me about this process has been the mind shift that we went through when we decided against moving out. The things that had begun to irritate me about my home fell away, or were fixable. The things I aspired to – a bigger garden, a fancier address – suddenly seemed unimportant. I didn’t feel that I had compromised; I just felt that I had remembered that I was satisfied with what I had.
So much of life is like that – we demand the next big thing because we think we should and we’re supposed to upsize and move on and attain and acquire. It’s called ambition and it’s A Good Thing. But somehow, that constant scrabbling for the next rung on the ladder can rob you of your sense that what you have right now is good enough. That other thing – that thing called contentment – is also worth working towards.
I am so happy that I was taught a lesson – one that I almost learnt the hard way – about being happy with what I have – because what I have is only as perfect as I believe it to be.
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