A costly lesson in home ownership

Curt Nickisch Jun 11, 2010

A costly lesson in home ownership

Curt Nickisch Jun 11, 2010

You can say this for The American Dream — it has got staying power. The belief that owning a home is financially better than renting is still amazingly strong, even in the face of statistics like the one we got yesterday — almost 94,000 families had their homes repossessed last month. That’s about as good a lesson as you’ll ever get that chasing the Dream can go very wrong very quickly.

By Curt Nickisch

Four years ago, Calvin and Ateiya Sangster had bought a condominium in Boston’s rundown Mattapan neighborhood. They thought they were laying the foundation for a life of prosperity.

“By the time we started finding out a lot of things about the street, you know, it was kind of too late, we was already there!” says Ateiya Sangster.

Things like the man who squatted in the foyer of their building. Addicts rang their doorbell.

Ateiya says they would ask question like, “Do you have a dollar? Do you have two dollars, you know?”

One day Ateiya’s wedding ring was stolen. But none of that compared to the summer day when they had their windows open. Ateiya and Calvin saw two people arguing, right outside, on the sidewalk.

“They just started fighting and tussling,” says Calvin Sangster. “And once he had the guy on the ground, he pulled out the gun and started shooting him with it.”

I asked where their daughter was at the time.

“She was actually laying, laying right in that room,” says Calvin. “And that’s where we were like, we can’t keep her up here anymore. I can’t wait to get off of this street.”

Now Calvin wonders why they were in such a hurry get on this street. Why they were in such a hurry to buy. Their first child was boy, Calvin Junior, or C.J. He when was born, they were renting from Calvin’s grandmother. She lived on the next floor. His mom around the corner.

“I was very content,” says Calvin.

The couple was planning to buy someday, but they had it good — a big two-bedroom apartment for $800 a month — that’s cheap in Boston. Calvin was training to be a union electrician, and Ateiya was working. They were putting money away. Not bad for a 23-year-old dad and 20-year-old mom.

Then, one day, Calvin’s good friend came over, C.J.’s godfather. Calvin remembers how this friend had just become a realtor.

“And he’s like the mortgage probably won’t be too much more than how much you’re paying now. And I’m like really? That’s when I started getting drawn in. Then he started saying all the pluses to owning. Me and my wife started discussing it. You know, she was very wary about it at first but you know, I talked her into it. Dumb me,” says Calvin, laughing.

The condo seemed nice. One hundred seventy-thousand dollars seemed like a good deal. But after moving in, they found otherwise.

Once they moved into the condo, things started falling apart

“The house is like settling,” says Calvin. “See, like the house is kinda slanted this way. Because the floor became uneven, the tiles started cracking.”

Calvin and Ateiya were paying $700 more to live here than in their old apartment, almost twice as much. And then, many thousands more in repairs and renovations: appliances crapped out, doors wouldn’t close, mold bloomed in the bathroom.

Two years in, their interest rate jumped. Calvin and Ateiya refinanced to get a fixed payment. Now they owed more, $190,000. But they were still hanging onto a dream they knew so well but didn’t understand: the dream of home ownership. Financially, they were making it work. Calvin’s pay had almost doubled when he finished his training as an electrician. As long as he kept his job, everything would be fine. But then…

“My foreman comes: Calvin, I need to talk to you. Ugh, I couldn’t believe it. I knew what was coming, because he never talks to me,” says Calvin.

Getting laid off meant there was no money coming in. Only going out. Month after month, one thought kept coming back to Calvin: Just how much cash they’d have in the bank, if they’d just kept renting from his grandmother. That vanished number amazes him still today. He figures: it’s about $80,000. And it pains him, too. Because $80,000 happens to be about all his condo is worth today, not even half of what he owes.

“I’ve been regretting owning for a long time now. I regret owning,” says Calvin.

For a long time he knew he was going to have to decide, how to get that debt, that regret, off his shoulders. He had to make things better for his family.

Last year, Calvin and Ateiya decided: They stopped paying the mortgage; they’d give up the house.

Recently, the couple moved back into the same building where they used to rent. Grandmother’s still on the next floor. Rent is still $800. Calvin’s mom still lives around the corner. She says Calvin is learning and maturing, and she’s proud of him for that.

At first, Calvin felt like he was going backwards, losing the home. But now, he feels like he took a big step forward going back to renting.

“Back at the bottom of it, but I feel more comfortable being at the bottom of the stepping stone than where we were,” he says. “I feel much more comfortable coming back here.

It was a costly lesson. Calvin and Ateiya Sangster had to give up their own place in order to come home.

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