We bought our first house in 1972. It was a three-bedroom ranch, and we got it for the staggering sum of $24,000. My parents, who had bought their first house in Watertown in 1955 for $17,500, wondered whether we could afford such a debt. We had a 2-year-old daughter and had been living in a tiny two-bedroom cottage in Revere that my mother had inherited from my grandparents. Mom let us live there rent-free on the condition that we pay the taxes and fix it up so she could sell it.
I liked Revere. We could walk to the beach, and it was an easy commute to my job in Boston. But the small front yard and driveway faced a busy highway where cars, trucks, and buses whizzed by. My grandparents had lived there since the cottage was built, and after 30 years, they had become inured to the constant noise of passing traffic, not to mention the frequent thunderous roar from low-flying jetliners on approach to Logan International Airport, just a few miles to the south.
It was a bit too noisy for us. Plus, we needed more space.
So we started looking for a quieter neighborhood in the Metro West area, where I had lived for most of my life. We found a small but affordable ranch in Waltham. We were excited to be homeowners. With the money we had saved, we were able to get a mortgage of $22,000 at a rate of 7 percent. I still remember the angst of committing to the seemingly huge debt. I could not sleep at all the night before passing papers.
The layout of our new home was typical of a starter ranch in those days. The front door opened up directly to the living room with a small dining area. Off the living room was a short hall leading to the three bedrooms. The kitchen was just big enough for a tiny table. The driveway ended in a basement garage. The land sloped so that the basement door opened at ground level in the rear. The backyard was a long rectangle that bordered a wooded area.
We enjoyed living there. We liked our neighbors. It was a quiet dead-end street with no jetliners roaring overhead. The location was perfect — near Route 128 and close to the downtown shopping area. But in 1974 our second daughter was born, and suddenly we felt cramped. The third bedroom was little more than a nursery with space for a small bed and a chest of drawers.
We put the house on the market and began looking for a larger one in the area. We accepted an offer of $37,000. The buyer, head of a household of five, told me he was going to finish the basement and convert the garage into an in-law apartment. Here we were, moving because we thought the place was too small for us, and the buyer who had been living in a two-room apartment was delighted to be taking our old space.
Waltham’s inventory was lean, but we found an affordable older house in Wellesley that needed TLC, mainly paint and wallpaper. It had three big bedrooms and a screen porch and was walking distance to the library and stores. It was listed at $48,000 but had languished on the market for several months. Our offer of $43,000 was accepted.
The numbers that so amazed us at the time would be considered “chump change” by today’s standards. When I look back at those simpler times and then see my young, affluent neighbors build their million-dollar, five-bedroom, four-bathroom homes on tear-down lots, I wonder whether they have trouble sleeping nights when they consider their staggering debt.
I suppose it’s all relative.