In 1983, my husband and I responded to an announcement in a small local newspaper: “Reading Group Forming.” Eleven of us gathered and met about once a month to discuss a variety of books, and within a few years our randomly assembled group turned into a circle of friends. We celebrated holidays and births, and everyone came to our wedding. When another couple bought a house, Jim and I were more than a little wistful; we were discouraged.
Homeownership was off the table for Jim and me. We had our hands full covering household bills, car payments, college loans, and (by then) day care for our new baby. We had no savings, and neither of our families had anything to spare. Jim perused the real estate listings now and then, but I averted my eyes. Without money to put down, what was the point?
But “Al,” a member of our informal community, thought we were being irresponsible; we were grown-ups with a child, and we should be building equity. We didn’t disagree. Al couldn’t deny that our lack of a down payment was a problem, but he didn’t give up and eventually found a way to get us in on the ground floor. Actually, the second floor.
A schoolteacher who owned his own home, Al had invested some of his savings in a three-unit building in Newton. When the second-floor tenants gave notice, he came up with a workaround for our real estate problem. In exchange for a reduction in rent, we would become the building’s caretakers: mowing the lawn in summer, shoveling the driveway in winter, fixing dripping faucets, and calling the plumber when the hot water heater went kaput.
But there was more! We would write a second monthly check that Al would apply against the mortgage, which would slowly but surely grow into equity.
Thinking back, I can’t believe we didn’t leap at his offer. Honestly, I wasn’t excited about the idea of leaving our affordable, roomy duplex in a friendly, funky Boston neighborhood for a suburb I wasn’t entirely sure I could find on a map.
And there were real challenges to making the move. We had only one car and our respective work schedules required us to be downtown, but we didn’t have the same hours and one of us had to bring the baby to the family day care ever so conveniently located around the block from where we were living.
And then there was the fact that Al’s building was not a thing of beauty. It was an oddly shaped hulk sitting sideways in a sea of black macadam at the end of what you could call a cul-de-sac in the way you could call a Hostess Twinkie a pastry.
Our apartment would be up a steep flight of stairs that opened directly into a dark green kitchen, with a cracked linoleum floor that was a crawling hazard for our daughter. And the only place I’d able to fit my desk was in the dining room.
It wasn’t perfect but what is? We weren’t stupid, so we said yes. And thank you.
I know that Al consulted a lawyer, and we signed an agreement of some kind. The details are fuzzy, but we did not have an attorney look it over on our behalf. There certainly was no credit check. Essentially, we became homeowners on a handshake.
Jim and I spent hours chipping away at that linoleum, liberating the lovely oak floor beneath. We nearly divorced while trying to hang a light fixture. We painted all the walls a nice, clean off-white, except for the wainscoting in the hallway and kitchen, for which I chose an inexplicably ugly sort of peach: Pepto-Bismol pink meets Howard Johnson orange. Al didn’t say a word.
We quickly learned how lucky we were to have landed where we did. There was a stellar, affordable day-care center three blocks away. We were a short walk from an ice cream shop, a movie theater, drugstore, bank, and the most efficient post office branch I ever entered. The commuter rail solved our transportation challenge.
We planted flowers in the backyard, taught our daughter to ride a bike on the tarmac that was our front lawn, bought real furniture.
The next-door neighbors became friends, and we still exchange holiday cards and e-mails. Sharing ceilings and floors forces a kind of risky intimacy, but we were lucky with the tenants above and below. We hit the jackpot when Dawn moved into the first floor. Originally from Minnesota, she was a state fair blue-ribbon baker, and on weekends filled our apartment with the smell of cake. She would call or knock on the door to ask that we refrain from slamming doors or walking like elephants while her angel food cake was in the oven. We were well rewarded for complying, especially in the lead up to the Topsfield Fair. At that point, our daughter was in grade school and agreed to Dawn’s suggestion that she enter one of the junior baking competitions. Both came home with blue ribbons.
We stayed in touch with Dawn after we moved, and a few years later, I had the honor of reading a poem at her wedding.
Eventually, Jim and I accumulated enough of a nest egg for a down payment on a single-family house just a mile away. Al was ready to sell, too, and the proceeds were divided according to plan.
The book group dissolved long ago. Our children are adults now, and some have kids of their own. One couple divorced, another remains within the orbit of our closest friends. One woman died recently, far too young.
Al moved out of state some years ago, and although we rarely see or hear from him, we are forever grateful to him. We’re also aware that things could have turned out very differently. Conventional wisdom — maybe even common sense — would argue against an arrangement such as ours. The whole thing could have torn our friendship apart and landed us in court.
I suppose we were terribly naïve, and you could chalk the whole thing up to the inexperience of youth or maybe a holdover from the spirit of the ’60s. I like to think it was something more than that — not just a fortunate business partnership, but a different kind of real estate “trust.”
Anita Diamant is the best-selling author of “The Boston Girl” and “The Red Tent.” Send comments and a 550-word essay about your first home to Address@globe.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.