Alex Payne is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.

since 2001, has served as his online home.

Settling Down Without Settling

Or: how and why I bought a house at this particular moment in time.

(Please note that this post will probably only be of interest to you if you’re my friend, thinking about buying a house, or some saintly patient combination of the both.)


About six months ago, in May, I moved from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon. I expected to rent an apartment in Portland for at least a year, maybe two. Yesterday, in a major diversion from that path, I closed on my first home. I move in this coming Saturday.

In this post, I’m going to talk about why I bought a home, how I went about it, and the context of the particular socioeconomic moment we find ourselves in.

Why Buy A Home Now?

Two reasons: interest rates and inventory.

Interest rates on mortgages are low. Crazy low. Lower-than-they-were-in-the-1960s low.

I don’t think money should be a taboo subject (clearly), and I don’t mind sharing that I locked in a 4.5% fixed interest rate on a 30-year mortgage. I had heard the term “30-year fixed”, but before thinking about buying a house I had never really internalized what that means or why it matters. Once you do the math, though, you realize that even a slight change in interest rate can mean tens of thousands of dollars difference. That’s why mortgage interest rates are one of those things that boring adults care about. Who knew?

The other plus to buying right now is inventory. Because the economy has been in the dumps, not many people can afford to buy a home at the moment. Of course, no right-headed person would sell a home in this market, but there are still plenty of people who are forced to do so for whatever reason: relocation, death, a growing family, empty nesting, financial circumstances. Those homes have been sitting around for weeks, months, in some cases over a year or more. There’s a lot to choose from right now, and prices keep slipping.

Three other people at my coworking space are all closing on houses in the next week or so. Either it’s a good time to buy, or we’re all fools.

Why Buy A Home At All?

There’s an emerging trend of lifestyle “minimalism” that you read about (or, at least, I read about). The goal is a very American kind of freedom: the ability to pick up your entire life at a moment’s notice with absolutely no consequences. In a less extreme flavor, it’s about eschewing consumerism for a chipper monasticism that dovetails nicely with recession values and salaries. The “minimalist lifestyle” is popular talk in the startup set, probably because it makes sense not to have many responsibilities–financial or otherwise–when you’re working your ass off on a fledgling company.

I’ve always equated home ownership with a rejection of that sort of minimalist approach. The idea of owning a home seemed cumbersome. Left to my own devices, I’ll own as little as possible, and having a tiny apartment has helped me keep it that way. A big, cavernous space that demands to be filled with misery-making big box store crap? Not for me. No sir.

When I was a teenager, I couldn’t wait to live in an apartment in an urban area. Since dropping out of school, I’ve spent the better part of the last decade doing just that. At some time in the last couple years of city living, though, my patience with that lifestyle has waned. Or, put more positively, my appreciation for quiet has outweighed most other preferences in living space.

A home means different things to different people. For some, it’s the freedom to a have a living space that’s truly their own, customized to their tastes and fancies. For others, it’s an anchor, or a security blanket. A house can signify the transition from couple to family.

For me, the house is primarily about peace. It’s a place where I’m not forced to think about anything I don’t want to think about. It’s quiet. There are trees; practically nothing but trees as far as you can see out the windows. There are no noisy neighbors in the hallway, no drunken revelers screaming outside the window, no roaring trucks or blaring sirens. A city used to energize me, but now it leaves me drained. I’m happy to be a ten minute drive from downtown Portland in the new place, but happier still that I won’t hear anything but the breeze at night.

Why Buy A Home In Portland?

First and foremost: because I feel inexplicably at home here. I’m not sure why. I have no family here, and few friends (but more every day). Maybe it’s in my blood, passed down from the Paynes who ended up as apple ranchers in nearby Washington State. For whatever reason, I love it here, rain and all.

I’ve lived most of my life in two fairly expensive metropolitan areas: in and around Washington, DC, and the San Francisco Bay Area. Were I still living in either one of those places, buying a home would be essentially fruitless.

Both DC and SF have urban cores with a ring of suburbs. If you live in the core, homes are tiny and prices are astronomical. Prices dip just a bit in the suburbs, and you’re likely to spend a fair portion of your day commuting over aging and overcrowded transit infrastructure. Some try to beat the system by living in remote exurbs, sneaking into the city at ungodly hours and dashing home before rush hour sets in. Those people look tired.

Portland isn’t perfect, but it’s possible to buy a beautiful home in a nice neighborhood for a reasonable price here and still be close to a vibrant downtown that boasts world-class food, shopping, and more. Many neighborhoods have everything you need within a twenty minute walk. As above, I valued quiet and privacy over neighborhood amenities like a pub or coffee shop, but I didn’t have to move to the boonies to find that.

It’s sane here, basically. That’s why Portland.

How I Went About Buying A Home

First, I got the O’Reilly book. Then, I got on Redfin.

Redfin is brilliant. There are other services like it, but Redfin does such a damn good job that I’m not sure why you’d go with anyone else.

Essentially, it’s online dating for home buyers, but better (than that metaphor). First, you flip through their database of available homes; their site even has keyboard shortcuts. When you find a few places you like, request a showing. If you see a property that you love, Redfin will pair you up with one of their salaried agents in your area. If you do end up buying a home with them, they share the commission with you. That saved us thousands.

I remember my parents shopping for a house when I was a kid. Even then I could tell the process was opaque and frustrating. I went to showing after showing, open house after open house, weekend after weekend. Many frogs were kissed. Not so with Redfin, which puts all the information you need about a property in one place. I didn’t look at many homes in person because I simply didn’t need to. With Redfin, non-starters were ruled-out from the couch, making the most of in-person visits.

Our only hiccup in the buying process was due to a bad appraiser. (Bizarrely, homes are appraised after the buyer and seller agree to a contract price. Think about that: you’re bidding on something that you could know the approximate value of, but don’t, because that’s the way the process is arbitrarily ordered here in the US. Insanity.) At any rate, if your desired home doesn’t appraise in the neighborhood of what you offered, you don’t get a mortgage. As I found out, though, it’s worth getting a second opinion in that scenario. Appraisal is black magic and bullshit, and you can put that to your advantage.

After The Move

I’ve moved eleven times in the last eight years. In some ways, I’ve just been living from one move to the next, though I’ve never stopped to think of it that way. Why I continued to unpack between them all is, in retrospect, a mystery to me.

Having a real home feels like the ultimate privilege and luxury, and all the more so when so many people have lost theirs in these hard times. I’m filled with a combination of pride, guilt, and relief at the prospect of settling down for a while.

There’s a simplicity that comes from transience, and a simplicity that comes from permanence. Both are illusions, and one will present itself before the other. For now, I’m eager to be wrapped up in the illusion of permanence, serene and arboreal.

Reflecting on 2010

The Very Last Thing I'll Write About Twitter