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{ in·deed·a·bly }

adverb: to competently express interest, surprise, disbelief, or contempt

Whimsical

Crunch!

The food delivery rider somersaulted over his handlebars. Instinctively raising his arm to save his face from hitting the ground. Broken wrist for certain, bending in a stomach-churning direction other than what nature intended.

He favoured his shoulder as he sat up, suggesting a matching broken collarbone. A rapidly spreading puddle of what looked like chicken jalfrezi mixed with black daal oozed from the bottom of his crushed delivery backpack.

A chorus of impatient car horns sounded up and down the four-lane road, as an off-duty nurse helped the rider move onto the pavement. I retrieved his bicycle from the middle of the busy intersection, as an impatient bus driver made the barest of token efforts to avoid running me over.

The most memorable part of the incident wasn’t the spectacular fall, nor the rider’s narrow escape from becoming roadkill. It was his expression.

I would have expected anger, shock, surprise, or pain. Instead, there was fear.

The nurse attempted to ask him about his injuries, but the rider’s only concern was that he would lose his below minimum wage livelihood. A broken bone or three was an inconvenience. Loss of income appeared to be a catastrophe.

The line between financial survival and oblivion can be a fine one indeed.

Ageing disgracefully

Recently I heard from an old school friend. For as long as I’ve known her, her greatest fear has been “getting old”.

Terrified of growing up.

No longer being cool.

Turning into her parents.

Now aged almost 50, she still buys her clothes at “fast fashion” stores. Goes clubbing and to raves. Parties harder than any ten teenagers on a Saturday night. Embarrasses her children by wearing bikinis that are gravity-defying marvels of modern engineering.

She had just moved her family into a six-bedroom McMansion with a swimming pool in the backyard.

I was thrilled for her, and I must confess, also somewhat surprised.

Years ago, she had dreamt of living in a trendy suburb walking distance from the beach. An aspiration that should have proved to be an impossible dream, as the financial realities of sky-high property prices cruelled yet another young person’s desires.

After months of fruitless househunting, she hired a buying agent who earned their commission via an awkward compromise. A detached double garage located behind a family home, which an amateur property developer had converted into a tiny one-bedroom “cottage”. Ok, for a single person or a loved-up couple who didn’t mind living on top of one another. Thoroughly impractical for her family of four.

Her daughter slept on a mezzanine platform suspended above the lounge, accessible via a ladder. Her son’s “bedroom” was a toddler bed in a hallway beside the draughty back door.

Endless tensions and compromise ensued. Vanity address versus creature comforts.

Now, after years of runaway price appreciation, the converted garage was worth a small fortune.

Much to the surprise of everyone, not least herself, my friend decided it was time to move to her “forever” house. One where her family could each have their own space. One that could host the vast extended family feasts she dreamt of cooking, just like the ones her grandmother used to make back in the old country. One which could comfortably accommodate house guests, including her future grandchildren.

She sold the converted garage and purchased a McMansion, located in an unfashionable suburb too close to the airport and nowhere near the beach. A few weeks after making the move, she seems happy. Her long-suffering husband is still in shock. Wondering who this suspiciously pragmatic imposter was, and what they had done with his real wife?

When I asked her about the thinking behind the move, my friend said she had realised constantly fighting her fears was a losing battle. The outcome was both inevitable and beyond her control. There was only so much magic that botox, hair dye, and a pair of Spanx can wield.

She had asked herself what was the worst that could happen?

Then asked how likely that outcome was? What the potential upsides might be if things went right?

Eventually, she realised that her address was different to her identity. She could grow old disgracefully anywhere, but now she would do so in comfort and surrounded by a bit more space.

Fear of missing out

Whether we realise it or not, many of our behaviours are influenced by our financial fears.

Fear of change.

Fear of rejection.

Fear of the unknown.

Which may prevent us from applying for a promotion. Negotiating a pay rise. Pursuing advancement and opportunity beyond the safe comfortable cocoon of our current domain, industry, or workplace.

As my children were fond of saying when they were toddlers: “if you don’t ask, you don’t get”.

Facing our fears can certainly be scary, and not without some risk. However, seldom will the outcomes match our worst nightmares. We might be told no, denting our confidence or humbling our ego, but rejection is rarely fatal.

How many friends have you seen smote on the spot for making a cheeky offer on a property?

How many colleagues have made the walk of shame as they were escorted from the premises after asking for a pay raise?

Now ask yourself, how many of your peers sought to advance themselves and succeeded?

For most of us, the latter group would comfortably outnumber the former. This suggests that the odds of success outweigh the odds of blowing ourselves up. There are no guarantees of course, but when we allow our fears to hold us back then we will die wondering rather than realising our potential or living our dreams.

Recently, I found myself walking along the Kentish coastline, enjoying the sunshine and admiring some of the homes with glorious ocean views. Many were the standard unimaginative dour terrace houses. However, a few were beautiful and unique. Grand Designs.

Now I must confess, I am partial to a bit of property porn. I am also not above the occasional bout of house envy.

Some of my family and friends live in their own individual “wow haus”.

A house with a breathtaking view over a lake.

Hilltop homes possessing stunning ocean vistas.

Sprawling suburban homes backing onto nature reserves, visited at dusk by tame kangaroos.

Homes with beautiful gardens that put more than a few botanical gardens to shame.

As I strolled along the coastal path, I idly wondered why I didn’t live in a dream house, like those I was walking past?

As a grown-up with a comfortable bank balance, doing so would certainly be within my gift.

Therefore my not living in a dream house in a beautiful location must be a choice.

Asset allocation.

Opportunity cost.

Prioritisation.

Peacekeeping.

Compromise.

Trade-offs.

Excuses.

The reality is probably a combination of all those things. A choice nonetheless. One that I must own.

However, deep down, I knew the real reason I didn’t live in a dream house: fear.

Fear of liquidating my cash flow generating investments. Converting them into a cash consuming asset.

Fear of committing to a mortgage comparably sized to the national debt of a banana republic.

Fear that as a consequence, the option of returning to my preferred semi-retired lifestyle would vanish. The absence or reduction of passive income streams throwing my perpetual money-making machine into reverse gear. Requiring more bills and purchases to be funded via selling my time. Transforming my job from a questionable lifestyle choice into a financial life support mechanism. A similarly fragile existence to that of the terrified delivery rider.

Curiously, that does not mean that I am opposed to the idea of homeownership in principle.

Far from it. Much like my university friend, I think homeownership is a good thing. Something I have been thinking about more and more of late. A comfortable safe place to call my own is an attractive prospect.

No, my aspirations and fears collide over budget and location.

I don’t want an either/or choice of house or a portfolio of cash flowing investments. I require both.

A house shouldn’t cost the owner their financial independence, but rather preserve its longevity.

Which is possible in about 90% of the country, including those dream houses lining the coastal path. Just not where I currently choose to live. With its short commute. Where my kids happily attend schools and enjoy strong social groups. Another choice I must own.

A problem, but not a geographic one. One bourne out of financial fears.

My earlier observations would suggest confronting those fears.

Taking bold action.

Consequences be damned.

Replacing uncertainty with certainty, whether via a successful outcome or otherwise.

Relocate, at the cost of a huge blast radius. Disrupt my kids’ comfortable routines. Blow up their social lives. Change their schools. Cut them off from their familiar surroundings and support networks. All to indulge my passing fancy of a dream house by the sea. Putting my needs above theirs.

Or buy within commuting distance of my current home. Trigger many of those very things I have been financially fearful of. An outcome rich in irony. Viable at the current negative real mortgage interest rates. Potentially ruinous when interest rates eventually revert to their mean. Putting my children’s time-bound needs above my own.

Or perhaps choose the default option. A continuation of the status quo. Seek contentment from the constant chugging of my perpetual money-making machine. Find solace in the cold embrace of low-cost index tracker funds and the dwindling returns found in landlording.

I must confess I found homeownership sorely tempting as I continued my walk along the coastal path past all the dream houses. Right up until the point I reached the train station for the ride home. Where I had to wait for an hour for the next train, followed by the 90-minute long commute back into the city.

Something the locals regularly endure. Twice a day. Every weekday. When the trains are working.

By the time I had arrived back in London, that vast time investment wasted on commuting had more than cured me of any desire for a coastal dream house for as long as I still regularly visited work sites.

Fear that life is too short to endure a lengthy commute.

Certain that happiness is not found in an expensive overcrowded commuter train.

Recognising that homeownership cannot bring happiness. Instead, we bring it with us (or not) wherever we happen to live.

Whimsical

And yet homeownership remains a fascinating emotional proposition.

An attractive lifestyle choice.

An awkward financial choice, where the numbers seldom add up and often make little sense. Yet we do it anyway!

A decision that, whether we realise it or not, is often born out of fear.

Buying the title of king or queen of our own castle. Fearing we aren’t in control anywhere else in our lives.

Creating a safe and welcoming escape. Fearing the big bad scary world outside.

Purchasing certainty today, in the form of a home that nobody can take away from us. Fearing a future plagued by ever-changing rules, rising prices, and endless uncertainty.

Seeking the enforced savings that servicing a mortgage demands. Fearing we lack the financial discipline or knowledge to accumulate wealth any other way.

Whatever the outcome, the important thing is to understand what motivations are driving our behaviours.

Wherever fear is playing a role, we could do worse than adopting the whimsical approach of my university friend. The same approach embraced by LeanFIRE seekers, tiny house occupants, and van life enthusiasts the world over.

Asking what is the worst that can happen? Then doing it anyway.

Even when the heart says yes, but the numbers say no.

Perhaps especially then.


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10 Comments

  1. ryangibsonclever 6 September 2021

    Really enjoyed this one. It’s funny how despite reaching a level of financial independence other factors still influence where you are and what you do.

    We were very fortunate that we secured our current residence in January before the pandemic ravaged in March onwards. Despite 5 offers on the property we managed to sell our previous home in 24 hours and offer on the property. Then an opportunist meeting with the seller of the house (it was his Mums who had sadly passed away) meant we could ‘sell our family’ and he choose us. I wonder if it was the pregnant wife and cute daughter rather than my bluster (or perhaps just an asking price offer?)

    In any event, we’ve since extended and it’s largely our perfect family home. Like everyone we sometimes long for other things (more land, ability to grow own own vegetables, chickens etc) but we live in a highly desirable location in a largely low cost of living area (Yorkshire).

    We are centrally placed, amazing connectivity (2 hrs to London) and a lot of nature on our doorsteps. We feel fortunate but like yourself we still long for other options also. But kids, friends, family all have an overarching impact on your chosen Utopia.

    Do I view my home as an investment? No I don’t although it seems that way at the moment 😀 Is it a place where we are settled, feel safe, comfortable and have optimised for efficiency? Yes absolutely. This is the part of home ownership I love.

    Unlike London we also have a very poor stock of rental properties. There’s rarely anything of substance and those which are tend to be snapped up quickly or have been sold in the inflated market. So home ownership here is an absolute vs an option.

    I’ve followed your journey a long time and I see how the story is shaping. I hope you find your happiness one day. I can see how conflicted you are and I totally get it. I actually think this is one of your strongest articles for some time. Thanks for sharing.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 6 September 2021 — Post author

      Thanks Ryan, high praise indeed.

      That is quite a journey you’ve experienced over the last year or so. I’m pleased it has worked out so well!

      You make a valid observation, the grass is always greener. Which is why we take holidays, sample the world outside our comfort zones, and make us grateful to return back home again at the end.

  2. John Smith 7 September 2021

    From my experience, the housing needs change when the children leave the nest to live on their-self (sometimes in other countries, far away). My wish to have a garden, to grow my own vegetables has changed also. As I grow older, I prefer the pseudo-security of fast / easy transport links, better medical care, use of (already taxed for) public parks, etc.

    The “forever” house is exposed to: rising taxes, flood, fire, burglaries, riots / war, climate change, new bad neighborhood. I saw many nice houses later as tomb because high buildings nearby. And it is harder to sell the house because life critical surgery than to sell investments.

    My choice is a very small house (sanctuary back-up, not let it out), renting and living where was high paid work. Both peace of mind and mobility, but the price is periods far away from family.

    A big / expensive house is like a DB pension: a golden cage. The more is invested in, the more time is bound to stay in (to benefit from the investment), so less time to “see the world”.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 7 September 2021 — Post author

      Thanks John Smith. House as tomb is an interesting concept, suggests settling down for the very long term!

      I’m a fan of debt recycling, using a low interest HELOC or offset mortgage to allow otherwise “trapped” home equity to be productively invested in asset classes likely to generate higher returns. This isn’t for everyone, but helps to keep options open.

      That sanctuary/escape home is starting to be a recurring theme amongst commenters on the blog recently, I wonder if I’m missing something not having a bolt hole lined up?

      Your observation about the sunk cost of homes being similar to the golden handcuffs of a DB pension is both astute and well made.

  3. steveark 9 September 2021

    Why do you think your kids can’t be happy living near the beach? There are kids everywhere and they are all remarkably flexible compared to adults. That’s no reason to buy a beach house but it shouldn’t even enter the algorithm for deciding. Kids prosper when they have attentive parents that hold them accountable. The particular school they attend has very little impact on their academic success. I don’t think there are any needs when it comes to your children that are put at risk by where you decide to live.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 9 September 2021 — Post author

      You misunderstand me, Steveark.

      I think kids, mine included can potentially be happy anywhere. What is unpalatable to me is the whimsical disruption. They would survive, start over, with a bit of luck make new friends, and hopefully thrive.

      Or they might not. An extreme example might be the clichéd military brat or serial international school attendee who trails after their globetrotting parents. Lacking roots or a sense of “home“, having trouble establishing lasting relationships because everything is transient and maintaining distance hurts less when it next comes time to move on.

      Like any change, there is a leap of faith and a fear of the unknown. Sometimes we win, sticking a safe comfortable landing. Sometimes we don’t, becoming pavement art.

      I disagree on the correlation between a given school and academic success.

      There is no guarantee of succeeding from a successful school. However, receiving a substandard education from an under-resourced failing rural, regional, or inner-city school, staffed by teachers whose only real qualification is either living locally or being unable to get a job at a better school, brings with it uncomfortably high odds of not succeeding. It is an aspect of the poverty cycle, a self-perpetuating set of circumstances that can make it hard for those who didn’t choose their parents very well to get ahead.

      Unfortunately, in England at least, a disheartening number of coastal towns are considered to be disadvantaged locations offering few opportunities and disproportionately high unemployment and poverty.

  4. weenie 14 September 2021

    Good luck with finding your ‘wow haus’!

  5. Q-FI 16 September 2021

    This one was right up my alley. I’m a little behind on my reading again but seems we were doing the same thing recently – you looking at coastal house porn while I was looking at lake-front house porn… hahaha.

    “Now I must confess, I am partial to a bit of property porn. I am also not above the occasional bout of house envy.”

    I went to college in a beach town, and I often daydream about what if. I’d love to get back there some day but I just don’t think the lifestyle supports it with the freedom I crave. Maybe I’ll take a another look at it a decade from now.

    “And yet homeownership remains a fascinating emotional proposition.”

    Reading this post felt like deja vu for me going back to the beginning of the year.
    All your points on house buying are spot on and questions that need to be weighed against each other. My wife and I literally, went down each of these paths weighing pros and cons. The eventual outcome for our personal situation was passing on the $1.3M+ starter homes in our current neighborhood we were renting, moving closer to work for me (enabling a single household income) and in a relatively cheaper area. If my goal was solely freedom, the numbers don’t make sense, but locking in that certainty and security was something I had never experienced before. Being a renter my whole life, there is something to say for controlling that asset in its entirety (metaphorically without the bank stepping in). Six months into the ownership experience I have no regrets. I’ve been tracking all ownership related expenses and there are a ton of hidden costs. “Little” upgrades all add up very quickly. It’s been equally fun, educational and painful at times… haha.

    Really enjoyed this post Indeedably. It will be interesting to see where we are all at in life after another decade.

    Good luck in negotiating the housing balance!

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 16 September 2021 — Post author

      Thanks Q-FI.

      The housing game is an interesting one. Our perspectives and goals forever changing.

      I’ve rented nine times, and owned where I lived twice. Neither occupancy model was better or worse, more of a lifestyle choice. There were times when I cursed apathetic landlords over absent or tardy repairs, and other times where I thanked my lucky stars I wasn’t the owner left footing the bill for massive unforeseen maintenance bills.

      Equally, owning often felt like I had a hole cut in the bottom of my wallet, with money constantly draining out in the form of minor improvements and upgrades. But at least some of those were about getting certain aspects of our home exactly how we wanted it.

      One thing that has been constant throughout is we were never content with what we had or where we were for long. The grass was always greener someplace else.

What say you?

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