Downsizing the Dream— Part 1
Steve and me in front of my dream house!

Downsizing the Dream— Part 1

This is the story of how I left my “Dream House” for my current home. That place was right for us then… This place is right for us now.

My Godmother — my Aunt Sophie, specifically my mother’s sister (one of many) — was, like all of her other sisters except one, childless. But as I always like to joke, for someone who came into this world without a mom, I sure ended up with a lot of them. Most of my mom’s sisters lived near us in the same suburb —my Aunt Sophie was within walking distance to our house — and they all became like additional mothers to me. But out of them all, the one that was most like my “second mom” was my Aunt Sophie.

We had an interesting relationship, and overall, it was a good one. While she could be very motherly, she was still a step away from being my mother. So if and when she got upset at me, well… I never took it to heart, as I would have if my mom got mad at me. Instead, I would just let it roll off. (Her own sisters had a much harder time doing that with her.) And I probably shared with her WAY more things than I could ever tell my own mother — without fear of retribution, I suppose. She was often much more understanding and less judgmental.

Aunt Sophie taught me a lot. She shared with me her own interests and likes, and I found a lot of them to be really interesting and enjoyable too. For example, she loved big band music and lounge singers… and by my early 20s, so did I. And she was a big fan of movies, all movies — but especially the old black and white classics. I’d go by her place for sleepovers, and we’d stay up past midnight watching “Late, Late Show” movies — Elvis Presley in World’s Fair, James Dean in Giant, and Humphrey Bogart in Sabrina, to name just a few.

And I always felt that she helped to nurture my “feminine wiles” as they used to say. She spent a lot of time on herself, always making sure she looked her best. As a childless widow, I suppose you could argue that she had more time for self-care, and you’d be right. She didn’t have the distractions a mom might have when it came to taking care of herself. But whether she had an advantage or not, I still learned from her how to take care of myself and my environment — how to dress fashionably, no matter your age, how to put on makeup and nail polish, how to keep a neat and tidy home.

Also because she was both childless and a widow (who became one fairly young in life), she didn’t have any “immediate” heirs. So from the time I was a very little girl, she had always told me that she would be leaving her house to me when she passed on.

She stayed true to her word. When she became ill with breast cancer, she put the house in a trust for me, and when she died, I inherited it. It was an old-style Chicago bungalow built in the 1920s. I had grown up in a similar house. But by the time of her death, I was 38, divorced, and newly living out in the far suburbs. I had escaped the real estate bubble there that had grown so big in the city where I had lived that I couldn’t come close to buying a three-bedroom home there in the city. But the bubble had yet to reach its suburbs.

My initial plan was to sell Auntie’s house and use the funds to fully pay off my newly purchased townhouse. However, my mother — never the risk taker —  suddenly became one. “Why don’t you buy a real house — one with a yard for the kids?” she asked. Just the fact that she, my mother — the person who rarely took chances and seldom did anything outside of a 20-mile radius safety zone — suggested this, it did make me think twice.

I was 42 years old. I had yet to truly own a full-fledged “house.” Oh, I had owned a condo, and a storefront building with an apartment in the rear… But never a true house — never a single-family home. I realized… If I was ever going to own one, the time was NOW.

And so — I did! The year was 2005, and the prices of the real estate bubble by then had caught up to the suburbs where I lived. So I was definitely selling high — but I was buying high as well.

Still, I had bought my dream house. Two stories of livable space — 2,5400 square feet, with a full basement. There were four bedrooms, and two and a half baths. One of those was a master bath with a jetted tub as part of a suite. I invited a couple of my friends over to see it, and after seeing the master bedroom, one of my very best friends in the world turned to me and said, “I hate you.”

Of course, I wasn’t out to make anyone jealous… But I couldn’t help but be thrilled with what I had. My intention, as I said to my friend, was that it would be room enough to share! And share I did. For many years, my mother had always been the person who held Easter and Thanksgiving in her home. But she was getting older and suffering from COPD. I asked her to pass the holiday celebration baton to me, and surprisingly, she gave it up quite willingly. I think she was at the stage where, as much as I KNOW she enjoyed holding those parties — she was tired. She was ready to kick back and enjoy them, more fully, as a guest. She had a favorite saying: “Food always tastes better when someone else makes it.”

So I held holidays, MLM parties, parties for the hell of it. We had a sizable paver patio out back and a gas grill, along a nice amount of lawn to go along with it. I’d hold “patio parties” out on it for my family and friends. My mother and her sister Betty would make a beeline for that patio whenever they visited me during the summer months. My mother in particular loved gardens and enjoyed sitting outside amongst the trees and the flowers.

There was a time when a four bedroom house did seem a little extravagant for just me and my two kids… but that feeling didn’t last long.

First there was Steve. Steve entered into my life almost as quickly as the house did. I closed on the house in early July 2005. I had just returned from a trip to Greece with my then-boyfriend, John — a relationship of which I was still trying to fan the flames, but it was clearly ending. And that same week, into the office where I was freelancing walked Steve. (That’s a heck of a story, and you can read it by clicking HERE.)

We started dating and soon, Steve was spending every weekend with me. Only a year or so later — he moved in. He took one of the other three bedrooms, and I couldn’t help but think — Oh. THAT is what the fourth bedroom was supposed to be for…. Or at least, WHO it was for.

And then, just a year after Steve and I got married, my mother died. I invited my father, then in his late 80s, to move in with us. He couldn’t use the stairs, so I converted my living room into a bedroom for him.

I think back to our dinners together, and they’re good memories of all five of us sitting down to a meal I prepared for our now very full family. FIVE of us! Suddenly that house was just the right size… maybe even a bit tight. And again, I couldn’t help but think of something that Steve once said to me — “I believe everything happens for a reason.”

Of course, if you’ve read my introduction (the “START HERE” story), you know that Steve got sick with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. We moved Dad out of the house, and then Steve and I had to move out of the house, as Steve went into the hospital and then into an isolation period to recover from his transplant. And then Steve died. My daughter at that time was living with her then-boyfriend. Suddenly, in a house that at one time housed five people, now only two were left — my son and me.

I made a wise choice — I took my time to decide what was to be the next step. Dave Ramsey, the well-known financial guru, always says not to do anything while you’re deeply grieving. It’s good advice, and I took it.

Unfortunately, my husband was under-insured. That’s a bit of a long story, so again, I promise that you will be able to read more about that and the dangers of being under-insured (or totally without life insurance) very soon.

As such, I didn’t have enough money from Steve’s life insurance to pay off the house, and over time, the house’s mortgage and taxes would have bled me dry. However, I did have enough money to start over.

Having gone through a bankruptcy (you can read about that journey shortly as well), Steve and I had passed through the car and the house. I immediately paid off the car after his death. However, I couldn’t pay off the house. I tried to sell it — to no avail. To be honest, I felt that my agent did little to nothing to try to get that house sold, and it’s probably one of the reasons I became a real estate agent — a bit of a “I’ll show you how to sell a house” move. I was running out of money, and the house wasn’t moving. I talked to my bankruptcy lawyer for advice and he said, “It’s part of the bankruptcy. Walk away.”

And so I did. You’d think I’d be sad, and yes, to some degree I was. But it was no longer the dream. It had become the burden. It was too big. It was hard to keep up. It was a reminder of a life gone by. And so, you’d be surprised as I still sometimes am that leaving my dream house wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be.

It was time for a new chapter in my life — and it didn’t include that house. Or its mortgage. Or the nearly $12,000 in yearly real estate taxes (no lie — welcome to my state).

In “Part 2” of this article, I’ll tell you how I moved from a 2,800 sq ft single family home, to a 1,734 square foot townhouse. And I’m telling you — after nearly 20 years of accumulating stuff, it hasn’t been easy. Click HERE to read Part 2!