Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Home and Place: In Search of a Home

How we come to decide where to live, and how to live is undoubtedly a process.  Engaging in all aspects of buying a home - from the dwelling to location, along with space and function, not to mention lifestyle, can be painstaking after the excitement of looking wears off.  I love how Donna describes her search for a home and how she had to counter some commonly held beliefs.  Her experiences remind me that the process is an integral part of telling our stories about home and place.  Enjoy this great piece!  

"Right, but you won't want to live in a condo since you have kids." We heard this advice tens of times over the past two years, from friends, our realtor and acquaintances.

When Abe and I were newly married, we lived on the first floor of a small row house in Washington DC.  We loved living in the city where we could walk to everything.  When we decided to have kids and move from DC to Wisconsin, we predictably bought a small house in a family friendly neighborhood.  We assumed we should upgrade to a McMansion once the second child came along, and so that is what we did.  Almost immediately I felt isolated.  As a part-time stay-at-home mom, I craved interaction with other adults, but businesses and parks (aside from one park in our subdivision) were inaccessibly by foot.  I had to drive everywhere, and drive more than 30 minutes to get most places.

Then, we dealt with home ownership issues we weren't supposed to have with a new house: a flood, a leaky roof, and constant mowing and weeding 11,000 square feet of lawn.  We were one of three families in the 170 house subdivision that didn't use pesticides on the lawn.  We put that house on the market within six months.  When it finally sold four years later, we decided to do what we should have done four and a half years earlier: rent an apartment, take our time and carefully think about what we wanted in a home.

We ended up in a 755 square foot apartment about two miles from downtown Madison. The apartment was small for four people, but the location was a great match for our lifestyle.  Both Abe and I worked downtown, so it was a much faster and cheaper commute, and it was also an easy drive to both the east and west sides of town.  In addition, since I didn't have to spend all of my time weeding, cleaning or driving, I started to work on my own personal enrichment that I had neglected for the past seven years.  I took guitar lessons and Spanish, and I learned to knit.  On my days off the kids and I walked to the zoo, the pool and the arboretum.

We lived in that apartment for two years.  When we started searching for our permanent home, we tried to open our minds to many types of residences.  We looked at houses, condos, cohousing and apartments, but the one thing we agreed on this time was the location.  We wanted to live near work, the kids' schools, the library, pool, parks, lakes and restaurants.  Downtown houses were beautiful, old and cozy.  I loved that they were closer together than the suburban house we finally sold.  We didn't aggressively explore condos at this point because of the underlying belief we still had that kids needed a house.  After seeing most of the housing on the market in that two year period, we made five offers - all of them on houses.  We were outbid on all five.  Reality hit - downtown houses were beautiful, old, cozy and expensive!  This was the turning point in our decision making process when we started to challenge our assumptions.  We were content living with less in the apartment and we didn't miss the house like we imagined we would.  Maybe home didn't mean a house for us?

That was when we started seriously considering living in a condo.  We always liked the concept of a condominium, but we were hesitant about rules, fees - the unknown!  The idea of reducing our carbon footprint was appealing too (not to mention 1,700 square feet of unnecessary stuff), but we wondered if we would be sacrificing privacy and independence.  Plus there were the constant reminders from friends - kids can't live in a condo.  Kids need space to run around.  They need a yard.  There won't be any other kids around.

The condos we looked at in the beginning weren't a good match for our family either.  All of them were in terrific locations, but many of them had too many units, were sterile or had no green space.  Still, we kept looking at both houses and condos and didn't ever consider compromising on our ideal location since we were content staying in the small apartment another year.  In May, two years after we moved into the apartment, we found the perfect home - and it was a condo.  It has a beautiful shared courtyard and an herb garden, and yes - a family upstairs with kids the same age (and a few younger kids too)!  There are restaurants and parks two blocks away, a bike path right outside our door, an effective owner run association, a friendly and diverse group of neighbors, and, it ended up being the exact right combination of community and privacy.

For us, much of the initial decision was practical.  We didn't want to do lots of lawn care, we liked the location and we liked the economies of scale realized by the condo association.  However, after living in our new home for over a month we've also come to love the sense of community and friendship that make this a home.

Donna is a mom in Madison, Wisconsin who also works as a health care policy analyst at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.  She enjoys running, spinning, spending time with family and friends, learning all kinds of new things and meeting new people.  Donna is married to Abe and is mom to Ari and Ilan.  


  1. Good choice. We moved to a condo downtown with our 8th grader and our 12th grader. Previously, we'd lived on a lake in the rural township of Dunn for 21 years. What were we thinking? -- I wasn't unhappy there but I love downtown living much more than the Wisconsin dream of a home on a lake. I drive 10,000 miles a year less than when we lived in Dunn. I still have a great, expansive view of the lake and can go there to skate, our favorite lakefront activity. I walk and bike everywhere except the climbing gym and a weekly trip to the grocery store (6 or 7 bags), though I could have those delivered and sometimes do if I shop on my bike. The farmers market is at my doorstep twice a week. I am delighted with my smaller carbon footprint. I volunteer at locations within walking distance. All my errands can be done on foot/bike. I joined a rowing club a few blocks away from home and I'm on the water several times a week, way more often than when I lived in the country right on a lake. I don't miss putting the dock in and out, yard work, cleaning the gutters, window washing, exterior repairs and maintenance of all kinds. The kids didn't thank us for moving them as teens, but once we moved, our condo was the hub of their social life. 13-16 year olds loved to come downtown, mess around in town until the coffee shops closed, then hang out on the balcony or in our open concept living room until the wee hours of the morning. It was way more interesting for them than hanging out in the country or the suburbs. They could run their own errands on foot or bike, get to their lessons, the dentist, run out and get school supplies on their own. The first night we lived in the condo the two of them walked to see Miss Saigon and walked home at 10:30 at night. Couldn't do that in Dunn. I had to drive them everywhere, to every single play date, early meeting at school, lesson -- everything. Sometimes I'd drive into Madison three times a day. I enjoyed our years on the lake, the best thing being the kids could play outside on their own and I could see them from the house. I could see the stars when I stepped outside at night (we did have a great hot tub I used nightly). I can't see starts in the city. I think the biggest drawback to raising kids in a condo would be having to supervise them outside every single time they went out for all those years as children. It was fantastic for them to muck about on the lakeshore in the summer, and sled in our yard and build snow forts and play spud and go swimming, build forts in the bushes. I miss having a bird feeder (not possible on a balcony because of the droppings on balconies below) But had I been in a condo I could have adjusted like Vera and Brad have. There are bound to be some trade-offs. Good for you for finding a location that suits your values and lifestyle. Welcome to the neighborhood!

  2. Thanks Annie! BTW, another thing I want to do now that I have more time is learn how to climb. I wasn't able to make your 101 class this week and next week work, but Vera assures me you are the best, so I am going to sign up for one of your classes in the next few months!

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Contact me Donna. We can actually schedule a class that suits your schedule. Then we only need one other person for it to run. (My class this wk thru next was cancelled by the way, because of having only one student)