Pointe Parkway begins with a big switchback off Jamacha Boulevard and climbs up a foothill on the outskirts of Spring Valley, east of San Diego. The grade exceeds 12 percent. The bulky stucco houses with two or three garages and four or five bedrooms sit tight to one another along a road draped over the mountain’s contour. A real estate agent would describe them as a string of pearls. Others might describe them as a noose.
Michelle Cazalas is a single, midwestern transplant with an easy smile. She owns a spacious house near the crest of Pointe Parkway. When I first asked Michelle ‘How will we live tomorrow?’ She laughed and said, “I want to have a good time.” But the more we talked, the more strained her smile became.
Michelle is a physical therapist who’s made a series of investments geared toward a secure retirement. She purchased her house, “because owning a house is a good investment”. She also purchased a PT practice. At age sixty Michelle is working more than ever, though doing less of the physical therapy she enjoys. She has a mortgage, rent on her clinic, and a staff to support. During dinner, Michelle took several business calls. After I went to bed, she settled into a stack of paperwork.
Owning a home can stabilize the cost of retirement. If you purchase a home during working years and pay off the mortgage, your retirement cost of living declines. But real estate agents, banks, and home goods retailers don’t make much money off of people who buy a modest home and stay put. They promote the idea that buying an ever larger home will result in ever-larger gains. This is false. The push to buy a larger house actually works against ever owning outright. Instead of paying off debt, we trade up, take on a bigger mortgage, and owe more. Over time, home ownership offers lower returns than stocks. And that calculation doesn’t factor in the cost of furnishing a house, or the ongoing expense of utilities and maintenance.
Michelle reminisces about her longest adventure. “I backpacked in Europe for five weeks. When on tour, your life is simple. You get grounded to the earth. You get back and the world is ugly.” There is something wrong in a society where an accomplished middle-aged woman is so burdened by obligations the vast majority of her life has a bitter taste.
I hope that I caught Michelle on a bad night; she is too solid a citizen to be so bleak. I hope she sometimes enjoys her beautiful home and lovely things. She is tied to them for the long haul. Like many, Michelle’s keen to her home’s current value, and so far her investment hasn’t paid off.
Perhaps Michelle could be more content with a modest, less costly home. Unfortunately, she’s not going to find much support for that way of living in a society obsessed with always buying bigger, always buying more.
How will we live tomorrow?