The year was 2008. I was 25, pregnant with twins, and very much in love. And we had just hit the quintessential American rite of passage: We bought our first home.
The large, open floor plan beckoned us. Before the ink was dry, we’d bought a lawnmower, buckets of paint, and some new appliances. We were all in. We wanted to get as much done as we could before the babies came.
A month later, my husband brought home a pink slip and the housing market died a fiery death — both results of the economic crash.
Overnight, instead of a homeowner’s blissful daydream, the house became a nightmare we couldn’t afford. We’d purchased the house for $240,000. Just weeks later, it was worth less than $150,000. Our mortgage stood at $1,200 a month, plus utilities, taxes, insurance, and everything that goes with the American Dream.
And before we could even process all this (and figure out how to move forward on my meager $40,000 salary), the twins came early. We found ourselves trapped in a hospital for 10 days while my tiny babies struggled to live and get bigger. In just two months, we’d gone from two people on the brink of traditional adult life to four people unable to afford the most basic necessities.
We struggled to feed our children and make ends meet, delving into our savings to cover the mortgage and other bills until that was totally depleted. Then we moved on to the life-saving state and federal programs available to people who have fallen on hard times.
And then things got worse. Our beautiful new-to-us home in Connecticut, built in 1987, needed more than updated cabinets. We found out the hard way.
One freezing day in late October, when my babies were just two months old, our furnace broke. No warning. It just stopped. Nothing cements the fear of poverty and the shame of helplessness like looking at your two newborn children swaddled in six layers crying in the cold of your home.
We paid for a new furnace, having no other choice — the cheapest on the market. Then another thing broke, and another. We patched and fretted and waited, filling out our sentence in that now dreary and dismal house until my husband found work again. A full two years later.
With nothing left, we moved across the country, rented a condo for the cheapest price we could find, and tried to start a new life. The house remained. We tried to rent it, but being so far away made closing a deal difficult. When we finally found tenants, it wasn’t enough to cover our costs. We still had to pay $300 a month on the mortgage for at least a year after moving out. Then the tenants left and we were back at square one.
We tried to sell it, but no luck. The economy hadn’t improved enough to get even half of what we paid for it. By the grace of the universe, we managed to get the bank to give us a deed in lieu of foreclosure, and we simply walked away. All that time, sweat, and money wasted, and we got off lucky. Because of the emergency programs in place at the time, our credit was ruined only for a few years and we never had to declare bankruptcy.
And I felt free. We could finally start to live a new dream. One not cemented to a wooden box on a patchy lawn with unforgiving and grueling maintenance issues.
It’s been six years. Our credit is clear. We’re renting a house, but soon the rent will go up to an amount we can’t afford. My husband suggested we buy another house so as not to throw our money away. But I’m still suffering from the trauma and extreme stress of it all. I’m still suffering from that old American Dream.
Darlena Cunha is a former television producer turned freelance journalist. She writes for TIME Magazine, The Washington Post, The Atlantic and The Gainesville Sun, among others. You can find her on Twitter: @parentwin.
This piece first ran on DailyWorth on March 23, 2015