When I Realized I Couldn't Afford My Dream Home, I Found Another Way

It all started with a crazy idea...
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A few years ago, Jonah made a comment on a blog post that literally changed the course of our lives. An article on Eater advertised a sweepstakes to Portland, Oregon: All you had to do to enter for a chance to win a flight for two, including accommodations and tickets to the city's annual Feast food festival, was comment with your favorite thing about Portland. There were only three existing comments, so Jonah wrote, "No idea. I've never been!" Two weeks later, after ample warnings from our parents that it had to be a scam, we boarded a flight from New York to Portland. Spoiler alert: It was not a scam, and "won a sweepstakes" remains my favorite fun fact about Jonah.

The city was love at first sight (bite?) for both of us. We ate too many good meals to count, went on a winding half-day hike through Forest Park, visited the rose gardens, and ate all of the donuts. It felt like the perfect mix of city-meets-nature that we each cherished growing up with. By the end of the trip, we both felt certain we'd end-up there someday.

Since that initial trip, we've returned to Portland several times to visit friends, and the more time we spend there, the more we love it. There was always one neighborhood in particular I had my eye on: a residential district outside of the city, tucked into nature but still a relatively short drive from restaurants and city life. But there was one, or rather several hundred thousand, major problems with it. Homes there aren't nearly as expensive as they are in Los Angeles, but still hover very close to the high-end of our house budget. Despite Jonah and my careful dedication to saving for a home, we feared that by the time we moved there, in five to ten years, even the relatively affordable options would be well beyond our spending capacity. 

Blame it on Jonah and my Extraordinary Homes addiction, the fact that I couldn't get this years-old Instagram out of my head, or that I recently discovered gestalten's design books, but we suddenly got a crazy idea last year: What if we set our sights on buying land instead of a house? The more we talked about it, the less insane it began to sound. While raw land in a big city is still more expensive than land outside of one, it goes without saying that it's still significantly more affordable than purchasing a home. And though construction costs go up with time, they don't rise nearly as quickly or as exponentially as the cost of a house does (especially in a fast-growing city like Portland). Buying land now would secure us a side-door entrance into a neighborhood we may not be able to gain entrance into, by the time we've saved up enough for an entire house's down payment. Plus, we had the major advantage that we'd started saving early—and feel confident about where we see ourselves in ten years (for better or worse, I'm an obsessive planner and have rubbed off on Jonah). After landing on the idea, if you will, we sat on it for years. 

Inspiration images of the home we hope to someday approximate. (Left image via Home Locale Magazine, Right image via Casa Tres Chic)

Inspiration images of the home we hope to someday approximate. (Left image via Home Locale Magazine, Right image via Casa Tres Chic)

And then, in the fall of last year, Jonah sent me a listing on Zillow. It was for a plot of land exactly in the neighborhood outside of town I'd fallen in love with four years ago, at a price we could afford with a modest loan. Neither of us had any idea what we were doing, so we started with the basics: We contacted the land broker Zillow recommended. Since we already had a trip scheduled to visit Portland, we emailed architects whose work we love in the area, and arranged to meet with one at the land, then later met with brokers they recommended. The more experts we talked to, the better a grasp we got on the process, and we began to chip away at what once felt insurmountable. 

In a surprise coincidence, one of my best friends from college, an amazingly talented architect who works primarily with recycled, eco-friendly materials, was also in town that weekend. It was probably her vision that sealed the deal for us. She envisioned a home that incorporates the land's features, its steep hillside and ample trees, to create a high-ceilinged indoor-outdoor living area and kitchen, and tucked-away bedrooms with windows that let in the verdant greenery.

Our friend Mayrah, an architect, sharing her vision with us

Our friend Mayrah, an architect, sharing her vision with us

Little did we know: Deciding to purchase the land was only the beginning. After putting in an offer below asking price, we received a counter offer, which we declined. Days later, after meeting with a bank in Oregon that offers long-term land loans with a fixed interest rate (a rarity, we learned), crunching numbers, and speaking ad nauseum with an incredibly patient financial advisor we found, we decided to accept their counter offer and buy. That's when the geotechnical reports, easement and environmental restrictions, and all sorts of land jargon began flooding in for us to review. We spoke with more "officers" than I even knew existed—a title officer, loan officer, geotechnical officer. Finally, the day came for us to sign and, before heading to work one day we had arguably our most productive morning ever: We became co-land-owners.

Now, all that's left is an exercise in patience. We aren't nearly done with our time in L.A.—our friends here are like family, and we both love our jobs and the life we've created here. We're in no rush. And then there's the twenty-year land loan we hope to pay-off in five so we can refocus our attention towards saving for construction (and avoid paying as much interest as possible). It's a lot more difficult than buying a house outright—but also less expensive, and gives me peace of mind, not to mention a lot more time to work on my Pinterest board while we enjoy our lives here with an eye on the future.

Did you build your own house? Are you considering it? I'd love to hear all about it in the comments!

And would you like to hear more about our house journey and decision? Let me know!

P.S., Read about the 12 tips I use for saving, and how I still save for trips here