Desert Companion

Last Notes from Home


Illustration by Delphine Lee

TR Witcher1. Honestly, it was all a blur, buying the house. I was a bachelor then — early thirties, a strange time to settle down. Strange place. On the far southwestern edge of town, way out by Blue Diamond, up against the desert hills, before the gas stations and other developments showed up. Not a lot of trees. But an easy walk out of the neighborhood and up the hills for sweeping views of the entire Las Vegas Valley. I’d often walk behind the elementary school and flood-detention basin — looking like the amphitheater of some ancient society, relic’d by time — and feel I’d walked out of the city altogether.

I figured I’d hold onto the house for a few years and sell it and be on my way to the Next Big Thing. Of course, I bought the home in 2007 and should have known better. The world was sort of ending that year, but I wasn’t paying attention to the signs. After all, the builder was offering lots of free upgrades. They enticed me with hardwood floors — small consolation, I suppose, for buying in the city hit hardest by the worst economy in decades.

So what should have felt like a badge of honor, owning a home, being a real grownup, became instead a mark of shame. For years I would tell you, quite soberly, that the home was a mistake, a bad investment, the cause of all the ways my life and career felt like they were grinding to a halt. The house was a source of despair — a financial anvil I’d never be able to pull myself out from under.

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2. The economy has recovered, and I got married. One of the domestic rituals young couples enact is planning for the next house, the syncing up of sensibilities about a house — location, amenities, interior decor. I don’t think Nicole will ever be fully at home until the next house, which will be truly “our” house, the first house we buy together.

Still, she’s definitely improved the place in every way. And there is a pleasure in dreaming about houses. The ritual of the model home tour. The home television shows. The endless scouting of houses on Redfin (me) and Sotheby’s (her; I’m hoping she’s soon to reveal some heiress fortune). There’s the fine-grained parsing of tiles and floors and fixtures. There’s the calibration of our fantasies of getting some fixer-upper Downtown — how hipster are we, willing to knock down walls and have a grand DIY time of it? Or how bougie are we, like, nah, I don’t really wanna do that much work?

What do we need? What do we want? For Nicole, a pool and a fireplace. For me, a two-car garage (we’ve been living in one-car-garage land for a decade), and a backyard with a few tall trees. Bungalows, townhomes, lofts. Sure. We find ourselves wishing that the center of Las Vegas looked and felt a bit more like the center of Albuquerque (or Boulder City, for that matter). More trees, more consistently beautiful homes. Then again, Las Vegas, with its youth and creativity and vast parcels of empty desert, still feels like a place where a 21st century urbanism could take hold. Wouldn’t want to miss that.


3. In the last few years the house, propelled by strong appreciation in Vegas, became worth a tiny bit more than what I paid for it. Right side up, at last. But still dripping wet from being underwater. Not a lot of room to move on up, but as wages fail to keep up with living costs, I imagine what I would do if I’d turned down home ownership in 2007. Maybe I’d have saved enough to buy something good now. Maybe not.

Now that the economy has picked up, maybe it’s time to move. My neighborhood feels almost entirely unchanged. They put in a light, a blinking stop sign. At the corner of the turn-in there’s now a gas station, a PT’s Gold, a tiny strip mall. There are homes directly behind us now, which is a drag because you used to get the best “alpenglow” sunsets looking east across the valley toward the Frenchman Mountains. They put in Wet’n’Wild down the street. The foreclosure signs are all gone. I still don’t really know my neighbors, who seem to come and go without much notice. But the quiet rhythms of the place, the commute, the sparse trees, these feel unchanged.

It’s time to do something. But maybe too soon to sell the house. We still have room to grow. And to go where? Another tract home on the edge of town? Maybe, if it had a pool, I guess. Which is unlikely in our price bracket. Downtown? Not exactly walkable, either.

I refi’d the house once, in 2010. Now Nicole and I are on the verge of doing it again. But what’s the amortization? How much of the new note goes to principal versus the existing? How much will we save per month? It seems like it might add up — provided we don’t keep the house forever. Provided there aren’t too many hidden strings. Provided I don’t mess up again.


4. A woman came to appraise the home a few weeks ago. She took pictures, asked if I’d made any changes. I proudly pointed to the kitchen backsplash tile and the new, twisty, matte-black cabinet pulls. There were new solar panels. She took some pictures, and I asked if she had any advice about what I could do to increase the value of the home. How about that second sink in the master bath? She had the look of someone who is asked that question a lot. The answer? Not much. Mostly it’s the condition of the house and what others in the neighborhood have already gone for.

You can’t really do too much in a tract home — golden toilets in a tract home don’t add much to the bottom line.

“I hope that was helpful,” she said.   

“Not really,” I replied. “But I appreciate your candor.”


5. There’s shame in having a house underwater, of course — the shame of feeling you got duped, that you weren’t smart enough to recognize the shit storm on the horizon.

But there’s pride, too, if you hold on. I got laid off in the nadir of the recession. Somehow, the bill got paid.


6. My wife and I share a trait in common with many Gen Xers and Millennials (we’re both children of the ’70s): Our education and tastes tend to outstrip our budget. This is a drag, of course, because there’s some ideal of adulthood we’re all chasing wherein our tastes in architecture and plates and sheets and speakers and clothes and furniture and books and music are all actualized somewhere, in some perfectly lovely little vintage-y home. (Not only that, our tastes are inevitably presumed to have an almost moral dimension — this or that product is proof of your commitment to sustainability, or fair trade, or livable wages.)

Consumerism is seductive. We all know we should be cutting back on buying material stuff, to save the planet, to save our souls. But it always feels like you get stuck in a trap — you can escape the grip of materialism only by consuming the right things. Get the right sustainable this or eco-friendly that or high-quality, built-to-last good, whether it’s a suitcase or a sofa, a bike or a TV, and then you can break the cycle and go full Buddhist monk ’til you die. I have deep-seated fantasies about acquiring the means to set up a home, a lifestyle, a collection of books, just so — and then stopping. You know, retiring from it all.

Having a house underwater slows those dreams. It’s more about holding on to what you have. Don’t worry about what you don’t. But it’s hard to ever fully resist those dreams.


7. My ambivalence about my home has softened — thanks in part to its modestly improved value and, moreover, to Nicole. We dream of some crib that’s sexier and more vintage and more this or that. But this home, our home, has always been fine, not too many nicks and dents, so to speak. It’s done what homes are supposed to do — it’s sheltered us and sheltered our hopes and dreams for a better future and a better world. My strong feeling that buying my house was a terrible mistake that (if I’m feeling really down) I can blame on all sorts of other developments in my life that I might wish for a do-over on … has been tempered. Hell, if not for the house I might have left Las Vegas years ago and never met my wife. Shit happens. Count your blessings. Own your choices and so forth. Live to fight/hope/dream/survive another day. Maybe that’s the best one can do. Life goes on.


8. There’s room to grow in Las Vegas — look at a Google Maps aerial of the city, and you’ll see plenty of empty desert even before you hit the hills — but city and county leaders need to actively plan for more people. Dedicated, buffered bike lanes. More HOV lanes. Some kind of transit system to get people into the core and move them around. We’re a car city, and probably always will be, but the airport, Strip, university, convention center, Downtown, and medical campus — all of the drivers of the valley’s economic, political, and cultural life — are, basically, adjacent to one other, a spatial alignment every other city in the country would kill for. We need to take better advantage of that.

As we said at the outset of this series of stories, living smaller, living denser, co-living, and rediscovering the center of the city may be a path forward. Cashman. Downtown. The West Side. Aging shopping centers along Jones or at Sahara and Decatur. City and county planners have an opportunity to plan for a densified 215 corridor — and not just apartments, which developers are obviously building in greater numbers, but mixed-use districts of varying sizes where people could live and walk. We need to build more — not only to house the homeless or the housing insecure, but to continue to fulfill the promise this city of glamour and decadence has always made to its residents: There’s a place here that you can afford. But we have to build smarter. The mountains that ring the valley are a blessing. They’ll make sure we can’t sprawl too far. The Strip is a blessing, too — we have a legitimate, if unorthodox, center unlike any other city’s. Now it’s up to us to artfully fill in the plentiful space between.

We need to demand more from city planners and developers and builders and architects. I always get a thrill when I look through the tiny solar house that UNLV students built at the Springs Preserve. That was six years ago. I don’t need to see another Blue Heron contemporary Jenga house. Give us something smaller, more affordable, more sustainable. Make it a bit easier for us to know our neighbors.


9. The refi might not work out. We’re expecting to pay a bit more than our initial quote — that damned appraisal came back a little too low. You expect a bit of bait-and-switch. We’ll see what the final number is in a few weeks.

So, the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t cooler home in a cooler ’hood (or maybe just a cooler city). It’s paying a little less each month to keep my existing home.

Progress is the great theme of home ownership: You build up a little equity, the house appreciates, and you plow the winnings into a larger/better home as your family grows or your needs change. For me, progress is simply that I could afford to buy my house again, only at a slightly better price. But now, the house at least is a real home.

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