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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

Buying a home for the first time is a wonderful experience. From the viewing of properties (all of which were built with you in mind, at least according to the realtor), to the exhilaration when your bid is accepted, to the sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach when you sign over 30 years of your life to the bank …

My family went through it a few years ago, and looking back, I realize that we haven’t been the same since. If nothing else, we haven’t been able to look at houses that are up for sale the same way, since our own experience with buying a house opened our eyes to many aspects of home ownership that we didn’t know before.

Watch out for the lawn!

We were waiting for our real estate agent to appear one morning, when my husband said, “Let’s get a place with some land … you know, like an acre or so. It might be a little outside of town, but it will give the children plenty of space to play!” Here, I should mention that he is from a landowning family, and was born and bred on a coffee estate in Coorg, South India. I, on the other hand, come from a totally urban background and can’t sleep without light from a streetlamp on my eyelids. I imagined a house set in the midst of a snowy wilderness (since Montana has at least six months of winter) and thought of Steven King’s masterpiece The Shining.

Barely suppressing a shudder, I reminded him that we were not operating on Ted Turner’s budget, so a ranch was definitely out. As it turned out, an acre was out of our budget, too, thank goodness. Then we saw this house with a beautiful lawn, and the idea of a budget, any budget, flew out of my head. A lawn is irresistible to a city dweller since it is as rural as she wants to get, while still living close to a paved road.

“This lawn looks so good,” I gushed. “The kids can even play soccer on it!”

Gentlemen, be warned! Women may love the look of lawns, but will do nothing voluntarily towards its upkeep. Since we bought that house, I haven’t lifted a finger for its maintenance while my man hasn’t had a weekend to himself. Funny how a 20’ by 12’ stretch of prairie can dominate one’s life! That summer, for weeks on end, the lawn looked parched and balding, leading to evaluations and re-evaluations of the timing of the sprinkler system, the sprinkler heads themselves, and their areas of coverage. Then we had a couple of rains and all of a sudden, the grass was as tall as our younger daughter. The urban equivalent of haying, i.e. lawn-mowing, followed, and the yard looked like a piece of Ireland for a week, before going parched and bald again. When the first snows fell in the end of October, the family bill-payer-in-chief called me to where he was standing at the window.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” he smiled, pointing to the lawn which was fast turning into a snowfield, and enjoying the feeling of home ownership. I didn’t have the heart to remind him that he would now have to shovel the sidewalks.

Beware of “cute.”

I think that in every school of architecture, there is a department called “cute features,” because every home has to have at least one feature that makes prospective buyers go, “Oh, that’s so cute!” or “Isn’t that just darling?” Poor schmucks! If they had but a few moments of quiet meditation in a padded cell, they would realize that what they are oohing and aahing over is a future pain in the neck.

When we first looked at our house, we noticed the coat closet in a nook under the stairs. “How cute and how clever!” I marveled.

A year later, my daughters watched round-eyed as I struggled to come up with epithets appropriate for airing in front of the knee-nipper crowd. The silly nook took barely six coats and was totally useless for storing stuff because it was only a couple of feet deep. Since then, I have snarled every time a visitor marvels at the “cleverness” of the architects.

Our home also has sloping ceilings in the upstairs bedrooms, which were “so quaint” on day one and a pain on day 110. You can’t hang a ceiling fan on a low sloping ceiling, and summers have become tests of our endurances. Therefore, when a realtor says, “Look, isn’t that cute?” back away slowly and head straight for the nearest exit.

Reflect a little. 

This one is for the ladies, and nah, I’m not saying think twice before deciding you like a house.

I’m talking about mirrors. Now, every woman knows that in the world there are two kinds of mirrors: there are those that make you look good, and there are those that behave like clothing-store dressing-room mirrors. For some reason, dressing-room mirrors are made to highlight every flaw in your face and form. It is a ploy to make you buy more clothes to hide that body, and more make-up to cover that face. Now, do you really want such a mirror at home, one that tells the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help it, God? No way!

When it comes to my body, I don’t ever want to know the truth, since I definitely can’t handle it. I look at myself in the mirror every morning before I put my contact lenses in, and then avoid it for the rest of the day. Being severely myopic and somewhat astigmatic helps my self-esteem no end. There are two mirrors in our house that provide flattering reflections at a distance of three feet (again, this may due to the eye of the beholder, or the defects in the eye of the beholder, who would, of course, be me). We also have a dressing-room mirror clone in one of the bedrooms. Funny, how the light above that mirror always burns out in a day …

Exhaust your options.

I’m talking kitchen exhaust here. Desis have a tough time cooking Indian food since the yummy and appetizing flavors that are emitted while cooking tend to linger in a stale and repulsive form. I am blessed with a spouse who has an extraordinary nose when it comes to detecting food odors, and cursed with an inability to cook anything without making the house smell like an Indian restaurant that has no ventilation. This was barely tolerable when we rented; it became a huge liability after we moved into our first home.

One day, my husband came home from work and, as I watched fascinated, froze in the middle of the living room with his nose in the air like a well-trained pointer indicating the presence of sage grouse in the bush. Then he looked at me with reproach in his eyes.

“I told you to use the exhaust at the highest setting, didn’t I?” he asked, his very gentleness unmanning me. “Now the odor will sink into the carpet, seep into the walls and penetrate the ceiling, and we will be stuck with this house until even the bank doesn’t want it.” The lesson? Buy a house with a kitchen exhaust system that will qualify for an EPA or OSHA clean air certificate, or do what I do: cook with minimum amount of spices while you are at home, and gorge yourself on really spicy, deep-fried food when you eat out at Indian restaurants or go to India.

There is always more storage space … in your neighbor’s house.

When we first entered our new home, it seemed spacious after our cramped rental apartment. But once we spread out our earthly possessions, one thing became very apparent: there was no storage space. Despite piling stuff up, and lining the walls of a two-car garage, we found ourselves sharing living space with an odd suitcase or box of photo albums. Then we visited our neighbor.

“You mean you have an attic over your entire garage?” I asked, feeling white-hot envy ignite in the pit of my stomach.

“Yes,” admitted the woman. “But this is nothing. In a house two blocks away, they have made a room above their garage, and used the extra space to build huge closets! And in a house on the next street, there is an actual store room with efficient shelving and everything.” There was a wobble in her voice, and her husband looked hollowly up at the attic which seemed to suddenly shrink to the size of our nook-closet-under-the-stairs.

When we got back home, my husband broke the heavy silence. “Well, it is good to know that we are not the only ones suffering from poor storage space,” he said with false heartiness.

I eyed him with a bleak look in my eyes. “I suppose it is good to know that we have the least storage space in the entire subdivision.” I held up my hand when he would have objected to my hyperbole. “Do you think you are up to finding out for sure?” You could have heard a pin drop on the carpeted floor after that.

Of course, there are several other common sense points when it comes to choosing your first house. For instance, ladies, if your man loves power tools, don’t buy a fixer-upper. He’ll try to do the work himself, and in the process, injure himself and ruin the investment—the house itself. On the other hand, if your husband doesn’t particularly like working with his hands, and/or you don’t particularly like your husband, you want to get just such a house, for he will either hire someone to do the work, or he will leave, either of which would be a favorable outcome for you. And beware of anything that is hidden—like a crawl space, the basement, or roof—for it may have a weird history like flooding or mold. You may think that the roof is out in the open, but how many of us know what is really up there, hmm?

Above all, try to remain strong psychologically in the face of the fact that you are only a co-owner of the house, with the bank or mortgage company owning a very large part of it. This truth was brought home forcibly to me when my husband reduced my six-year-old daughter to tears by asking her to define the word “owned” when she asked him if we owned the house.

Nevertheless, in spite of all the attendant problems, getting into your very first home is a wonderful experience, and I wish you all, all the best. I shall end with an ancient blessing … or a blessing that will be ancient once a decent number of years pass.

May your laundry basket and kitchen sink always be empty, and your pantry shelf always be full. May all the fungi, weeds, and rodents in your yard perish, and all the things that would cost a ton of money to replace, flourish. May your mortgage interest rates decrease, and your equity increase. Happy house hunting!

Lakshmi Palecanda is a biology research technician turned freelance writer in Bozeman, Montana. Email: palecanda [at] msn [dot] com

Lakshmi worked for ten years in scientific research before becoming a freelance writer. She contributes regularly to publications in India and abroad. Lakshmi is an award winning short story writer who...