Before I start, I must let you know that what I will be discussing will be broad enough to cover two separate posts, this one and the one to follow. With that said let me start:
I may have obliquely discussed this subject in the past but this time around I want to go into it a little further. If you haven’t guessed already from the title, the subject matter is, well, having a place to call home. And this is the place where I currently call home:
This is the apartment building on Madison’s west side where I have lived since… oh, wow, it’ll be coming up on 9 years this spring! Truth be told, this photo is not very recent; it’s several years old, in fact, especially considering that you don’t see snow on the ground and you do see leaves on the trees (oh, and the fact that the tree on the far left has since been cut down). Still, this perfectly shows the place where I come home to every night.
Do the math and you’ll discover this isn’t my first apartment here in the Madison area (9 years and 14 years aren’t the same amount). When I moved here in 2002, my first actual apartment was a small 1-bedroom unit on Madison’s south side, located just to the south of the Beltline Highway. An advantage that apartment did have — perhaps the only advantage it had when I look back on it — was that it was available when I needed it (my job hunt success and move to Madison occurred on rather short notice). What it didn’t have, however, was a lot of pleasing aesthetics: The space was tight and cramped. I had to put my dining room table in the corner of the living room (there was no separate dining space). The carpeting kept bulging up (it wasn’t laid down properly before I moved in). The bedroom lighting was nonexistent, meaning one of my first investments after moving in was buying one of those floor-to-ceiling lamps. And the walls were thin, a fact made all the more obvious whenever I heard the neighbors’ loud music and arguments.
Oh, and the place had electric heat that not only wasn’t included with the rent, it was totally unreliable. Oh, it generated heat for sure, but there was no reliable way to regulate that heat. I quickly discovered my first autumn in there that it was best to turn the heat off completely before I went to work, lest I leave it on while away and come home afterward to a place that’s hotter than Arizona in the summertime, not to mention getting hit with an electric bill that would skyrocket when winter’s chill settled in. Yes, I did bring it up with building management, and one Saturday afternoon they sent a guy over to take a look at it, but the only thing he did was point to the setting knob and say, “Well, that’s the reason it’s not working for you: You have it turned off.” [Insert facepalm here]
Yes, that’s how it went with the first place I called home here in Madison. Needless to say, I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. So, after just under two years living there, I found a slightly bigger, slightly nicer place in the suburb of Middleton. That new place wasn’t perfect; for one, despite being slightly bigger than my old place, it didn’t have basement storage, which is needed for when you have a lot of stuff you don’t want to keep upstairs (like, say, a Christmas tree). But at least it did have a dining area (so that I didn’t have to eat dinner in the living room) along with slightly bigger closet space. Oh, and heat was manageable (and reliable!) and included with the rent.
Two other bonuses about that Middleton apartment. Well, three actually: The apartment was much closer to my place of employment than my south side apartment, which meant for a shorter drive to work, or an easier bus ride if I wanted to give my car a rest. Plus, the complex had an outdoor swimming pool that was open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, perfect for when you wanted to cool off on a hot summer day.
That third bonus about the apartment is an interesting story, one I discovered by accident: This complex had a unique coin-op laundry setup; instead of quarters, each machine took our money from cards with magnetic spots similar to what you find on new credit cards these days (in reality, these were old key cards that some hotel didn’t need any longer). The residents added money to the cards by inserting the card and paper money (maximum $50) into an ATM-like machine just outside of the leasing office. Needing to put more money on that card, I stopped by the machine one day with a couple of $10 bills in my hand. Perhaps I was a little too quick with inserting the money, for after inserting one sawbuck, I attempted to insert the other in quick succession. The machine rejected the first bill so suddenly that I quickly removed the card (“Well, okay, if you’re gonna misbehave…”). That was a significant move, for when I reinserted the card to try again, the machine showed the amount I had just tried to add. Why did it read the card wrong, you ask? The machine didn’t get to erase from the card the amount I had inserted. So, the washers and dryers were taking money from my card (about $.50 or $.75 a run) that wasn’t actually on my card. Of course, being the laundry money miser that I am (I save every quarter I can), I kept up this practice after discovering it, for it enabled me to do laundry for free! Jack Benny would be so envious.
Neither of those apartments really felt like home to me, to be honest. I think I was attracted more to the relatively low monthly rent they charged, being influenced by the low rent charged for a lot of the apartments in the Green Bay area, which is where I lived before moving to Madison. Property values in Madison and Dane County are pretty expensive, meaning that if you want a decent apartment in this area, you have to shell out a very pretty penny, even if it’s a 1-bedroom place. But as the saying goes, you get what you pay for, and what I was paying for in rent were places that were, looking back on it, cheaply constructed and… well, I hate to broach this subject, but they were in neighborhoods that were not the greatest. Yeah, a police cruiser or two was a common sight in these neighborhoods, although to their credit, they have gotten a little nicer and more livable in recent years.
Nine years ago, with a car loan finally paid off (meaning more breathing room in my bank account), I decided to start looking for an apartment that was nicer though more expensive. Luckily, an online “For Sale/To Buy” message board at work advertised a nice looking, reasonably priced (under $700/month at the time) 2-bedroom apartment on the west side of Madison. The employee who posted the notice and his family were in the process of moving out, and one afternoon after work they showed me the apartment. I immediately fell in love with the place, set forth on drawing up a lease, and took the keys and started moving in on the first day of May 2007. It’s the place I call home today and the place you see in the above photo.
Why do I like this apartment, you ask? Well, it has ample storage space downstairs, perfect for a Christmas tree, fan, extra boxes, etc. It has a cozy little dining area, perfectly capped off by a circular dining table I bought after moving in. It has a garage (okay, it’s a carport with garage doors attached, but you get the idea). Oh, and did I say it has two bedrooms? That’s perfect for not only my computer desk (somewhat expendable at the moment because of my laptop) but also for Allison’s wardrobe. Yes, by the time I moved in here, my my feminine attire grew big enough to deserve its own space. Sure, it has to share a little bit of space with my casual male attire, but it’s a great feeling to know that my feminine attire has much more room to breathe.
If you’ve been following my Twitter account long enough, you may remember that I’ve given 140-character-friendly nicknames for the landlords who have owned my apartment building. Since I moved into this place 9 years ago, I’ve had 3 landlords. The first such landlord sold the property a couple of years after I moved in to a gentleman who, whenever I encountered him, always seemed respectable and honest to the tenants who lived here. He always listened to our concerns and did his best to resolve any problems we may have had. It’s why I referred to him on Twitter as “Mr. Landlord.” To wit:
About a year and a half ago, however, I tweeted this:
Owning properties is a game of buying and selling, and Mr. Landlord decided to sell our property to another ownership entity willing to buy it. The new owners (and my current landlords) were a faceless entity at the outset, communicating with us only through
grunting and jerky movements notes taped to our front doors.
As you can tell from the above tweets, I had a Twitter-friendly nickname all picked out for them: “It.” Not because Stephen King novels creep me out but because they had a not-very-personable name (it incorporates the word “family,” for the record) and had a mailing address not in Madison but in a teeny, tiny burg in northern Dane County. My first face-to-face contact with them was with a manager who stops by every now and again to check up on the building, mow the lawn, etc. But she’s only the manager. The first direct contact with the actual ownership occurred on Super Bowl Sunday 2015, when, rather than having her mind on the Patriots and Seahawks, she called me up and asked whether or not I was interested in staying in the place past my lease’s expiration on April 30. Yes, I told her.
But what really freaked me out was not that she called me up on the day of the Super Bowl, when one’s mind usually isn’t on lease agreements. The lady on the other end of that phone call sounded snooty, condescending… and quite, quite creepy. Which led me to a change in nickname:
It also led me to start thinking about something I didn’t have to think about for 8 years: Look for a new apartment. The lease that “Creepy” sent to me three weeks after her call (what took her so long?) included a monthly rent in the amount of… $785/month! While you may think that amount’s not too bad, and it is reasonable compared to a lot of other apartments here in Madison, that $35/month increase (from $750/month) was a big jump from the very reasonable $10/month rent increases I had seen in prior lease agreements from Mr. Landlord and the landlord before him. What’s more, some of the other apartments with cheaper rent I saw before signing and sending back that lease to “Creepy” were rather small. And because I have a lot of stuff, moving into smaller quarters would have been a big step back.
Despite the rent, I really love the apartment I’m living in now. In fact, I will go so far to say that other than a duplex in Green Bay that I shared with my sister in the mid-1990s, this is the best place I’ve ever lived in. I also plan to stay here for another year, even though I just found out in today’s mail that “Creepy” will raise the monthly rent again in the new lease, from $785 to $810, due to what her note says is unspecified “cost increases.” (At least Mr. Landlord was honest about his rent increases; let’s just say city water doesn’t grow on trees.)
Will I go the ownership route, you ask, and purchase a condo or house? I won’t rule that out entirely, especially if the cost will be lower than what I will pay in rent during the coming year — although when factoring in stuff like mortgage, closing costs, upkeep, utilities, etc., I’m not entirely sold on that possibility. And while I should have a car loan paid off a year from now (more breathing room in the bank), the fear of not having a job a year from now, while remote at this moment, still hangs over me like the sword of Damocles. Plus, I fear that I’ll buy more than I can actually afford on a monthly basis (a delicate matter for our family; I’ll discuss it in my next post). At least right now I still have a great place that I’m happy to call… home.