The nostalgia of fixing my first home

Santa Fe, sunsets, and The Great Contractor Markup of 2021

I bought my first home in Santa Fe for $138,500 and about $6,000 down.

That was just before the Great Recession and the slow recovery and before I broke up with Kate. It was before fatherhood, and four presidential elections, and everything else that has happened.

Casas Carlos Rey is filled with two-level townhomes. Mine has two small bedrooms on top, a living space and kitchen below. Outside is a small, fenced-in patio and across the street, in the direction of the mountains, is a large park.

The home is in the center of town—not the pretty, touristy historic center, but the geographic center, off Cerrillos not far from the chains and the strip malls with the big box stores. It wasn’t a particularly pretty part of the city and still isn’t, though over the past 15 years the center of gravity and interest and activity has slowly moved closer and closer.

The massively popular immersive art space Meow Wolf is a few blocks away, as is a new brewery and taproom. So too are a dozen new coffee shops and restaurants, including Café Castro, one of the best places for classic New Mexican food in a city full of classic places.

And then there is the deck. I fell for this home because of the deck.

From the larger bedroom upstairs, there is a sliding door and you walk out onto it and see the mountains in the distance. It’s not an unobstructed view (for that you need a million dollar home on the north side); there are power lines in the way, and a cluster of townhomes on either side—but the mountains are there. And the open space of the city park guarantees they always will be.

I was twenty-four years old when I signed the closing documents and first became a homeowner. As I did about many things back then, I asked my dad if he thought it was a good idea to buy a home—if I was responsible enough. He said yes, I was. This was a few weeks after I finished grad school and two years into being a reporter. I’d done the other grownup things; now was time.

For the newspaper, I covered the City of Santa Fe, which mostly meant development. Fights over new condos, fights over affordable housing, fights over architectural guidelines and historic preservation. I learned how the city gets its water and the numerous ways it could run out. I had the cell numbers of the mayor and all the city councilors in my pocket. And nearly every morning, for three years, tens of thousands of newspapers with my stories and byline were printed in Albuquerque and distributed to homes around the state. It was a glorious job.

At nights, after work, I would drive home to my new townhome, pour myself a drink or open a beer, and go upstairs to sit on that deck. There was a plastic Adirondack chair, and I would sit there and look at the burnt orange glow of the New Mexico sunsets washing over the mountains.

Those sunsets are hard to convey faithfully if you’ve never seen one: the sky in New Mexico, and especially in Santa Fe, is like the ocean, vast and wonderous—like God’s work of art in his impressionist phase. The palette is deep, rich reds, oranges, and yellows that move and unfold over the mountains. Every evening, I was reminded of nature’s incomparable capacity for beauty.

One could even forgive the NIMBYs their petty fights over building heights in the downtown: everyone wants to preserve their view of the Santa Fe sunsets and the mountains. It’s not for nothing that the Spanish settlers named them the Sangre de Cristo—the blood of Christ.

Affordable housing & the Great Recession

Back then the city had an affordable housing program, which I covered for the newspaper.

On my $34,000 journalist’s salary, I qualified. The deal was that I could put five percent down and a local nonprofit backed by city funding would give me a second loan for the other 15% at the same rate as the first, conventional loan. This meant I could get into a house with less money but also avoid paying private mortgage insurance. I also got a $10k, zero-interest loan, to be paid back only when I sold the place—it effectively lowered the cost of purchase by $10k.

The program confused a lot of folks, so my editor suggested I write a first-person account for the newspaper, which I did.

Shortly after I moved in, I rented the second bedroom to a fellow reporter. We hosted weekly poker nights around the table in the tiny kitchen and drank together on the deck after work. He covered education. Together, we were a large bulk of the newspaper’s Santa Fe coverage.

Then I met Kate. She came to work at the newspaper and was a whirlwind of idealistic energy and talent. She had short, dark brown hair, and she always laughed. She was goofy and beautiful and loved to salsa dance and she immediately wrote stories that changed the course of state policymaking. We moved in together to that townhome and we were happy there.

Less than a year later, Kate applied and was accepted to a full-ride Master’s program at American University, and we moved together to Washington DC. I rented out the townhome. Kate’s and my relationship ended. Obama launched a campaign for president. Then, the Great Recession hit.

As it turns out, I had bought my first home at the top of a historic real estate bubble that ended up destroying the global economy. I even remember asking my dad around the same time as the responsible conversation: Do you think we’re in a housing bubble? He said no, Santa Fe is its own market. Property values are well-supported by tourism and state government. What happens in other parts of the country doesn’t necessarily translate to here.

Of course, he and almost everyone else (except the Big Short people) were wrong, and so two years later my townhome was well underwater.

But it was also rented out, and the rent covered the expenses. I had purchased a home less than two-thirds of what the mortgage broker had told me I could afford because when he showed me the monthly payment on his fancy document I knew he was full of shit and I didn’t want to be on the hook for that much. Many other people who bought homes around that time though didn’t think their mortgage brokers were full of shit.

A few years later, I even paid off the second mortgage from the nonprofit, so the cash flow on rent became a little better, and it went on like that during the recovery, and the Trump years, and four presidential elections, until the current strange and bewildering moment.

The Great Contractor Markup

Fast forward to 2021, the second year of the pandemic, the year of The Great Resignation, of rising inflation, of the worker shortage (more than 700,000 have died, after all, and many of them had worked in the economy), and of what I call The Great Contractor Markup.

In August, the townhome was empty, recently vacated, and I asked my dad to go survey the deferred maintenance. There was little stuff: paint touchups, a broken screen door, a new battery for the smoke detector. But there was also one, really big thing: the deck. My deck.

The wood floorboards were warped and cracked. The railings were wobbly and felt like they might keel over in a gentle wind. The twelve-foot beam that held up the joists had a gigantic sagging bow in the center.

My dad recommended a reliable contractor and I called and then sent him the punch list of work and the pictures of the deck. And then, I waited.

The contractor told me he’d go over to see the place and give me a price within a few days. The days turned into two weeks, and, despite my calls and texts, I waited. I tried a popular app for home renovation projects. It assured me they had contractors in my area. I posted the deck job and awaited bids. Nothing came. Next, I turned to my property management software, with its add-on for handling maintenance requests. Several hours of hair-pulling and chat-bots and calls to the help desk later I canceled the add-on and suspended auto-renew payments on the software.

Friends who lived down the street from my home reached out to the reliable contractor and got ahold of him. He had been busy, they relayed, slammed with work. He’d get to it.

Finally, after a month, he sent me an estimate: $4,250 to fix the deck, another $4,000 to fix everything else (including painting the whole house), and another thousand or so in gross receipts tax on behalf of the City of Santa Fe.

Total estimate: $9,797.

For a moment, I thought about paying the man. Instead, I bought a $130 one-way plane ticket to Santa Fe.

My first home, empty

The night I got there I went over to the home. It was more than 15 years since I had been inside, and I hadn’t been able to locate the keys. I climbed over the back fence in the dark into the patio and looked up at the rickety deck, untouched and unmaintained since 2006. I shimmied up the corner post, latched a hand onto the sagging support beam, did a pull-up, and delicately levered myself up onto the edge of the deck where I thought the strongest joist might still hold me. I stepped high over the loose rail, staying close to the beam attached to the stucco wall, and leaned myself over to the sliding bedroom door. It was open. I stepped inside to my former bedroom. The house was dark and empty.

Over the next three days, I demolished the deck down to the two eight by eight support posts. I replaced the sagging outer beam, then the joists, then the floor. I cut new posts to support the rail. On day four, I painted the whole thing back to its original dark auburn, then got to work on the smaller stuff. I bought a roll of screen and a splining tool and fixed the front door. Replaced the batteries and a few light bulbs, had a locksmith come key the locks, and a plumber fix the hose spigot in the back, which had cracked open over the many winters. Patched drywall, and had the white paint matched to do touchups.

On day five, a guy with a pickup came and took the scrap from the old deck to the dump.

Total cost in labor and materials, not including my time: approx. $2,300

After the scrap wood was gone, I started showing the home to potential new tenants. A young woman who worked as a barista came in. She told me her husband and their one-year-old had outgrown their studio apartment nearby and it was time for the little one to have their own room.

She walked through the first floor, into the kitchen, out to the patio, then went upstairs. I followed her up to the bedroom, where she looked through the sliding glass door. I told her she should go out and see the view. It’s the best part, I said.

She opened the door, stepped onto the deck, looked over at the mountains for a moment, and came back in.

It’s perfect, she told me.