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Dilemma: To buy, or not to buy a house

Updated: May 14, 2018

An embassy colleague just bought a house in Washington the other day. "Why?” I asked her immediately. She answered that she is going to work in DC for at least two years and doesn't want to spend $3,000 a month on rent. "Even though", she quickly added, "with all the extra fees I guess I will end up paying about the same amount anyway."

It seems like the ultimate American dream of home-ownership follows Americans everywhere. Even though diplomats enjoy free housing overseas and never know where they will go next, or for how long; they still want to buy houses.

Personally, I am firmly in the no-thank-you-camp. Sure, I like the romantic idea of having a place for my family and me, something I can call my own and decorate the way I like it. But I'm pretty sure that my idyllic ideas will be shattered as soon as I actually pull the trigger and face the reality of buying, remodeling, and renting out a house.

The truth is that I don't need the debt and I don't need the obligations. I don't want to deal with renters, overgrown yards, leaking roofs, or rotting decks. I don't want to pay for notaries, carpenters, property taxes, homeowner fees, or utilities. I could not care less that I could get some kind of tax break in return for all this misery.

I'm not alone in this. I know several diplomats who never owned a house or sold their house when they joined the Foreign Service. Waiting for the value of their house to increase further just wasn't enough if it meant having to deal with management companies and everything else from overseas.

And then there are those diplomats who buy a house but almost instantly regret it. For example, I know diplomats who outgrew their 500,000-dollar apartment before they ever had the chance to live in it. And those who worry themselves sick sometimes when they hear that some tornado is about to sweep their neighborhood and they can’t do anything because they are halfway across the world.

On the other hand, I also know diplomats who own one or several houses. Some see it as a great investment and have great deals worked out with friends and family members. Others buy apartments and houses as they prepare for retirement in a places like Miami and North Carolina.

Maybe buying a house or apartment is a way for some diplomats to compensate for a feeling of rootlessness and instability; they don’t know where they’ll be next year, but at least they know where they are going to be when their diplomatic adventure is over.

To me, the opposite thing is happening. Every day I feel less likely to buy a house. When I envision myself at retirement age, I don’t see myself settling down in one place and being stuck there because of a piece of property. I see myself doing this whole thing – moving from one place to another – all over again, but then on my own terms.

For example, I’ll spend my winters in Capetown, where my husband will play golf while I sample wine. In the summer we’ll ride horses in Eastern Oregon and camp out at Wallowa Lake. Between seasons, I plan to annoy the hell out of my kids by moving to where they go to college, especially if that happens to be in Portland or New York. I also want to live around my sisters in the Netherlands for a while to make up for some of the lost time together.

Or – maybe I’ll do something totally different. The point is that I don’t know what the future will bring, so I look forward to it with as much freedom to maneuver as possible.



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