We’re currently in the look-at-all-the-homes-all-the-time phase of home buying. There are a handful of neighborhoods where we can afford many homes, a few where we can afford some homes, and many neighborhoods where we can afford the occasional home. This weekend we learned a little more about what that spectrum means. We looked at six houses this weekend. Two in East Denver, two in North Denver, one in our neighborhood, and one in West Denver.
East Denver is where we see the occasional home, and many of the newer neighborhoods east of Monaco Parkway seem designed against walkability and architecturally exclusive. It feels suburban and disconnected. Limiting our search is another decision we’ve made in balancing our desire to live in a diverse community with our ability to experience the city. I’m starting to worry that it will also mean we simply don’t get to buy a home.
We visited two homes in East Denver and learned that, with our budget, it might be hard to find a livable home in those neighborhoods. We also learned why our realtor told us not to trust photos in the REColorado listings. The first house we visited here had been staged for its photo shoot. All but the kitchen appliances were different in the photos from what we saw in the house.
It was hard, stressful even, to tour houses like that and not wonder about the lives of the people living there right now. Do they own or rent this house? How many people are living here? If we buy this house, what will happen to them? Will they be displaced into housing they can afford? How often does that happen to this family? Many of the homes have appreciated eight to ten fold since they were last sold, is that money going to the family living here or a building manager who is kicking these people out to make a windfall? If they’re moving, why? Did someone lose a job? Did several people lose jobs? What does their leaving mean for this house? For this neighborhood? For Denver?
We looked at a couple houses where it looked like ultimately the house would be either flipped or demolished and rebuilt.
We also saw a few homes in West Denver including one in West Barnum we were interested in after our bike journey. Ultimately, it was really hard to imagine living there. Sure we could turn the yard into a small farm, but there was either a living room, or a dining room, and the kitchen was remodeled in a really strange way. We’re glad we saw it, though, because it’s one thing to see a home from the outside and imagine living in a neighborhood by biking around it. We learned that in West Denver, we’d want to be east of Federal Blvd., otherwise we feel too disconnected from the rest of the city.
North Denver is another neighborhood where we see an occasional house. These neighborhoods, also called the highlands, have developed fast in the last couple years and, like East Denver, most of the homes for sale are far outside our price range. One of those homes was a tiny house in a neighborhood we already know we love. In some ways it’s just as removed from the rest of the city as neighborhoods we’ve ruled out, but it also has a little village nestled into the city with accessible amenities nearby.
Nevertheless, we left our Saturday of looking at houses with mixed feelings. We had three (of six) homes to watch and the remaining ruled out. One of the three has already gone under contract, which is honestly kind of a relief because while it was really nice, the location wasn’t our favorite. I think we mostly feel really stressed out at this point. I found a house yesterday in Ruby Hill, a neighborhood we’re interested in but haven’t really explored yet, and it already went under contract.
A friend of mine gave us the advice to approach this experience with a little spiritualism. There will be plenty of houses we like, plenty we want to offer on, and plenty we will offer on, that will be scooped up from under our feet. Thems the breaks, in a seller’s market. It’ll be important for us to keep that in mind as we search, and take plenty of time for self care.
We bought a car last year and it was basically the dumbest thing ever. Sure, we got a car but we felt swindled. The dealer didn’t take the time to explain anything to us and we ended up getting a good but no great deal.
So far buying a house has been different. We’re barely beginning in the process but we’ve learned a few things:
There’s a thing called a “jumbo mortgage” for really big expensive houses. They cost more and have higher rates!
Most houses out there are expensive enough for a jumbo mortgage (compare standard and jumbo searches on Zillow).
First time home buyers only need 3% for a down payment. And sellers should be OK with it, no matter what you put down.
Everybody talks about the down payment but closing costs are just as much, if not more, than the down payment. This includes things like appraisals, sewage system and home inspections, and fees paid to the lender.
We already knew we should shop around, but start with your credit union or local bank. Our credit union had great rates, and fairer closing costs.
There are a few other things we’re only starting to learn. One of those things is gentrification. One thing we’re looking for in a neighborhood is bike-ability. We really don’t want to buy a second car. We use ours right now primarily for one thing: Getting to the mountains. Without it we’d be spending money renting them or on a car share program and we’d probably be spending about a car payment every month. Anyway, we don’t want, or need, a second one.
The problem is, while Denver is a great city to bike in, some neighborhoods are more bikeable than others. Many of the neighborhoods we can afford are in West Denver, the neighborhoods west of I-25, and south of Highway 6. We biked through there this weekend and they are decidedly less bikeable than where we live now, just on the other side of I-25.
Two neighborhoods we can afford are Barnum and Barnum West. Taken together, they make up a 1.32 square mile neighborhood bounded by three streets that are dangerous, and one that’s illegal, for bicycling. Getting into Barnum from the east means riding on a narrow sidewalk, waiting at a long crosswalk, and then riding a sidewalk again once across. Anything we’d access on these streets we’d have to access by car. According to Google Maps, there is one grocery store accessible without crossing one of those streets.
Though it’s possible to access nearby places like Viet Hoa, or the Westwood Food Cooperative, both require car. The final option is to bike into Central Denver, adding two miles, and a steep climb, to the journey. The next neighborhoods south, Westwood and Athmar Park, have similar problems.
Grocery stores aren’t everything but the subtext here is that these neighborhoods are also poorer and that’s part of why the houses are cheaper. Gentrification brought more grocery stores, bike lanes, access to health care, and other amenities to neighborhoods like those just on the other side of I-25. It’s also what raised rent prices and displaced people who lived in those neighborhoods.
One of the attractive parts of living in Barnum or Barnum West is the opportunity to live in a majority hispanic community. Less than a quarter of the population in Barnum and it’s western neighbor are white people. We hope to have kids and hope those kids don’t grow up surrounded only by people who look like them but we also don’t want to be part of the problem of displacing people who have lived in this neighborhood for a long time.
How do we think about our privilege in a housing market like this? Moving to Barnum feels like we’re sacrificing some of our amenities on the bet that those things will show up soon. That feels like exploiting a system of housing discrimination that has existed for decades. Moving into a neighborhood that is actively gentrifying might give us the right balance between diversity and access to the rest of the city but feels like we’re part of the problem displacing families from a desirable part of town they can’t afford. Moving to an already gentrified (read, “desirable”) neighborhood feels like giving up. It’s also not something we can really afford.
Most neighborhoods that had high poverty rates in 1970 are still poor, and chronically poor neighborhoods have lost 40 percent of their population in the intervening four decades. That is, people who can get out, do.
Part of our privilege is that we aren’t being forced anywhere, we’re choosing to buy, and we have greater than 1 neighborhoods to consider in that choice. We’re only scratching the surface now, but as we learn more and talk to people about their neighborhoods, we’ll be thinking about the social consequences of the biggest economic choice of our lives.
The homepage is a slippy map with markers showing (roughly) the starting point for each hike. If you click through, you get a close-up on that area, or a path of the actual hike (if it’s available). Check it out, and if you like it, you can even make your own.
About the tech:
The site is generated with Jekyll. Each activity is listed in the _hikes directory with some basic frontmatter. An API is exposed with all the activities in GeoJSON format. The maps are powered by leaflet with tiles from Stamen. The repo needs a license file but it’s open source under an MIT license. Share and enjoy!
About 13 months ago we bought an SSL certificate for harmsboone.org. Recently we upgraded our SSL configuration for harmsboone.org and all our subdomains (except wedding.harmsboone.org, we’ll get there). Now you can browse Greg and Danielle’s blogs,and Danielle’s new writing project, 1000 Wednesdays, with confidence that nobody, not the government, not your internet service provider, not your crazy neighbor with a WiFi Pineapple is interfering with the words and photos your see on these pages.
Both of these last two sites are extra hip for being encrypted with a free certificate from Let’s Encrypt, a new non-profit, open Certificate Authority run by the Internet Research Security Group (ISRG). Their goal is to lower the barriers to entry for enabling encryption on web servers so that everybody can be serving content safely to everybody using the Internet. That means, even sites that are more or less dormant like International Underground can ensure that whoever happens upon it is getting content they can trust.
Things that were tricky about converting these sites over:
We migrated from a shared hosting environment to a virtual server on NGINX. Let’s Encrypt does not officially support NGINX yet, so we had to install them manually.
We had to solve some pretty big mixed content problems. For the most part they were ameliorated by changing the protocol in our various config files.
For International Underground, we had to patch a plugin that served a remote file over http. This may have broken the content (it’s a Flash video and I didn’t bother checking to see if it worked.
I missed the memo that Let’s Encrypt certificates don’t support the www subdomain by default and we (temporarily) lost www on International Underground and haven’t configured it for 1000 Wednesdays. I’m tempted to leave it that way, especially the latter never responded to www, but the redirect isn’t hard to set if you have the cert to cover it.
Overall, even though it took a few steps more than SSLMate, I was pretty impressed with Let’s Encrypt. For a public beta it is a great service that’s only going to get better. I hope to move all our sites to LE eventually but I’m going to get my money’s worth on the certs I paid for first.
Now, whenever you browse this site you can do so with the comfort of knowing that all the communication between you and this site is private, secure, and authentic. I’ll be doing the same for the other HarmsBoone sites, and for International Underground in the coming weeks, but decided to get the flagship, the oldest and, honestly, most trafficked of our sites locked down and secure first. The next step will be going through the site and making sure that all images and script files linked on our blog posts are also done with https so you know that those are coming through uncontaminated, too.
And that’s about it.
The biggest thing you can do as a user is remember to type https when linking to any website. The worst case scenario is the site hasn’t configured it and you fall back to an insecure connection. For the most part, though, you’ll be sending your friends and family to secure, trustworthy locations on the Internet.