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Home, Sweet Home

When Mary Elizabeth Williams and her husband, Jeff, decided it was time for them to leave their Brooklyn rental and buy their own apartment, little did they know that it would turn into a three-year quest. In her book, “Gimme Shelter,” Williams, a professional journalist and mother of two, offers the story of her search— which culminates just as the real estate bubble is about to burst. Along the way she gives readers a crash course on interest rates and credit scores, no-money-down loans and picky co-op boards, and the other sometimes thorny details involved with home ownership in the city. Here, Williams shares some of her newfound expertise.

What was the atmosphere of the real estate market like when you first started looking and how did it subsequently change?

I started looking in March 2003. Prices in New York City rose 65 percent during the period I was looking. I had a situation where I looked at one home and we didn’t buy it, and six months later, there was another home on the same street, same exact layout, and they were asking $150,000 more. But towards late 2005, early 2006, I really started to see the storm clouds coming in, and I saw houses staying on the market longer and going down in price. That was when a lot of those adjustable rate mortgages from the earlier part of the decade were resetting and people were starting to default. The home we wound up getting had been on the market for eight months when we bought it, and we were able to get it for less than asking.

What was the hardest part of the home search process for you?

The hardest part was dealing with the fact that my husband’s dreams were bigger. And then he lost his job twice in a year. It was harder for him to get his dream in line with the reality of our economic situation. It was the biggest divide we had ever encountered. And dealing with job loss changes who you are, how you feel about yourself as a family. But all of it was hard—looking at places that I didn’t even like and knowing I couldn’t afford them—that’s a soul crusher.

You came into the home buying process not knowing much about home finance. What was that like?

It was incredibly intimidating, extraordinarily daunting, and I really had to advocate for myself, speak up and ask questions—and be willing to have people look at me like I was an idiot because I didn’t know the answer. You can’t let your pride take over in the process. You also need to go online and maybe get some books and really do your homework and surround yourself with a team that you trust—a lawyer, accountant, mortgage broker and realtor acting in your interest and acting honestly.

When you walked into the home that you eventually bought, did you immediately know it was the apartment for you?

When I walked into it, I liked it. But I had been very romantically attached to the idea of love at first sight. After coming back to it again and again, the drawbacks of other places became much more apparent and this was the survivor. This was the one that really felt like it had a good soul. I wish it had better light. I’d love more space—when both of the girls are in the kitchen, it feels like the C train at rush hour. But life is
about being able to adapt and not always having it be perfect. Perfect
is the enemy of good, right? We have good.

You described
taking your daughters with you to look at apartments. What else did you
do to prepare them for the move?

We took them everywhere. Let them play in the
parks, took them to restaurants, took them to the playgroup where they
were going to be spending time. We actively involved them in what the
new place was going to look like and how we were going to set it up. And
even though Bea was 2 at the time, she wound up being more sensitive to
it then I had given her credit for. People say kids are so resilient,
kids can adapt to change. Change is stressful for kids.

You
ultimately settled in Inwood. What’s that like?

Inwood is great. I really
love my neighborhood. Tonight, if it doesn’t downpour, my daughter is
going to go to the Merchant of Venice in the park right outside our
door—it’s a free Shakespeare festival. There is also a greenmarket every
Saturday and a playground. And Friday night my daughter and I are going
to go camping in the park, which is going to be interesting. I get all
of that in this little enclave that’s still on the A train line.
Everybody still thinks New York City ends at Central Park—I did too. But
there is life above 125th street.

For someone who is about to embark
on the home buying process for the first time, what three pieces of
advice would you give to them?

Read the fine print, read the fine print, read the
fine print. Take it very seriously even when it’s hard and it’s boring
and your eyes are glazing over. And really listen to yourself and trust
your own judgment, because people will be more than willing to tell you
what you need: “You’ve gotta have more space” or “That neighborhood’s a
no man’s land.” I heard every useless, tactless thing a person could say
to me about the decision making process. And you know what? None of
those people live in my house. Your idea of what makes a home yours is
whatever you and your family make it. Also, if it feels wrong, trust
that. If the hairs on the back of your neck start standing up, say “I
need more time, I’m not sure.” It’s okay to do that, because this is one
of the biggest investments of your life.