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The Depreciating American Dream, Part 2: Doubting The Suburban Fantasy

Owning a home has long played a significant role in the American story; the notion that buying a house is the stepping stone to wealth and happiness goes back a long time. But the housing bubble has burst, and many local homeowners are living in the shadow of the white picket fence. This is Part 2 of a WBUR series: The Depreciating American Dream.

The QUENNEVILLE FAMILY in Merrimack, N.H. · Photos by JESS BIDGOOD for WBUR

MERRIMACK, N.H. — Andrea and Raymond Quenneville think they timed it about as well as they could, taking the plunge at what they considered a low point in the market. They bought a yellow house here last year.

“Four bathrooms, two-car garage, and then upstairs we have five bedrooms,” Andrea says. “For a family of six, it’s nice to have so much space.”

The 3,000 square feet give Raymond enough space for a room stacked with guitars and a sound mixing board. He records music, at least when he has time.  Andrea has her own sewing room. She crafts tote bags with flower and animal prints and sells them online.

“Maybe this is one reason why I have buyer’s remorse. My fabric budget has drastically decreased,” she says.

When Andrea and Raymond first met, they discovered they shared a love of the outdoors. They kept hiking and camping when they had children. Even when Andrea was eight months pregnant, she slept in a tent. They named two of their kids after national parks: Bryce and Acadia.

Raymond misses the days of renting, when the weekends were theirs.

The house with a porch under tall pines looked good to them. Raymond timed the purchased it so they got the first-time homebuyer tax credit. And he figured buying a teenage house would mean less maintenance.

“One of the things the inspector missed was that the roof was in worse shape than we thought. And so the tax credit went into buying a new roof in the fall,” he says.

The day the roofers came was the same day the hot water heater failed, leaking in the basement.

Raymond and Andrea always knew there would be costs to owning. It is just different when you are actually writing the checks. To save money, they are trying to do more on their own, but that means more time for projects such as repairing a bathroom with a leaky shower.

“I think we started this project in July. It’s now March,” Andrea frets.

The Quennevilles haven’t been camping since they bought the house. Now, their weekends are for raking. Soon they’ll have to mow once a week. When it’s not the yard, it’s fix-it projects in the house.

Raymond misses the days of renting, when the weekends were theirs. He is an engineer and works long hours in Lexington. On a bad day, his commute is 90 minutes each way. Sometimes, he gets home to see in his kids the same disappointed look he remembers making when he was young, watching his dad reach for the toolbox after getting home.

“I find myself struggling with that same balance. My kids always want to play with me, and I come home from work and there’s things that need to get done. That, to me, is one of the biggest struggles with the homeownership, is having enough time to play with the kids,” he says.

“One of the things the inspector missed was that the roof was in worse shape than we thought. And so the tax credit went into buying a new roof in the fall,” he says.

Homeownership doesn’t make as much financial sense for the Quennevilles as it did for their parents a generation ago. Raymond is trying to persuade Andrea that it will pay off eventually. He says those big mortgage payments are good because it forces them to put money into the house, instead of another guitar or another bolt of fabric.

But the tradeoffs work against them, too. For now, to manage the payment, Raymond is contributing less to his retirement plan, which means giving up some of the money his employer puts in as well.

The house debt — owing more than $330,000 — worries Andrea.

“I feel like with renting we had more of a safety net. Which is strange. Because everyone thinks you buy a home and it’s stable and safe and you’ll be there for a long time. And it’s the cornerstone of being an adult, and it’s seen as a sign of wealth. Now, in this economy, it doesn’t seem like that’s true,” she says.

The house has dropped in value since the Quennevilles moved in.

Andrea Quenneville realizes this is the choice she and her husband made. They would not pick up and rent today if someone made an offer, but she wants to be a better mother, and she worries homeownership undermines that.

“It’s overwhelming, and it’s a burden that weighs on me. I’m sure it colors how I see other things and impacts how I parent and how much patience I have, and it spreads through your life,” she says.

There are days Andrea is glad they bought the house. Other days she wishes they were still renting.

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