This might seem like an odd subject for a farm website post, but if you will allow me to explain, I think I can help you understand the connection.
I have spoken of our son, Michael, in previous posts, primarily in Bear Rocks and The Sinks of Gandy. We raised him during our life in the modern, outside world, but the core values we tried to instill in him and taught him to live by were very traditional. To be sure, he passed through his rebellious teen years, where he labelled us as old-fashioned and sought to exert his own views on his life. Those perspectives were not based on the adversities and struggles Barb and I experienced in our own childhoods, so he had little reason to accept them as lessons for him to learn from in his own life. We shielded him from most of the “hard realities” of life as we saw most of our modern society friends and neighbors do for their own children. It was what modern society accepted as proper. We thought we were giving him the life we never had, as if that was what he deserved. In the long run, I guess it just became a vain and misguided measure of how much we had “progressed” from our own childhoods. We mistakenly assumed that if we could give our son our idea of an idyllic childhood, it would automatically give him the better life we never had.
However, good intentions do not always beget good results. Mike eventually developed an expectation that life was easy and convenient. In his inexperienced mind, life could conform to his views and expectations. He wasn’t eager to aggressively take charge of his own life, even as he demanded his freedom. He was making what I saw to be bad decisions—always seeking the easy way out of things rather than working hard to earn what he wanted from life. As long as we were paying the bills, hard work was simply unpleasant and unnecessary. Although we paid for his college education at Potomac State College in Keyser, he didn’t apply himself in class, resulting in very mediocre grades. Although he completed his two-year program of study, he never cared to complete the required internship, so he never received his diploma. Knowing how important that piece of paper was to his modern society future, I couldn’t justify in my mind the cost and investment of time required to complete the college program only to ignore and brush off the diploma.
When I saw these attitudes start to emerge while he was in junior high school, I tried to apply the brakes. That effort, though well intended, only made him resist and resent my guidance even more. I had become, in his young mind, the boogey man who wanted to control and manipulate his life against his better wishes. His rebellion only grew in response, and I could see the angry, combative relationship I had with my adoptive father emerging all over again. It felt as though everything I had tried to do to guide him and give him a better life was failing miserably before my eyes. I told Barb we’d done a terrible job preparing him for the harsh realities of life, which I was sure would make the adversities he would soon face even harder to overcome. I have seen that shock in life turn many people into angry and resentful adults who become embittered by the disappointment that society never gave them the life they deserved. Rather than learning to combat adversity, many of them became consumed by it—a frustration from which they never recovered. My own younger biological brother is one of the best examples I know of those lost souls, but I have known many, many more. It even seems to be becoming even more prevalent among the youth of today.
However, I am pleased to learn that our son had internalized more of our traditional values than I first realized. He moved out into his own Keyser apartment in September 2015 and, although he has only worked part-time (between 20 and 35 hours per week) for Wal-Mart, he has never missed a rent payment in the 3.5 years he has lived on his own. He managed to avoid any long-term debt. He has learned how to fix small things (for his apartment and car) on his own. He has held onto a Wal-Mart job for nearly seven years, despite the adverse conditions he has worked under—especially the low wages and unsupportive (even envious at times) management. He is well known in the Keyser area for treating customers fairly and respectfully throughout his tenure. He has made sacrifices to maintain his financial solvency to avoid unnecessary debt. Most recently and to my complete surprise, he showed us he had internalized the traditional American value of wanting to own his own home.
When he first announced that he wanted to investigate buying a home this past November, I was not optimistic. Most young adults his age (27) have reportedly abandoned the dream of owning a home either because their finances are not sound enough to qualify for a mortgage or the cost of housing is so expensive in most urban markets that they can’t begin to afford one. Average rental costs have increased greatly in recent years in response the realities of that captive market. Even Mike’s rent has increased much faster than his income over the past few years, driving him to find alternative ways to manage his cost of living. For two years, he shared his one-bedroom apartment with a friend until his company became inconvenient. Having exhausted that strategy, he decided he needed to move into his own home, which would allow him to better control his long-term housing costs. Life was gradually and gently teaching him some valuable lessons that we were never able to impress upon him.
However, the conservative values of self-reliance and fiscal solvency we did manage to teach him have served him well. When he approached mortgage lenders to prequalify for a loan, his credit report documented his timely payments of bills, credit cards and rent. Although his income was somewhat meager, his debt to income ratio was low. As a result, his overall credit rating was just shy of 800—a truly remarkable score for such a young, part-time Wal-Mart employee! Even with his low-wage job (paying him just over $12/hour) and no college degree, he easily qualified for an $80,000 mortgage—which placed him in reach of a small house in the West Virginia housing market. Our son had proved to himself that our fiscally conservative values eventually pay off. I believe more young people today would be more fiscally solvent if they would simply learn what we taught our son—the fundamental difference between a want and a need. That is a lesson I was taught early by my childhood farm upbringing, and this is the proof I can offer that those values do have relevance today. As you might expect, this is the reason why I chose to write a post about it for our farm website.
Mike did not have an easy house search. He chose to find a home in the state’s fastest growing and most expensive housing market, the Eastern Panhandle counties of Morgan, Berkeley, and Jefferson. Fortunately, a local benevolent benefactor created a first-time homeowner grant program, known as HAP. It provides a forgivable grant that pays down-payment assistance of up to $14,500 to a qualified first-time homebuyer who agrees to complete a two-night household finance training course. The loan is forgiven at the rate of 20% per year, so that the entire loan is paid off after the owner has lived in the house for five years. Michael easily qualified for the grant and was approved for the full amount to buy the home he selected after viewing 15 properties over a six-month period. In order to keep his housing costs as affordable as possible, he viewed many foreclosures. Unfortunately, the competitive nature of foreclosure sales left him at a bidding disadvantage with buyers moving to the area from more expensive housing markets.
Mike finally settled on a two-bedroom, one bath house adjacent to the town of Berkeley Springs (officially named Bath) in Morgan County. This is the town that is known around the world for its famous hot springs and bottled water. The house is modest, but contains a sturdy concrete block shed and some very fine knotty pine kitchen cabinets. The rooms are more than large enough for his needs, and his estimated monthly mortgage costs are well below his current monthly rent. For the past month-and-a-half, he has worked through the process of inspections and reams of paperwork required to purchase the house. We have now completed that process to the point where we are very certain he can close on the house at the appointed rescheduled time of 2:00 PM on May 30. After five years of mortgage payments (when the HAP grant is fully extinguished), Mike’s equity in the house will be at least one-third of its purchase value.
Mike is quite excited about the move and the prospects of living adjacent to the village of Berkeley Springs and its thriving arts community. With two large state parks and a large wildlife management area nearby, Berkeley Springs is a popular tourist community—a reputation it has maintained for over 200 years. With all the growth and job opportunities in the area, Mike has already found several new job opportunities that will pay him more and provide him with greater financial security than he has in Keyser. He also hopes he can find a market for some of the home craft projects he has been working to produce in his spare time.
While we will miss the closeness of Mike’s Keyser life—his new home is twice as far from our home at Peeper Pond Farm – we are reassured by the knowledge that Mike will have a better life and future than he currently enjoys. Even more reassuring is the fact that our efforts to teach him the benefits of traditional living and values have not been lost on him. I firmly believe they are the best defense his upbringing can give him against the harsh realities that even the most supportive government and society can never replace. Mike’s determination to take control of his own life has paid off. Adversity and sacrifice are not bad influences if we use those experiences to learn how to live our lives more successfully. That is the form of optimism I consider to be realistic. I am very proud that our son has overcome an adversity that most people his age (and even many of today’s wealthy politicians) only complain about, and he did it by living as self-reliantly as he could without a college degree or a full-time job. I wonder how many of the people complaining that our government is not doing enough for us have even tried to do it on their own—as our son did. Those who feel that is what we should depend on our government to do had better be more concerned about its long-term fiscal solvency than I am. After all, I learned how to live by my own means if I have to. This is the traditional living lesson that I hope all of you can find in Mike’s homebuying experience.