In late 2008, after moving back to the Seattle area from Kansas City, the family moved in with Jack's sister, who had just purchased a home and needed help paying the mortgage. The plan was to rent space there for two years, all the while paying down bills that were in collections and working toward their dream of owning a home.
"For two years, all we did was pay our bills and pay off our collection accounts as we could," Sarah says. "It was really difficult to save and, in fact, we didn't. Everything went to bills and collection payments."
After realizing they made too much money to qualify for a first-time homebuyer loan with low upfront costs, the couple resolved to bear down even harder and save for a different kind of loan through the FHA.
Sarah took a $4,500 early withdrawal from her IRA account to get things started, and the couple saved another $3,000 in two months.
The loan application and homebuying processes were grueling, and incredibly time-consuming. Didn't matter.
"We wanted this house so bad," Sarah says while chatting at the dining table in her otherwise barren living room. "I didn't care what I had to go through."
"It's just nice to know that we have our own little piece of the pie," she says, noting that her father bought his first home when he was 21, much earlier than she.
But the delay and tribulations have taught the Walterses valuable lessons about finance and what's important in life.
"I really didn't feel like an adult until we bought this house," Sarah says. "We plan on being here for 10 years, 15 years. ... This is a long-term thing."How many times can you see flashes of happy families in big houses behind white picket fences in the movies, or more recently, paycheck-to-paycheck families in half-million-dollar homes they somehow got loans for and hope to flip for a profit, before starting to believe that that is exactly how life should be? The American dream is so cheerily unrealistic, a film-studio back-lot illusion, one that we dutifully play into and invest years of earnings to make real. Thinking big is at the core of who we are in America.
But when misfortune strikes, that illusion can vanish in an instant.
Karol Kinney has seen the American dream come and go and come again. She teaches — history, yearbook and special education — at Seattle's Cleveland High School, having earned her master's degree in education in her late 40s. She's 56 now.
Before that, she lived "a good middle-class life ... nice home, nice friends," with a successful husband and four kids in the Everett area. But in the fall of 2001, her marriage fell apart, and Kinney found herself needing to make it on her own as a single mom. She couldn't find a full-time job, even with her college degree in graphic design.
"I think at one time I was working five part-time jobs — you name it, I did it," she says.
"I did everything right; then it all blew up," she says of her previous life. "So you start over, you reinvent yourself."
Her solution was to go back to school and study to become a teacher, a field she always had an affinity for.
The prospect of going back to college made her "scared to death," a feeling that was not assuaged at all by the $40,000 in college debt she eventually accumulated.
But five years ago, she went ahead and purchased a town house in West Seattle. By the fall of 2010, though, her expenses proved overwhelming, her bank refused to refinance and the place went into foreclosure.
This was not how second-acts are supposed to turn out.
"I picture myself traveling the world," Kinney says of this stage of her life, but adds, "I don't see that happening in the near future."
Here's what Kinney and visitors to her West Seattle home can see: A picture-perfect panorama of Puget Sound from the small beach-side apartment that sits among expensive houses with million-dollar views like hers.
A stack of travel books rests on a shelf in the living room, reminding her of a wanderlust that may be sated one day, if she's lucky. Kinney seems content with life and insists she won't try buying a house again.
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