Last summer, we sold our home in Maplewood, New Jersey because our annual property taxes shot up to $42,000 one month after we moved in. We bought the home in 2016. Maplewood was reassessing every home in the area and decided ours was worth a lot more than it had been before. Though it was in excellent shape, the only update that had been done on it for decades had been done to the roof. We were shocked, but at the time, we still had what was known as the SALT deduction, which is where a home owner is able to deduct their property taxes from their overall income. (Let’s say you’re making $200,000 a year, and you’re paying $20,000 in property taxes. You were able to deduct that amount from your overall income, so your taxable income becomes $180,000 instead of $200,000. It worked out, though I admit that it’s a weird practice overall.)
Two months after we moved in, Trump won the election. Shortly after that, he announced he’d be removing the SALT deduction, capping the property tax write off to $10,000. There are very few areas where property taxes are higher than that and those areas are predominantly blue and voted overwhelmingly against him. He knew exactly what he was doing. He sent a very loud, aggressive and, frankly, cruel message to all the counties who had relied on that deduction for so long. We were livid. Everyone was.
Within four months of moving into our home, we went from relying on one take-home amount, to a substantially lower one.
We also overpaid for the home. We did that because we loved it and truly believed we’d be there forever. We were also naive and believed our agent was giving us solid advice. But in retrospect, I would have done things differently—much differently.
Ultimately, it came down to this: we absolutely loved the house. I still love that house. To this day, I rue the loss.
We had no idea 2016 would turn out the way it did and decisions were made both by us and the federal government that turned our forever home into one we’d have to leave. And not only would we have to leave, but given the taxes were raised so very high AND we lost the SALT dedication, we would have to sell it at a loss. After all, what person would want to adopt a home with $42,000 in property taxes? We certainly would not have purchased it with that price tag.
So we sold it. At a pretty substantial loss—both financially and emotionally.
The actual sale was also very difficult for us. The buyers were a well-off, young couple, newly pregnant with their first child. (Buying a six bedroom home.) They went back and forth and came and went to see it on many occasions, forcing the five of us and the dog to leave for however long they needed. They even showed up once without asking, simply walked right on in. Toby was on a call and the dog went ballistic. This couple was confusing from the start. We were never sure if they were actually going to go through with it, especially given they had been looking to buy a home for two years.
It also didn’t help that THREE of the people involved with purchasing the home were real estate agents, specializing in areas like Summit and Short Hills. The young woman, her mother and her mother-in-law were all real estate agents. We were outnumbered. They knew exactly what they were doing and never once let up trying to nickel and dime us beyond their already low accepted offer. But here we were, in contract, but with a clear out should they want it, three short weeks of the proposed closing date and we had yet to find a home to rent or buy elsewhere because we were unsure if they were going to go through with it.
We often wondered if they were flakey, privileged beyond all comprehension, cheap as hell, or just downright cruel. Maybe they are all of the above. I’ll never know. I never met them. I never want to.
A few weeks before the closing date, we took our chances and drove down to DC to look at apartments. While there, a double homicide took place on our street back in Maplewood. I woke up in a hotel room to text messages from Maplewood friends asking if we were all ok. I was confused. And not yet awake. I was told that police had the entire street shut off and rumor was the killer was still at large. A woman had been found outside on the street bleeding. She would later die. It was tragic. And the story would unfold while we were miles away from our home in Maplewood. Our quaint, little street became the center of a national news story. And that got us thinking: would this seemingly flakey couple back out of the sale? We polled friends and family asking them if such a thing would scare them off. Many said yes. (If I were to be honest, I might back out as well.)
We decided against signing a lease that weekend, opting to wait until we heard back from the buyers. A week went by. No word. Would we actually close?
Finally, they sent a letter saying how sorry they were for what had happened and their condolences if we knew the family.
Things were back on.
I called a moving company, booked a date and we started looking for a place to live.
About two weeks before we were to close and move, we got an email from their lawyer requesting another $2,000 to repair the ice maker in the refrigerator. We’d already agreed to a pretty substantial amount to repair a part of the slate roof and gutters, so Toby and I said no. We told our lawyer we were at an impasse and to kill the deal. We had had it. They had reached the end of our generosity.
We were staying.
Two days went by, the exact amount of legal time given between their needed response before the contract expired. They did this every single time. Maybe it’s a real estate agent thing to do? I don’t know. But they backed us into such a deep corner that when they finally wrote saying, “Ok, fine. We won’t ask for that 2,000 bucks after all.” we had less than two weeks to get out of our home (with three kids, a cat and a dog) and go find a rental.
We found a place in Bethesda, sight unseen. No yard at all. Three bedrooms and a finished basement, around 1500 square feet, not ideal, but it was in an excellent school district in a nice area, less than a mile from my brother. We’d make it work. It was a rental, after all. Not forever.
Somehow we managed to get everything out in time. That wasn’t easy. They bitched about a fridge in the basement. We had to find someone to remove it. They bitched about the paint left over, labeled cans for each room should they need to patch anything or buy more, something I thought was pretty standard practice. We had to have that removed as well. They bitched about the Bagster in the front yard, something we paid for to get rid of any leftover crap we didn’t need or couldn’t fit. The Bagster truck was scheduled to come on the day of closing, but that wasn’t good enough, so they wanted to hold $10,000 money in an Escrow account until the truck showed up. Every little thing was a headache.
I have so much residual anger leftover from our experience and toward some of the people involved. A seed was planted way back in 2016, but in 2019, it sprouted and moved all throughout my head. By that time, the anger and resentment started to take over. It was far from healthy. Sure, we no longer had the overhead of $42,000 in property taxes on top of our mortgage, but we had to sell our home. I could overcome the financial loss—in the end, it’s just money—but for some reason, I simply could not let go of the personal one.
After we moved here, I began seeing a therapist to try and wrestle that anger to the ground. I began learning coping mechanisms, ways to try and let all of that anger go. I began to work on a new life, try and love where the now would one day lead us.
The kids started school four days after we moved in. I was pretty excited. For the first time in 12 years, I would have days to myself—entire days! I planned on going to the gym. I looked into taking guitar lessons. I signed up for cycling classes. I would see movies. I would do things for myself. I would go to cafes. I would look for a job. Entire days would be mine again. I wasn’t sure what I would do with all that time.
Emory also immediately perked up. He loved his new middle school. The teachers were awesome. He reported back to us on how happy he was. He hadn’t loved his middle school in Maplewood, quite the opposite.
Walter started kindergarten and Elliot the third grade. Elliot had a rough time adjusting, but Walter dove right in. He was meant for kindergarten. He too loved his new school. But Elliot wanted to move back to Maplewood and cried nearly every day asking why we had done this to him. Sometimes I would wake up to hear him weeping in his sleep. It damn near broke my heart to see my child so deeply upset. We talked to his teachers and took him to see a therapist. He saw the school therapist as well. We even tried to justify sending him to a private school, one with a smaller class size so he could adjust better. We couldn’t afford that.
So, I made him a deal: I promised him that come February, right after the first semester ended, we’d talk about how he was adjusting and would consider moving back if everyone decided that is what they wanted. That worked. Elliot, more than my other two children, likes to have control over any given situation. This gave him that control. He calmed down a bit.
February arrived and by then he’d made some friends, one close one. He started getting invited to birthday parties, and staying after school to play soccer on the hill. Things were looking up.
On February 29th (leap year!), we threw Elliot a birthday party at a pottery studio in downtown Bethesda. His friends showed up, a meticulously curated few, and he had a good time. Even I had made a friend, one I adore. (An infectious disease doctor, isn’t that funny? It is so funny. Admit it!)
Yes, our house was on the small side for five people, and we mourned the loss of our once sprawling backyard back in Maplewood, but we loved the bowling alley, the mall and the local movie theater. Plus, the food here is amazing. Things were OK. We could manage.
Everyone was forced to stay home. We had to give up the basement to allow for Toby to work from home. He’d started a new job that requires nonstop calls. All three kids were required to have online zoom classes at different times of the day. Juggling computers and trying to figure out where to put everyone so Toby wasn’t interrupted was like spinning plates during an earthquake. Inevitably one would come crashing down and interrupt one of Toby’s calls. When the kids would get stir crazy, I would try and take them outside to run around the block with the dog. Our lack of yard space was growing increasingly more problematic. There was nowhere to put everyone. The walls were closing in.
The rock climbing gym shutdown. The YMCA. The bowling alley. The movie theater. ALL the playgrounds. Everything we’d come to love about living here shut down. My kids had the rug ripped out from under them twice in 7 months.
I go back and forth every single day wondering what life would be like had we stayed in Maplewood. Would we have a pandemic pod? Would my kids have friends to play with? Would they be healthier with a yard to run around in, trees to climb? Would I be happier being nearby to friends I’ve known for years? Did we make a terrible mistake? More importantly, in hindsight, given the chance to go back in time, knowing what I know now about 2020: would I have moved out of New Jersey?
I’m having a rough time these days. Rougher today than yesterday as our school district announced there would be no in-person education until January 29th, 2021. And I’ll bet the amount we lost in the sale of our home that they won’t be going back then either.
I know I’m not alone. I also know that far more people have it so much harder than we do. We are lucky when it comes down to it. For now, we have a job and income. We have a roof over our head and we’re healthy. I have three amazing kids and a dog and a cat that make me smile on the hour. But I would be lying if I didn’t say that I wish all of this were happening in a place I know better, among friends I’ve known for years; a place where my kids could arrange play dates with the families that actually know us.
Sometimes I think that with every move a person’s life splinters into alternate universes, a bunch of parallel existences that manifest themselves as “what ifs”. On one level of our existence, we’re living at our yellow house back in Maplewood. We have a yard and the kids are often filthy from their trashcan water wars. They have a driveway where they can ride bikes and shoot hoops. We have room for one of those crazy above ground pools everyone seems to be buying. That alternate existence brings me a great deal of calm. The one we’re living in right now, the one I’m currently writing from, isn’t what we signed up for. We’re bursting at the seams, seams that were barely starting to come together when everything around us started to fall apart.
But that’s life, I suppose, at least it’s this one.
I just wish I could silence all of the other what-ifs.