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Thursday, July 20, 2006 | We may have to change the name of this column because my husband and I are now proud renters. No more mortgage. No more evil homeowners association to annoy us with its rules and regulations and silly newsletters.

Of course we still have to pay the rent, which is basically like a mortgage only much, much cheaper and we get a much bigger house in Point Loma for our money. Smug readers might remind me that as a renter I’m paying someone else’s mortgage, missing out on the all-important mortgage interest and property tax federal income tax deductions, and worst of all, mortgaging my future by failing to secure a long-term residence at today’s prices (Ha!).

The first two are worth tackling but I’ll leave that to our real estate writers and analysts, so I can focus on the last bit: the promise of owning property. As a homeowner living in Chula Vista’s lovely, but utterly dull Otay Ranch master planned community, we mortgaged our quality of life chasing the “dream” of homeownership. It was great being able to paint our walls orange and yellow and green, and living in a house where everything was completely new and fresh and clean. And despite a downturn in prices we made some money that is going to pay off a car and a lingering student loan. We’ll be debt free and that’s wonderful.

None of these gains is worth as much as one valuable life lesson learned: Quality of life is very important. But quality of life is not a generic, one-size-fits-all baseball cap that can be mass produced by developers and homeowners associations. You have to know the qualities of life you enjoy and not let the “dream” squeeze the life out of you.

One major point of being a homeowner is that someday – presumably 30 years hence – I will actually own my home and be able to live out my days without the single greatest expense of life: rent. I would love to own a home and, if I could afford to buy one without moving to the outer limits of San Diego County, I would. But I don’t want to live out there. And I’m not willing to live out there just so that 30 years from now I won’t have to pay for a place to live anymore.

I’m not just waiting out the bubbling real estate market here either. If the market imploded and I could suddenly afford a house in a neighborhood I actually want to live in, I’d buy one. But I would also choose to rent in the city forever rather than buy a house in Temecula, Chula Vista or (Egads!) Imperial Valley. That may seem like personal financial craziness but it makes perfect sense to me and it seems I’m not alone.

In a fairly recent real estate story, The New York Times profiled several couples who were deserting their suburban dream homes so they could get back to the good life of renting in Manhattan. Each couple had been fairly recent home buyers and several were taking a serious financial hit by selling so quickly. They just couldn’t take the staleness of suburban life, which one man referred to as being “like death.”

I know exactly what he meant. Otay Ranch is a perfectly nice, safe and clean place to live. The schools are new and so are the roads. But I’ve known for a long time that I’m not a suburban girl. I don’t like walking around neighborhoods where every house looks the same and all the restaurants are national chains. I don’t enjoy the food at restaurants like Chili’s and T.G.I. Friday’s and Outback Steakhouse. It’s not terrible food, but it’s not especially good and neither is the service. I like independently owned restaurants with real food and real servers, who are allowed to speak with diners naturally rather than in some weird corporate script.

So why did we move there? We allowed our competitive sides to take over. You know, that voice in your head that is constantly questioning whether you’re getting ahead. Am I making enough money? Is my job important enough? Is my house big enough and more importantly, is it mine, or, more accurately, will it be mine in 30 years when I’ve paid off the bank? It’s an incessant voice that is hard to ignore. Based on our experience in Otay Ranch, it’s a voice that drives a lot of people because most of our neighbors gave no appearance of trying to build a life or a home there. It’s all about the investment.

When we moved in we had high hopes about neighborhood block parties and close neighborly friendships that never materialized. People keep their shades closed all day long and, despite the extraordinary efforts of developers to create a walkable community, nobody seems to walk anywhere unless they’ve got a dog.

And when we moved out last week, we were approached by at least three close neighbors to whom we have not spoken since we moved in two years ago. What did they have to say?

“Did you sell or do you have renters?” And, “Did you make as much money as you hoped?”

Point Loma is far from urban. But it is in the city and I don’t need urban. I have the best of both worlds here. My street is quiet, pretty and residential, but I can walk to bars and restaurants and I can see downtown and San Diego Bay from my upstairs office window. (Seriously, I’m looking at a passing sailboat right now.) I can get downtown or to the airport without getting on the freeway. And the beach is just three miles away.

Best of all, it is a real neighborhood, where people leave their blinds and windows open and work in the yard. They’re friendly and they go for walks.

What else do I need? Surely, not a mortgage.

Please contact Catherine Hockmuth directly at cmhockmuth@yahoo.com with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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