When Losing a Home Means Finding Happiness

By Christina Davidson

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"I went from living in a 4900-square-foot house to living in this 29-foot trailer," Michael Babins tells me as we're chatting in the living room slash kitchen slash dining area of the Prowler Regal he has called home for the past nine months. "And to tell you the truth, I am totally content right now."

Until their move to the Hi-Ho RV Park in Glenn Heights, Texas, Michael and his wife Lisa had lived in Las Vegas for eighteen years. The couple bought a house in the late 1990s for $155,000. With two incomes, two kids, five dogs, and a beautiful home, the Babins led an ostensibly idyllic life.

One day almost five years ago, Michael started chatting with his next door neighbor--a man planning a host of home improvements with money he had just received by refinancing his mortgage. The Babins could scarcely believe that their neighbor's nearly identical property had been assessed at more than $350,000, until they got their own comparable estimate.

Suddenly, dozens of refinancing invitations arriving in the mail every week no longer looked like junk. Each one could hold a passport to financial freedom. The Babins could not see the financial enslavement lurking just behind the glossy brochures and fast-talking mortgage brokers. It was as if the noxious gases inflating the housing bubble had seeped into the couple's rational mind, infecting them with a Panglossian outlook.

"We never thought the price of our house would come down," Michael admits sheepishly. "We just didn't see an end to the market."

One finance company offered them a 110% return on their equity with a three-year fixed interest rate that was 4% lower than that on their original loan. The broker insisted they could always come back to refinance again if interest rates spiked after the arrangement shifted to its adjustable phase. So they signed the papers, increasing the burden of their debt to $300,000.

Michael just shakes his head in resignation while recounting those fevered days in Vegas, when it seemed like mortgage brokers handed out six-figure loans as flippantly as casinos did free cocktails. "When you dangle a carrot in front of a donkey's nose, he's gonna follow it. That's what happened to us," he explains.

He freely admits they should have proceeded more cautiously in refinancing, but still can't shake the feeling that lax regulations permitted unscrupulous brokers to lure them into a kind of legal scam. "We never should have qualified for a loan that high with how much we made. We shouldn't have been offered it. But also, we shouldn't have taken it."

Michael and Lisa devoted most of the money to home improvements, never imagining they would end up simply walking away from the investment within a few years. Fortunately, the extra money also financed the purchase of a 29-foot Prowler Regal they now call home.

In late 2007, an oppressive shroud of recession began to settle over their lives, tightening the noose they had walked into so blindly. With the refinancing funds already depleted, the Babins felt the full burden of their monthly mortgage payment just as rising energy prices had utilities and gasoline consuming a larger portion of their budget. Interest rates were going up; property values were going down. There were no refinancing options available as their mortgage approached the shift to an adjustable rate.

The home refinanced at its peak market value had dropped back down to its purchase price from the late 1990s. As the mirage vanished, they could finally see that the luxurious $350,000+ house they had reveled in was actually little more than a cosmetically-adorned version of the $155,000 place they bought a decade ago. And they still owed more than a quarter million dollars on it. The choking crush of reality grew almost unbearable.

By this point their kids had grown and moved out to start their own lives, so Michael and Lisa had been considering relocation closer to their native Oklahoma. Forty-seven homes displayed foreclosure signs within a three-block radius, so they clearly couldn't sell their house and make a calculated move. But when Michael received an offer for a managerial position at a Dave and Buster's in Dallas, Texas, they didn't have to consider so much as they had to start planning.

The Babins had resigned themselves to becoming renters instead of homeowners, until Michael happened across an online forum of people discussing the benefits of RV living. "I didn't actually know that people lived in RVs and traveled around," he admits. Further research sparked a revelation that they already had a second home sitting parked in the driveway.
 
So they both resigned from their Vegas jobs: Michael as manager for a gaming company and Lisa as manager of a floral and hospitality service. They sold whatever people would buy in a yard sale, packed everything they could into the RV and a U-Haul--abandoning anything that wouldn't fit. They locked the door of their home for the last time and simply drove away. They left behind furniture, appliances, tools, a house, a quarter million dollar mortgage, and the only life they'd known for nearly twenty years.

I surmise that moment of departure felt something akin to having a cancerous tumor removed without the benefit of anesthesia. But as the lights of Las Vegas faded in the rearview mirror, the burden of that life began to lighten. "We could have kept our house, could have kept paying for it," Michael says. "But it would have been a mistake. Leaving took a big weight off." He knows the bank has foreclosed on it by now, though he hasn't seen it listed in any public database yet.

Making that decision to uproot their lives and abandon their community, home, and possessions felt excruciating, but now Michael seems almost ecstatically grateful for the new perspective it has given him. "It's like this gave me a whole new light on life and retirement."

A few years ago, Michael thought they were happy. But looking back, he seems to realize they'd just grown a high tolerance for struggle. They both worked constantly to keep feeding a parasite assuming the form of a beautiful home. Between the mortgage payment and utilities, the Babins's monthly living expenses used to average around $3500. With their travel trailer now parked under the shade of maple trees in the Hi-Ho RV Park, those expenses have dropped to $550.

"I used to think I would buy a house, pay it off, then retire in it. Now I wouldn't even consider buying another house. I watched my father become a prisoner to his house." Michael recalls that even after his father's retirement, his parents couldn't travel because they spent too much on property taxes, home repairs, utilities, and upkeep. "My father worked his whole life to pay for his own prison. I don't want that."

Lisa used to earn the bigger paycheck, but now she doesn't even have to work. When Michael is not at Dave and Buster's, they can just hang out. He says he feels so closely bonded to his wife of 25 years that the tiny quarters do not feel cramped at all, no matter how many times they bump into each other. In fact, he says the trailer feels huge and empty on the day I come knocking on his door. Lisa had to drive to Oklahoma City to take care of some family business, and he misses her.

Some may view buying a house as putting down roots, but Michael now sees it as accepting chains of bondage. Living in a RV park grants a kind of freedom. The Babins can walk out the front door one morning to a picturesque view of a lake. The next day it could be mountains. Most of the RV living community Michael has met so far seems full of genial and generous people, but if he ever didn't like the neighbors, he could relocate within an hour.  When he is done working, he plans to become a nomadic retiree. The only white picket fences appearing in this revised American Dream would be the quaint scenery he passes while driving down a long open road with the travel trailer hitched to his truck.

Even though he lost his home, Michael would never accept pity from someone thinking he was down on his luck. On the contrary, he feels privileged for having the opportunity to learn such a valuable lesson. "Everyone I know is living from one paycheck to another, and worrying about losing their job. I could lose my job, work part-time, and we'd still be fine."

"Life used to be a rat race," he says. "Now things have slowed down and we can just relax."


This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2009/07/when-losing-a-home-means-finding-happiness/22071/