Paid Off

     I just wrote a check for $302.31 to pay off my mortgage.
     I’m an hourly wage-earner and I’ve always been an hourly wage-earner.
     Paying off the mortgage used to be a big occasion for people like me. It’s the sad finale of the Great American Play, “The Death of a Salesman.”
     But for some decades now, I hear, my countrymen have not tried very hard to pay off the mortgage. “Trading up” seems to be the idea.
     I don’t live anymore in the house I just paid off, in Southern California. I live in Vermont now, and rent that house.
     I never planned to be a landlord, and didn’t buy the house to try to make money. I bought it to have a place to live. But because mine seems to be an unusual story these days, I thought I would tell it briefly.
     I think it’s worth telling too because it’s a peculiar slant on the real estate disaster that set off our country’s, and the world’s, economic catastrophe.
     I bought the house for $95,000 in 1996.
     Not much for a house in Southern California, right?
     It’s in Murrieta, in Riverside County, half a mile from the base of the Santa Ana Mountains.
     It ain’t much of a house, but it’s in a nice neighborhood, I think. The Realtors don’t think so. It’s in the old part of town, where the Mexicans live, and there’s still some old grandfathered-in house trailers. I like the neighborhood more than I like the house.
     Before I signed the paperwork, the bank told me I should drive a harder deal. It appraised the house for less money than I was paying for it.
     I bought it from my next-door neighbor, Jim. He was a good guy. He’s dead now.
     “So?” I told the bank. I bought it anyway.
     For the next eight years, according to the bank and Realtors, that house appreciated in value by $1,000 a month – $300 a month more than my mortgage payment.
     When I moved to Vermont in 2004, I could have sold that little house for more than $200,000.
     Just before the crash, it was appraised at $260,000.
     That’s ridiculous.
     That house ain’t worth that much. It’s worth about $95,000.
     Every month I paid $200 extra toward principal.
     After Sept. 11, 2011, when interest rates crashed, I converted the mortgage from 30 years into 15, at the same monthly payment.
     I kept paying $200 extra a month to principal until the economy crashed, when I said to hell with it: no one knows what anything is worth anymore.
     Now the bank tells me I own the house.
     That’s the American Dream, right – to own your house free and clear?
     I dunno. I’m not the acquisitive sort.
     Last time I saw the house was a few years ago, when I drove out there to fix it up after scumball tenants had trashed it and stolen all my furniture. They tried to sell the refrigerator, and unstrapped the water heater from the wall and tried to sell it too.
     That trip took a month out of my life and I hated every minute of it and hope I never have to do it again. I hope the people who live there now stay forever.
     Am I un-American not to rejoice at paying off the mortgage? To have done it by accident? To not want to make a killing, financially, from a place I bought because I needed a place to live?
     I don’t know. For this and many other reasons I feel estranged from my countrymen. The things that seem to motivate them – their fears and hates – especially their hates – are not my own.
     I’m glad I paid off the mortgage, though. I’ll try to rejoice. Like Willy Loman, I’m free.

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