Several weeks ago Sarah and I were involved in a conversation with a third party. It's a testimony to my age that, for the life of me, I can not recall who the third party was. I also do not recall how the subject came up, but we found ourselves discussing the mortgage crisis and home ownership. The entire conversation is as a vague buzzing in my ear now with the exception of one comment. I do remember talking about the new house we bought a year ago this past August.
He was speaking glumly about his upside down or "under water" mortgage. I was commenting with more than a little relief about how we carry no mortgage. We got a great deal on this 3800 square foot, three bedroom, two and a half bath, with finished basement and bonus room that is now the office I recently wrote about. You know the one. It's the room that's been torn apart, stripped, prepped, primed, painted, and now sits two-third complete with me too tired to finish it.Long story short (I know...too late) we paid cash for it.
That was when he rubbed his chin and said, "Yes, Mike, it's paid for, but you don't really own it. The truth is we never really own it.".
When he saw I was taken aback by his comment he continued, "Mike, we never really own anything like that. Not your house. Not your car. Not your motorcycle. None of it.".
I recovered enough to wonder if I was being led to the punchline of a joke so I replied, "Okay, I'll bite. Why don't we own any of it?".
He leaned forward and looked me in the eye (I say "eye", singular, because I only have the one that works) with a patient smile but not a hint of mischief, "Okay, no, you don't make a mortgage payment on your house or your farm...but you do have to pay property tax every year, right? You own every car you and Sarah have outright, yes...but every year when you go to renew that tag you have to pay excise tax, don't you?".
I opened my mouth to refute the statement...only to find...I couldn't! My jaw worked up and down like a beached fish gasping for breath. The nerves and muscles that connect it to the brain were functioning I was sure, but I could only think of one possible, four word response.
"Dear Lord...you're right!"
What a sobering thought! Now, this isn't to say we don't own anything. Small items, jewelry and clothing and guns and cats and such, we own, but the biggies? Nope. Try not paying your property or excise tax one year and see what happens. You'll suddenly find yourself with no land, and no way to get to it if you did! How could I have missed such an obvious thing at the age of...well...old?
Now, I understand why we pay taxes on properties and cars. Without it there would be far less money for infrastructure works such as sewers, water, flood control, and roads. Some part of my brains wonders though. Does this not fall under double (multiple really) taxation? The Constitution guarantees no unfair taxation without representation. Well, I want to meet the idiot who was representing me the day this was decided.
Another mystery to me is property tax rates. Why are they not uniform? When I lived up north I lived in a place that bragged about having the lowest property tax rate in the state. This was and, to my knowledge, still is true. What they did not mention was that we were paying this low tax rate in a place property values were so drastically, artificially over inflated that, by the time I got smart enough to leave, the average three bedroom, 1.5 bath family home on a minimum legal building lot cost over a million dollars. I don't know if I should laugh or cry when I think about the house we bought here north of Atlanta. Back home this place would sell for about $1.2 million (based on average price per square foot). Here we paid $92,000, or less than one tenth.
It's a thought I think a lot of people would be just as happy not having, and if I ever remember with whom I was having that conversation I may well box his ears. You work hard when you're younger to build your credit. You work hard to save up that down payment. You suffer through the process of actually buying that home, and that's only minor suffering compared to getting caught up in the dreaded short sale. You move in and spend more money, sweat, blood and tears making it truly yours. You make that mortgage payment faithfully for fifteen, twenty, sometimes thirty years. The day you make that last payment, the day it really becomes yours, you feel a rush of excitement and relief and happiness that I can't even accurately describe.
Yet you still don't own it!
I'm working really hard to forget I ever had that conversation. I liked the illusion that we own our house, our land, our cars! Sadly, as I'm not a drinker, I can not drink myself in to oblivion and forget it. I was perfectly content in my ignorance!
DAMN YOU, WHOEVER YOU WERE!
Perhaps, as I grow even older, I'll forget it.
One can hope...