In 1988, my parents bought a house in Anaheim for $140,000. It’s in one of those post-World War II tracts where all the houses have three bedrooms, two baths and one garage—everything two Mexican immigrants could ever want for their American Dream.
My father liked to hold pool parties for our extended family and serve everyone his famous carnitas; my mom was never happier than tending to her garden of chile plants, citrus trees and a massive bougainvillea. I go over at least twice a week to watch classic Mexican movies with them, or help cut the grass in the front lawn.
And every time I go, I take a moment to just stand back and marvel.
Two mexicanos were able to buy a house in Southern California. When they were 37 years old. In a not-bad neighborhood. And have four children. Without ever renting a room to anyone to help out with the mortgage.
This month, the house is all theirs after 30 years of payments.
How the hell did they do it?
“Work hard,” Dad said.
“Save everything you can,” Mom added.
With clichés like that, maybe they’re not ready for prime time. But my parents offer a great example of how dramatically Southern California’s housing market has changed over the past 30 years.
Mami and Papi bought their home in an Orange County that no longer exists.
Mami and Papi bought their home in an Orange County that no longer exists. My mom made a living wage as a Teamsters-represented canner for the old Hunt-Wesson tomato factory in Fullerton. My dad was just beginning his career as a short-haul truck driver, after a decade working for the old Royalty Carpet Mills in Irvine.
All that hard work and saving meant they were able to put $40,000 down and, during four straight years in the 1990s, throw in an additional $10,000 toward the principal. Their last mortgage payment will be an absurd $300.
It wasn’t easy. My parents never went on vacations—trips to Mexico don’t count as vacation for Mexicans—and they never bought anything fancier than a top-level Stetson for my dad or silk shawls for my mom. My dad took over full responsibility for the house payments when the Hunt-Wesson plant shut down in 1997. And after clean-air regulations at the Port of Los Angeles put my dad out of work, I stepped in for some years.
But they never missed a payment, never took out a loan or refinanced. While friends and family bought second homes or moved into flashier digs that they couldn’t afford, my parents stayed put; some of their friends ended up losing everything.
Their diligence paid off: Zillow says that if my parents sold their casa today, they could get $563,000.
But they’re not going to sell—they can’t afford anything better on the market today.
Now I’m near the same age when my parents became homeowners. And I’m proud to say I own my own abode — a P.O. box of a pad in Anaheim that I purchased in 2012.
How did I do it? I hate to sound like a broken record, but I applied the same principles as my parents. I shared a bunk bed with my brother until I was 27, and never took a vacation of any length until my 30s. I wear clothes until the shirts are transparent and pants are frayed at the bottom. I saved and worked and saved and worked some more.
And I had good timing: While many of my friends bought at the height of the housing bubble, I leapt in once it crashed.
I won’t say how much I paid, but my monthly mortgage payment is less than the $1,871 average monthly rent for a one-bedroom in Orange County, according to real-estate market tracker Reis.
So when I hear of educated Americans who can’t afford to live in Southern California, part of me wants to tell them to buck up and make it happen—because if my parents were able to make it, and I was able to make it, why can’t they?
But then I check myself and see the reality of the present day.
Investors inflate the market by gobbling up properties and converting them into Air BnBs or rentals; my parents’ street has turned into a sea of absentee landlords who let tenants trash once-beautiful homes. Formerly solid working-class jobs no longer pay enough to make saving possible; people live from hand to mouth and have nothing left over for a nest egg. In other words: Hard work and saving aren’t always enough anymore.
Two of my siblings still live at home despite working full time and getting benefits. They can’t afford to live anywhere in Orange County on their own right now. When college-educated, second-generation kids can’t top their working-class parents, that’s a problem for the future of the American Dream.
That’s how I see it, anyway. My favorite uncle from my mom’s side, who bought a two-story house in Placentia in the mid-1990s—with a bigger pool than ours, on a concrete finisher’s salary as the sole breadwinner, while raising six kids—sees it differently. “A trabajar, tontos,” he’d say to the complainers. Get to work, dummies.