Why I Decided to Stop Renting in Philly and Take the Home-Ownership Plunge

Rising rents in my neighborhood prompted me to end my string of weird apartments. But when I tried to put down roots in deep South Philly, I found my roots were already there.

Illustration by Tim Parker

Illustration by Tim Parker

I expected my apartment hunt to be over before the weekend.

After all, I’ve never been particularly picky. My must-haves were few, and after a decade of renting in Philly, my definition of “charming” had become pretty generous.

That drafty West Philly studio? I didn’t just like it — I loved it, squatter mouse and all. He kept to himself, rarely invited friends over, and spent most of his time in the oven, which was fine by me — the oven didn’t work, and even if it did, I didn’t cook. In retrospect, the little guy was probably one of my best roommates.

As for the leaky ceiling in my Parkway high-rise, it was only a nuisance until I realized it watered my plants. There may have been mold in the walls, but there were also blossoms on my African violets for the first time since I rescued those fussy little bastards from the lobby. Most days, this felt like an even-enough trade.

And while most people wouldn’t want to live next to a porn studio, I got used to it pretty quickly. The music was loud for a factory-loft building, sure, but here’s what I learned about adult-film stars during one very weird summer in Fishtown: They smell really nice, and they’re always happy to lend you a curling iron on Friday night. As far as neighbors go, you could do worse. Especially in Philly.

On top of it all, I’d like to think I’m not cheap. I was paying what felt like plenty for a tiny Queen Village apartment, and I was prepared to pay a little more to get a little more with my next place. What I wasn’t prepared for was the Philly rental market in 2015.

Seemingly overnight, people were competing for $1,300-a-month one-bedrooms in my neighborhood as if this was Brooklyn. Hours after posts hit Zillow, brokers were apologizing that they already had four showings scheduled. A Girl Scout credit score, solid references and the offer of a hefty pet deposit wasn’t enough to snag an ancient, miniature trinity off South Street. The owners had so many applicants, they explained, that they were holding out for the “perfect fit” this time. (I’m still not sure what that means, but if they were looking for a tenant who didn’t have to duck under that hobbit doorway, I suspect it’s still vacant.)

According to some frantic research, the so-called millennials who invaded your neighborhood are largely to blame for rapidly rising rents. Reluctant to settle down as they pursue careers and delay marriage, they’re driving up the demand for rentals, especially in cities. (Although one recent study suggests Philadelphia is bucking this trend, that wasn’t my experience in Queen Village). Add to that their pathological fear of major purchases and investments — which is understandable for a generation that graduated college just as the economy put in its two weeks’ notice — and apartment-hunting just got tricky.

I technically fall in the millennial camp, but I can’t really use their excuses. I’m not waiting for some big life plan to fall into place, and I’m extremely comfortable racking up debt. To be honest, I was still renting in my 30s for the same reason I was still doing a lot of things in my 30s: a combination of laziness and commitment issues. And I only stopped for the same reason I usually stop my more questionable habits: I couldn’t afford it anymore.

SAVVY INVESTOR AND real estate student that I am, I looked at a grand total of two houses.

First up was a gorgeous 19th-century farmhouse in South Jersey, somewhere between nowhere and the middle of nowhere. As much as I didn’t like the idea of crossing the bridge, I did very much like the idea of a wraparound porch. After spending the previous year in a stucco shoebox, I couldn’t resist taking a look.

As soon as I pulled up, I high-fived my dog and started picking out paint colors. The scene unfolding in front of us looked like an Americana painting. Corn and wildflowers grew in the side lot, while the picket-fenced yard was bigger than some city “parks.” The garage had been converted into a yoga studio, and the late-summer breeze coming through the rafters smelled sweet and fresh. I could be imagining it, but I’m fairly sure a bluebird winked at me as I tried out the hammock.

There was only one catch, the realtor explained nervously as I eyed up a kitchen that would make Ina Garten jealous. Ah yes, of course. I had been waiting for this moment since I’d found a two-acre Garden of Eden in my too-broke-to-rent price range.

“I don’t believe in the paranormal, but legally, I have to disclose this,” she explained. “There have been reports of a haunting.”

“As in, a ghost?”

“Yes, I’m afraid so.”

“Hm. How many ghosts?”

“Uh, I think just one.”

“Has it killed anyone?”

“No! No, no. But the owners report that it turns up the stereo sometimes. And it opens the cabinet doors.”

“But it doesn’t shoot pornos in the attic?”

“Excuse me?”

“How often does it come home drunk and pee in the foyer?”

“I don’t think I understand.”

“Never mind. Casper can stay.”

I sat on the front steps for a while after she left, imagining my new life as a homeowner with the world’s cutest shutters. It felt nice, but I had to admit that it also felt quiet. It took 20 minutes and just as many mosquito bites for a car to pass, and if the neighbors were home, they were doing a good job pretending otherwise. As I started to second-guess things, Murph ran out into the driveway and pawed at my car with a look on his face that said, “Lady, I’m a three-legged shih tzu with an $80 haircut, not a goddamned golden retriever.”

We got in the car, waved goodbye to the hammock, and put New Jersey in the rearview where it belonged all along. After my 30 years in Philly, the ghost didn’t scare me. But unless he had a spare curling iron, this wasn’t going to work out.

I HAD NEVER heard of Whitman before I came across a listing for a little house that needed a little work, and I wasn’t exactly optimistic on the way to meet the realtor. Queen Village was as far south as I had ever lived, and I rarely ventured past Washington unless I was going to the Land of a Thousand Tears and Eternal Sadness. (You probably call it “IKEA.”) While plenty of other South Philly neighborhoods were becoming investor darlings, Whitman noticeably hadn’t been making headlines.

I assumed it would be a quick trip, but I felt something change as soon as I crossed Snyder Avenue.

There were kids everywhere — knocking on each other’s doors, biking furiously down sidewalks, rollerblading into corner stores on their way to after-school hockey games. Halloween decorations were already up in September, sharing space in cramped rowhouse windows with homemade “Welcome, Pope Francis” signs. As the evening settled in, neighbors took to their steps, gossiping, drinking, and shouting over traffic in that vaguely friendly, vaguely threatening Philadelphia way that prompts just-to-be-sure 911 calls. A Mummers rehearsal was just getting started, and above it all, perennial Christmas lights stretched across the street, ever ready for their cue.

I understand that to many people, maybe even most, this sounds like a fever dream. But to someone who spent the ’80s chasing ice-cream trucks in Northeast Philly, it felt like home. After a quick tour of the house — all 900 lopsided, hammock-less square feet of it — I made an offer on the spot, and it was off the market before the weekend.

Now, it’s true that I had to make a quick decision. My lease was about to run out, and if I didn’t find a place in a hurry, the next stop was my childhood bedroom. But even so, I felt eerily anxious to seal the deal and put my name on the mailbox. I suspect it had something to do with what my mom clued me in to when she stopped by for a tour.

Although I had never heard of Whitman, my great-grandparents landed in the area after emigrating from Lithuania, and my grandfather grew up a stone’s throw from my new home. It was where he learned English with the help of neighborhood playmates, where a sympathetic stranger with a warm car dropped him off after his four long years in World War II, where a matchmaking corner bartender introduced him to my grandmother on New Year’s Day. He would eventually move to Mayfair, and I have a hard time picturing him anywhere but in his tidy little house on Hellerman Street. But, as it turns out, it was Whitman that gave my family a chance the first time we showed up on its doorstep 100 years ago.

Like the nervous realtor, I’ve never believed in ghosts. But now, as I write this on my stoop, I can’t help but believe in the spirit of a neighborhood. As always, thanks for the hospitality, Whitman.

Published as “Broad Street” in the December 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.