'My Personal Crisis' is everybody's personal crisis

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Edmund L. Andrews' "My Personal Crisis" hasn't even officially been published yet, but has already drawn plenty of understanding nods from across cyberspace. Slated to run in Sunday's New York Times Magazine, the article documents Andrews' descent into irreversible debt, with a house he loves but can't afford playing a starring role.

It's not hard to understand why Andrews' story is so powerful. Every generation has its own classic tragedy, a passion play whose steps are well-worn and obvious, but nonetheless painful and moving. Like an mid-eighties after-school special, Andrews' tale is unique, but painfully familiar.

An economics writer, Andrews admits that he should have known better than to fall for a mortgage scheme. Still, when his loan officer offered him way more money than he could afford to borrow, he took the cash and complimented himself on his ability to play the system. He and his new wife moved into their big, beautiful house with their combined family and embarked on their bright, new life together.

Then the other shoe dropped. His wife wasn't able to get a good job, and their spending styles clashed. One thing led to another, and he was soon back with the loan officer, refinancing on terms that would make a gambler blush. Still, as he found himself dealing with a failing marriage and panic attacks, hope continued to spring eternal as he tried to ignore the fact that he was one missed paycheck away from disaster.

Disaster struck, as it always does in tragedies. Andrews is still in his house, for the time being at least, and is still waiting to talk to a negotiator about a modified loan. Like many borrowers, he is stuck in limbo, living in a house that he can't afford with a lifestyle beyond his means.

The bullet that hit Andrews was one that my wife and I narrowly avoided. The house that we were considering cost a lot less (then again, we were making a lot less), but many of the elements were oddly familiar. We, too, were looking to start a new life together, and thought that we had found the perfect place to do it. It was a sprawling 1930's-era duplex in a marginal neighborhood that was on its way up. It would have been a long commute for me, but it was walking distance from theaters, stores, and museums, and the neighborhood was filled with bright-eyed young couples working on ultracheap fixer-uppers. My wife and I decided that the time had come for us to be homeowners.

Like Andrews, we met with a super-friendly, hyper-ambitious loan officer who was willing to resort to all sorts of clever, quasi-legal machinations in order to get us the money that we needed. He helped us to fill out our applications, suggesting where we should volunteer information, and where we should leave key information out. The mortgage that we ultimately qualified for would have a fixed rate for five years, after which it would switch to a backbreaking adjustable rate. When I expressed concern at this, our friendly neighborhood broker explained that all we needed to do was refinance before the adjustable rate kicked in. With property values going up and our credit consistently improving, he assured us that refinancing would be a piece of cake.

That was in 2005.

Looking back, I am struck by the number of pitfalls that could have -- would have -- tanked my wife and me. The long commute, which wasn't much of a hardship when gas was under $2 a gallon, would have been a deal killer when it went up to $4 a gallon. For that matter, the birth of our daughter and the financial problems suffered by my employer both could have sunk us. Worst of all, the neighborhood has been slow to improve and an arsonist briefly made it his playground.

Any number of things could have left us undone, desperate for a way out. As it was, we realized that there were just too many contingencies, too many ifs involved in our situation. IF the neighborhood improved, and IF the home's value continued to go up, and IF I continued to get raises, and IF the cost of gas stayed low . . . everything would be fine. In the end, it became clear that we were about to build our future on a teetering house of cards. We backed out of the deal; had we stayed in, our adjustable rate would be kicking in sometime early next year, and we would be waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Just like Andrews.
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