Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Reflections: Stuck in Second Place

Growing up, ribbons or trophies were awarded for first place, second place, and third place - not for participation or effort. To say I was competitive would be an understatement. It was more like I was driven. Second place - or shudder third place - wasn't good enough for me, especially if the competition involved boys.
Cover of the March 1963 Issue of American Girl
I blame a second grade teacher for this character flaw. She probably was a well-meaning Irish Catholic sister, but to a 7 year old girl, her words amounted to a life without parole sentence. The fateful sentence that would shape most of my life went something like this:
"It's too bad you're a girl; it's such a waste of a brain."
From that moment, I set out to prove I wasn't second rate. I set out to prove that I could overcome the handicap of being a girl. Top student for the next four years would seesaw back and forth between myself and one boy, a boy who after high school would help me survive Calculus in college.
This drive for being the best, for coming in first, led me to shun competitions that were subjective. For me, subjective competitions were akin to being born a girl, you can't influence the outcome. A perfect score won't help. Finishing the race first won't help. Those competitions weren't worth my time.
Similarly, I avoided competitions based on physical attributes. I was neither strong nor long-legged. Unless the race was a marathon, I'd almost undoubtedly lose a sprint to the person a head and a half taller than me. Those competitions didn't have a level playing field, the awards were meaningless unless competitors were evenly matched. (It wouldn't be until I was in sixth grade that I was able to convince a PE teacher to let the three shortest girls race in the same heat. I'd practiced fast starts and sprints all summer for this chance. I won, and I never raced in PE again. I'd proven that I could compete in a fair race and excel. I'd made my point.)
The housing market in San Francisco is one of those competitions that if given a choice I'd avoid. I've been here when available space was tight. I've camped out overnight to be first in line to an open house. But that was then. The rules now have changed. It doesn't matter if you're first. It doesn't matter if a prospective landlord has told you that you have the place and a deposit is in process of being transferred to them. Cash on hand. Multipliers. Credit scores. Timing. Those are the things that matter.
My husband and I have been trying to find a new apartment since May. Trying means we've been actively scanning craigslist daily (refreshing hourly) and responding to prospective landlords. We've crafted a one page bio that tells prospective landlords who we are, why we're a good risk.
During our six month and counting search, we've learned a lot. We've learned that first doesn't matter. We've learned that a verbal commitment doesn't matter - if you don't have cash on hand someone else can get the deposit into a landlord's hands faster and steal a place out from under you. We've learned that you're no longer counted "professional" if you're planning on starting a family (TICs - tenants in common - with professionals don't want you). We've learned that if you have a credit score under 700 don't bother applying (luckily this is a factor that can - and was - fixed.) We've learned that if you don't have 5x the rent in take home pay don't bother applying (and that 5x has to hold for possible maternity leave).
Here's where you might be asking: how does second place come into play? Not counting the one place where we came in first to have it snatched from under us, we've come in second - not once, not twice, but now three times. In the housing market, second is worse than just outright losing. It means you're almost good enough, but not.
I'm tired of playing a game we can't win. Second place challenges me to find a new game or change the rules. Second place isn't good enough no matter what people tell you. So, our new strategy to avoid second place is to stay put in our cozy one bedroom apartment and make it work. Save the difference in what we would have paid to a landlord for a down payment for a place of our own. There are some TICs and condos in the areas where we've been trying to rent that are in our price range and would have a mortgage less than the rent on the places we've been looking at.
What does second place mean for you?
Does it inspire you to try harder or change the game?

Ciao Bella!
Credits: All layouts designed by and images taken by Eden Hensley Silverstein for The Road to the Good Life.