Angry Money

Paying for my mother’s real estate decisions.

Photo credit: Agover, CCo Public Domain.

“This isn’t my fault, you know?” I told my tax preparer as she worked numbers into her computer, numbers that would later unveil that I owe the IRS $3,000 from a short sale. If she thought I was a liar, her face didn’t say so — she was placid. I chose her based on her picture on H&R Block’s website. She looked like someone’s grandmother, the kind who still sent cash in the mail. “It happens more often than you think,” she said, and I knew I chose the right person to handle my taxes.

In 2012, my mom put her house—which was also my house—on sale. (I never know what to call the house my mom, my sister, and I lived in for years. Her house? My house? Our house? Years later I started calling it “the house,” like it was someone else’s.) On paper, I was the primary owner, but even though my name appears on top of all the paperwork, I was as far removed from the process as one can be.

The whole thing started the day I came home to our apartment to hear my mother announce she was buying a house. It wasn’t not a terribly surprising thing for her to say, as she is a woman who is prone to grand declarations. I told her it was imprudent to buy a house at the time. The housing market was scorching and vampire creditors were coming at us. Besides, we’d only lived in America for a little over two years.

My mother spent most of her life in an upper-middle-class enclave. Boarding schools, houses, new cars, unreasonable shoes, rich boyfriends, and later, a rich husband. As an only child, she grew up rarely hearing the word “no;” as an adult, she approaches it like a smudge in her effervescence. I asked if my dad would finance the enterprise (like he always did) but she only looked at me the way she looks at people when they’ve dented her self-assurance — a raised eyebrow and a face that said, “I’ve had enough of you.”

As her oldest daughter, I tried to regulate her spending. Our lives at that time were no longer what she was accustomed to; no more expensive cars and palatial housing for any of us. She responded by telling me that I was “not fun.” She was 51 when we arrived in America, and she had to get a job, something she hadn’t done since she was 23.

Still, in spite of her fluid spending—or maybe because of it—my mother had made some astute real estate decisions in the 80’s and 90’s in Asia. Our childhood home was paid off in seven years, and in their retirement years, my parents have become solvent landlords. Buying a house seemed like the right idea to her because, at one time, it was. But it became very clear that her Asian real estate savvy didn’t translate in America.

First of all, her loan officer and real estate agent convinced her to make me the primary owner. I was barely 20 years old, making $12 an hour plus tips and going to college full time. But my credit was excellent, I had no debt, and had some savings — that’s all they needed. In our home country, you can’t buy a house unless you have 20 percent down payment up front. How much did my mom put down on the house? I’ve no idea, but I’m sure it wasn’t that much. She was only making a bit over minimum wage, and yet she was able to buy a house for $205,000.

Years later, my boyfriend and I were talking about the housing meltdown. He talked about how renters were duped into buying a house by being told that they could have an adjustable rate mortgage (ARM). Small, affordable monthly payments in the first few years—but before you know it, your mortgage has doubled and your bills are colossal.

I didn’t know, at the time, that we also had an ARM on the house. It explained how March’s mortgage payment was $1,550, and December was over $2,000. I didn’t think to ask, even though I was already paying all of the household bills and part of the mortgage. In my family, we don’t talk about money. (I used to see numbers on my mom’s bathroom calendar. Eventually I realized that they represented dates when bills were due.)

In the eight years we owned the house, my mother took out two mortgages to pay off her metastasizing consumer and medical debts. “Don’t do this,” I told her as I signed the paperwork both times—because as far as the banks were concerned, I was the one borrowing the money, not her. Could I have said no? Yes and no. Culture dictates that childless and unmarried adult children (daughters especially) take care of their elders. Besides, how do I say no to one of the people who gave me a bountiful life in a destitute country?

My mom’s American dream curdled. We put the house on the market. It took months to sell, first because of the slump and second because our neighborhood regularly made the local news due to home invasions and shootings.

We ended up doing a short sale, which meant that our mortgage holders agreed to let us sell the house for less than we owed on it, and the house finally went for $140,000. After I signed my name to even more paperwork, I thought I could finally feel like myself again instead of the person I had become: revolted and stained with anger.

Then we had to deal with the taxes—or I did, since my name was on the paperwork. My real estate agent told me I wouldn’t get any money from the sale, not even for moving expenses. She also advised me to see a tax preparer to handle the taxes in the coming year. Also, since it was a short sale, my credit would be garbage for the next three years. I hung up, and browsed H&R Block for a tax preparer who looked like she wouldn’t judge my disemboweled finances.

My stoicism paled as I left H&R Block and got into my car. I owed the IRS $3,000 from the two mortgages taken out of the house. (I don’t remember the amount, it was somewhere around $30,000.) I wrote a check for $3,000 knowing that this money is angry money, and it always will be.

Ruzielle Ganuelas is a writer, baker and PF nerd in Washington State.

This article is part of The Billfold’s Tax Series.

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