May - June 2018

Written by Keith Schwanz
From his column It’s Your Money

its-your-money-03-18_article.jpgI pulled up my jacket collar as I left the house to walk the block to church on that first Sunday in December. Sirens from a fire truck blared, and as I crossed Klickitat Street, I looked to see where it was headed.

After arriving at church, I heard the buzz—John and Arlene’s house was on fire. A few men hurried to see if they could help these members of our congregation.

That afternoon, I drove by the house where I saw a badly charred car in the driveway. The fire had started in the northeast corner of the garage, and although the firefighters contained the blaze to the front part of the home, the damage was extensive.

Two months later, John called me and got right to the point: “We’re wondering if you might be interested in buying the house as-is.” He went on to explain that to get Arlene’s mother, then in her 70s, out of the back bedroom, firefighters had to break the window and pass her through the opening. She was too traumatized to move back into the same place, so they needed to relocate. John went on to say, “We thought that with your father’s help you might be able to rebuild the house.”

“We thought that with your father’s help you might be able to
rebuild the house.”

I called my father. He constructed a building at every church he served. If we were going to turn “as-is” into habitable space, we would need his guidance.

My father joined Judi, me, and the kids at the house on a rainy, winter afternoon a few days after the phone call. John greeted us in the driveway and told us to wait at the front door while he entered through the back of the house. When he came to the door, he stood there with his usual grin and welcomed us in.

The firefighters had cut a hole in the roof just inside the front door. Water dripped on us as we moved inside, and insulation lay in gray clumps on the floor. We could not escape the acrid smell of smoke. Even in places where the flames did not reach, there was heat and smoke damage.

John suggested we buy the house for the difference between the fair market value and what they had received in the insurance settlement. We did not haggle. Judi and I purchased the shell of a house for $14,000, and borrowed $6,000 from John and Arlene to start rebuilding, so the contract we signed was for $20,000.

John told me his attorney thought he was crazy, but he just laughed it off, saying: “He doesn’t understand what it means to be brothers and sisters in Christ.” 

A Leg of the Financial Stool

Financial advisors often refer to owning a home as one of the legs of a financial stool. Asset diversification helps manage risk, since various types of assets perform differently in changing economic conditions. So home ownership can figure significantly in one’s financial future.

I know that for my parents, having their own house in retirement created financial stability. For their entire 31 years of pastoral ministry, they always lived in a parsonage or rental house. As Dad moved closer to retirement, he wisely began planning to get his own place. In 1973, a $7,000 inheritance my mother received provided enough to purchase one acre of land within the city limits. Dad had demolished buildings for the lumber and eventually had enough to frame a 2,500-square-foot house with a walk-out basement.

My parents lived in that house for almost 20 years. When they sold it, we invested the funds and the resulting income provided money needed later when healthcare expenses increased. The inheritance my siblings and I received after Dad died was almost the same as the selling price of the house, so it served as a legacy, too.

Turning Point

When John called me with the as-is offer, we were a young family of four. I served as an associate pastor, and we had a modest household income. Our expenses were higher than a typical family in our neighborhood because I had just completed a master’s degree and my wife was in a graduate program. It was a time when expenses for the kids were beginning to rise and times were tight. We very much lived paycheck to paycheck. But that began to change once we got into our own home.

From my vantage point more than 30 years later, I cannot fully articulate the gratitude I have for the generosity of John and Arlene. We could not have afforded to hire others to rebuild the house, so Dad’s assistance was an essential element in our ability to take on such a project. When completed, we immediately had a positive net worth because of the sweat equity.

For some who drove by on that desolate winter Sunday so long ago, it was a severely damaged house. For us, it became a financial foundation. Something beautiful rose from those ashes thanks to the generosity of God’s people.

Keith Schwanz is a writer and editor. He previously served the church as pastor, church musician, and seminary educator.