Four houses in 12 years — the search for a home in the city

(Ella is an award-winning documentary producer and former television executive for GMA News and Public Affairs. She now heads her own production company Manila Media Inc.)

I spent my first 25 years living in just one house. But since getting married 12 years ago, my husband and I have moved into four homes so far. I think, however, that our circumstances are not unusual. Many of our married friends, GenXers entering their forties, are also on their third or fourth home.

Unless you’re a scion to Manila’s social elite, settling into your dream house right after your wedding seems unlikely. Most professionals marrying in their late twenties, such as ourselves a decade ago, likely start off staying at the bride or groom’s family home or at a condo unit. With so many condo developments sprouting all over the metro, the latter seems the most viable option for middle-class newlyweds.

Our first condo was a 70-sqm. one-bedroom unit with a balcony overlooking the pool. Located on the third level of a mid-rise building, each floor only had four to six units. Built in the mid-‘90s, the three-cluster condo stood on a lot owned by a former Philippine president.

It had manicured gardens, a small pool, a playground, a clubhouse and an imposing water fountain in the driveway. Unlike newer developments, this condo did not have a restaurant or reception area, but it was just a few steps away from dining spots and bars. More importantly, it was walking distance from the TV station I used to work for. I could be home within a 10-minute stroll. No need to worry about parking or long cues for taxi or train.

Because of its proximity to my office, we would often host get-togethers and even meetings in our unit. We would have viewing parties with friends sprawled on our custom-made couch and giant floor pillows. My team and I would spend hours eating and brainstorming around our wood and glass dining table. The downside — our unit had only one bathroom which was inside our bedroom.

After two years, we decided to move to a bigger space. We wanted to stay in the same location and luckily found a two-bedroom unit within the complex. Our rent doubled but it was still within our budget and cost less than if we bought a smaller unit at a new condo.

We spent for renovation and decorated the place to our liking. We had floor-to-ceiling open shelves built, which we filled with books and souvenirs from our travels. The second bedroom allowed us to house family and friends on vacation. We had an ensuite bathroom and another for guests. At the back was a maid’s room with its own toilet, which became our laundry and storage quarters. The kitchen, with enough space for an oven and stove, saw my husband and I regularly experimenting on weekend meals.

I would appreciate this 110-sqm. condo even more when we finally had our own child. We waited five years and endured one miscarriage before we became parents. Not surprisingly, I took on my new role very seriously. I quit my job to focus on caring for our newborn.

Having a baby meant more stuff — a crib, a playpen, a rocker and a partridge in a pear tree. Suddenly, the master’s bedroom seemed small. Neither of the bathroom was spacious enough. The crib and the playpen took over the living room. The dining table was converted into a baby bath counter every morning.

Despite these, the condo still proved ideal for our family of three. Finding reliable house help was almost impossible — it was mostly my daughter and I, day in and day out.

I liked that I could still watch her sleep or play in the living room while I made meals in the kitchen. When we got bored, we would go down and hang out with other kids and their yayas in the common areas. When my husband went out of town for work, I didn’t have to worry because there were guards who could easily come to our aid.

We were quite comfortable with this setup and didn’t mind continuing condo-living for some more years. We even seriously considered buying our unit.

But fate had other plans. We would have a second daughter before our first one turned two. The addition of another child signaled the need for a bigger space.

By some luck, we got a random offer to rent a house in a gated community that was still within our area. Built in the 1950s, the house was on a corner lot across the village park and church. My husband asked me to look beyond the aging structure and see it as an opportunity for us to try living in an actual house. I thought the size of the house, with its own garden and yard, was just right for our growing family.

We did a thorough makeover. We stripped the house off its dark paint and modernized the interiors with hues of grays and white. We replaced decaying cupboards with steel and open wood shelves.

We repurposed most of our condo furniture. Our bedroom headboard became a floating shelf in the living room. Our dining table was turned into a study table.

The master’s bedroom had enough space for a king-sized bed and a couch. Our daughters shared the second bedroom with adequate storage for their toys, clothes and what not. The third bedroom became our dressing room slash home office.

Rent came out lower than the condo as we didn’t have to pay extra for parking slots. The garage could fit two cars, and a third one could be parked in front of the gate. The garage had no roof though which was difficult during rainy days with a baby and toddler.

But after living in a condo for close to 10 years, I felt more vulnerable staying in a house again. I was uncomfortable that our bedroom windows directly faced the garage and the gate. I was iffy that one could easily take a peak into our world because of the low walls. To ease my fears, we installed close circuit cameras around the house.

We remained unlucky finding household staff. We made do with temporary stay-out cleaners. Again, it was largely just me and my daughters 24/7. Doing chores in the kitchen or in the laundry area where I could not see them was extra tricky. Their sudden cries or screams would send me rushing back inside, with unfinished tasks piling up.

The author’s daughters Soleil and Estelle, then aged 5 and 3, having breakfast in the front yard of House No. 3.

The house demanded more cleaning than what we had gotten used to. Leaves would be all over the garden floor and the backyard every day. Clearing them out could take a good half hour in the morning and another in the afternoon. Since I was almost always alone with the two kids, our perimeter sometimes went unswept for days.

Inside was a different matter. I made sure I would sweep and scrub the floors every day and every night. I would put the kids to sleep and then get up in the middle of the night to clear their mess and finish chores. I’d wake up before anyone else does to do more cleaning.

Our village was right along EDSA and the house could get very dusty. And because it was a five-decade-old structure, we regularly had to contend with busted pipes and whatnots.

In our second year, my husband and I knew this house was not the one for us. We needed something more manageable in a location closer to my husband’s office and the schools we chose for our girls.

Around this time last year, we found a townhouse for rent one block away from our kids’ pre-school. It was inside a guarded compound of eight townhouses. The three-story unit has a beautiful spiral staircase, French doors opening to a small garden and a second floor balcony. It has three bedrooms, each with its own full bath, plus a powder room on the first floor. It has a maid’s room with a built-in double deck bed and a toilet. The attic has its own shelves and study table, with enough space for a couch or a daybed.

Our eldest daughter, then five years old, was hesitant and emotional about moving. When she and her sister saw the new place, however, they instantly loved it. They staked their claim to the rooms they picked and requested that we paint it in their favorite colors. We did minimal changes to the place and were still able to reuse most of our existing furniture.

The best thing about our recent move is we were able to drastically cut down our time in traffic. Our second daughter’s pre-school is now a brisk five-minute walk from home. It used to take us 40 minutes from our old house. My husband can now get home from work in half an hour instead of an hour and a half.

We signed a three-year lease and we’re now in our second. Frankly, all the moving the past years had gotten in to us. We wouldn’t mind staying in this house, and in this part of the city, for a while. With real estate prices escalating every year, we know we cannot afford to purchase this property just yet. 

Yes, there’s a certain security that comes with acquiring your own house. But there’s much more to life than one’s address. As we all know, many people in their mansions feel empty and insecure, while others are perfectly content living in a cramped apartment.

One thing we’ve realized through the years of moving is this — it takes more than bricks and stones to make a home. Happiness is in who you live with and not necessarily where you live.