Selling Your Childhood Home Is Never Easy — Especially When You Have Immigrant Parents

published Oct 19, 2021
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mother and daughter looking at their home, now for sale
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My childhood home sits on a sleepy street that, as far as I can tell, hasn’t changed much since 1950, the year it was built. The tiny two-bedroom, one-bathroom dwelling — about 670 square feet in total — was replicated en masse throughout the neighborhood back in the postwar housing boom. Nearly every house on my block shares this functional, modest layout. It was — and still is — the quintessential starter home. 

In 1983, my mom, a Filipina immigrant, moved in. By the time she met my dad, a Mexican immigrant, in the late 1980s, she had fully planted roots there. When I was born, I completed the picture of a modern multicultural nuclear family navigating life in Middle America. That house wasn’t much, but it was what we had. 

At some point, the picture began to tatter around the edges. In truth, the home became less of a sanctuary from the storm and more of a lightning rod in and of itself. My parents divorced. My dad left. I moved out and went away to college. My mom, however, stayed. 

It made sense, of course. The home, after all, was originally hers and hers alone. Now, nearly 40 years after she bought the home, the structure itself remains largely untouched. The exterior paint is the same shadowy gray. The house numbers are the classic cursive kind that were prominent in postwar design. 

Some areas are showing their age. The concrete driveway is cracked and fragmented; the white poles holding up the angled brown-and yellow-carport are rusting. Whenever I visit, these parts in disrepair are what stand out to me. They quite literally embody what it was like to grow up in a broken home. 

Earlier this year, when I noticed that homes in the neighborhood were selling for well above what I would’ve ever imagined them selling for, I saw an opportunity. She could cash out and have some kind of nest egg for retirement. Despite my mom’s deep-seated attachment to her house, maybe this hot real estate market would be just the nudge she needed to consider selling and starting a new chapter in her life. 

Maria Gomez*, a public relations professional in Washington, D.C., can relate to what I’m going through. Her mother is currently in the process of selling her childhood home in Puerto Rico. 

“I feel that’s the right thing to do,” Gomez says. “I know she was very attached to the house because after she got divorced, that was her passion project. She remodeled the house, and I think for her, it’s where she actually found independence after living in her parents’ house and then being divorced.” 

Originally, Gomez thought her sister might want to keep the house. But since it’s located in a more rural area where there’s not much going on, her sister ended up moving to the city. 

“The thing about that small town we’re from, there aren’t really any opportunities,” Gomez shares. “That area of the island has been abandoned even before the really bad economical situations in Puerto Rico were happening. But with everything that’s been happening in the past few years — the hurricanes, earthquakes, electricity bills — it’s becoming a bit of a ghost town.”

As my mom’s only child, I stand to inherit the house. But like Gomez and her sister, I left my hometown because of the lack of opportunities, and I’m convinced that I will probably never come back. When I brought up the possibility of selling to my mom, I explained where I was coming from. She understood. In fact, she seemed surprisingly open to the idea. “I’ll think about it” was the best I got, but considering she’s lived there for most of her life, I figured it was a solid starting point. 

Maia Montes De Oca, a real estate agent in St. Augustine, Florida, understands the sensitivity required when broaching this topic, especially when you come from a family of immigrants. In May 2021, her parents sold her childhood home in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey, which surfaced many tough and complex emotions. 

“My parents both migrated to the country from the Caribbean and South America,” Montes De Oca says. “This was the first home they bought in the suburbs, and they raised their kids there. It was such an achievement for them, and it was especially hard for my dad to close this chapter of his life.”

She recalls that the day before her parents closed on the home, her dad sent a video of the house completely empty. “You could tell he was holding back tears as he walked through,” Montes De Oca shares. “In that moment, I felt like my life had flashed before me. Thirty years had passed in a blink of an eye — I couldn’t believe it.”

Her best advice for figuring out how to support your parents in their home selling journey is actually exactly what I myself needed to hear. The last time my mom and I talked about it a few weeks ago, she said she wasn’t so sure about selling. Perhaps, she explained, she would revisit the idea later in the spring. 

“Be patient and understanding,” Montes De Oca says. “As hard or heartbreaking as it is for you, it might be even harder for them.”

*Name has been changed