After 20 years of renting, including 10 in public housing, Lisette Garvin finally has a home she can call her own.
Although she considers herself blessed, getting a home wasn't simple. Garvin, a single mother, got herself off welfare, got a job and, three years ago, at the age of 39, was able to join in the "American dream," buying a narrow, three-story rowhouse in the Washington Hill section of Baltimore.
"It's like everything I've ever wanted to get," said Garvin, an employee of the Maryland Division of Correction, who had her family's needs in mind when she bought her home.
Of her 22-year-old daughter, Lalita Bevans, she said, "I wanted to leave her something." Of her dog, Molly, Garvin said, "I wanted to give [her] a back yard."
Most important, Garvin has the satisfaction that she succeeded. "It's about me," she said.
Garvin, a Baltimore native, grew up in a Wilson Park home and graduated from Northern High School, the middle of three children in a two-car family.
"I know I was loved, [but] I didn't have self-esteem," she recalled. "I never thought about myself."
Garvin gave birth to Lalita at the age of 20.
"Mentally, I was young," she said.
She remained on social services until Lalita began school and then "got myself working."
After years of renting and living in public housing, Garvin decided she wanted her own home, a place where she could paint the walls, decorate as she wished and keep Molly, her poodle-terrier.
Having worked in Washington Hill, a 1750s-era shipping center-turned-residential-district, Garvin knew that was where she wanted to buy. She found her house - a Federal-style structure built in the mid-1800s - in the newspaper classifieds.
Her first real estate agent didn't respond immediately to her inquiries, prompting Garvin to drop that agent and call Mary Bickford, the agent listing the home.
"She was a very informed buyer and knew what she wanted," said Bickford, a Long & Foster agent.
A month later, Garvin bought the house for $50,000 with the help of a Baltimore empowerment zone incentive. The incentive, which is geared toward redevelopment in blighted neighborhoods, covered her $4,000 in closing costs in exchange for her agreement to stay in the home for five years.
"It was so easy. I was so afraid that I wouldn't be able to do it," said Garvin, adding that she was able to get a mortgage even though her credit was "not great."
Her decision to buy has proved financially sound: Her monthly mortgage payments are $459 a month, $9 more than the rent on her last apartment.
Nearly three years after buying her house, Garvin is still filled with enthusiasm for her home.
"I love the house," she said. "When I first bought the house, I would stay home from work just to stay in the house. I'm a homebody anyway, but this house just engulfs me."
Garvin's house in the 1500 block of E. Fairmount Ave. - a quiet, one-way street - has a view of the site of the former Church Hospital, now owned by the Johns Hopkins University. Garvin is a short hop from the Jones Falls Expressway and within walking distance of Fells Point and the Inner Harbor. From her back steps she can see the fireworks on the Fourth of July.
Garvin said she knew she did not want a house that would need to be renovated. In her case, the previous owner replaced the roof and air conditioning system before she moved in, but Garvin still had to spend approximately $2,000 on improvements, mostly on new windows and glass storm doors.
"No matter what the season, I like to have the doors open so I can have the light coming into the house," she said.
The first floor of her home is all one room, a 10-by-20-foot living room. Light pours in from the brightly painted front and back doors, which reflect warm tones onto the off-white walls.
Garvin, who likes entertaining friends, wanted her house to be comfortable. "People just stop over; they just kind of kick off their shoes," she said.
A stained-glass lamp depicting irises hangs above the green couch, which faces a television and shelves stuffed with books.
Two of the three faux fireplaces - constructed of antique brick when the house was renovated in the 1980s - are on the first floor (the third is in Garvin's bedroom).
The floors are connected by a narrow, wrought-iron, spiral staircase, with steps carpeted in a neutral beige. The staircase instantly attracted Garvin - "I was like, `Wow, that's cool!'" she said - but has presented its share of complications.
Most of the furniture on the upper two floors had to be assembled after purchase.
Although the basement kitchen included a refrigerator and stove, evidence of a hole remains where they were lowered through the living room floor.
Garvin's bedroom and the sole bath are on the second floor. The bedroom is decorated in a colorful Pooh bear motif. Red Venetian blinds hang at the windows, and record album covers adorn the walls.
The bathroom, from the countertops to the shower curtain, is decorated with pink flamingos.
The third-floor loft belongs to Lalita, a communication studies major at Towson University.
A solitary, well-established pine tree grows in the narrow, fenced-in back yard. Garvin plans to renovate the yard, perhaps adding a pond and garden.
She has plans for improving the interior of her home, too.
"It's got a lot of potential in here," she said.