Home Ownership Lessons

We bought a house! How exciting!

Our house! The front already doesn't look like that though. We had to dig up the lawn for foundation repairs, and the stairs were falling apart so we're in the process of replacing them with a deck.

Our house! The front already doesn’t look like that though. We had to dig up the lawn for foundation repairs, and the stairs were falling apart so we’re in the process of replacing them with a deck.

I think I’ve returned to my pre-backpacking weekly routine as well: work 8:30am-ish to 9pm-ish then pass out on the bed/couch/floor, spend off-day 1 staring at a wall, moaning about how exhausted I am then spend off-day 2 cleaning and running errands. I really wonder how people with kids do it. There just aren’t enough hours in the day or enough energy in one body to go around.

But anyway, despite it all, we’re mostly settled in. There are still a few things we need to buy for the house to make it presentable but it appears that backpacking for two years, then getting married, then buying a house leaves you on a pretty tight budget. So we’re getting the house ready one step at a time. One day we might even have a guest room!

Instead of going into details about our house-buying adventures, I figured I’d go with a different format, one of listing wisdoms we discovered the hard way.

1- If you’ve never bought a house before, find a good realtor.
I didn’t know anything about realtors before we accidentally stumbled across ours. He ended up being our guide, our teacher, our house-hunting manager, our advocate and even my therapist whenever the process became overwhelming. I have no idea what we would have done without him. Maybe you won’t be as lucky as us, so call around, interview a few people and find yourself a realtor as awesome as ours.

2- Get a mortgage broker. I didn’t consider one because I was afraid of the word “broker”. By the time I realized the error of my ways, I was knee deep in banks guilt-tripping me for my business. Between foreign investors and a struggling economy, the housing market is tough in Canada and apparently not-too-awful buyers (like me) are a hot commodity. I can’t say no to people, and the tug-of-war between the bank I’ve been with forever (and who was awesome to me while I was overseas!) and the friendly mortgage specialist bank in town ripped me apart. Then there was the difficulty to deliver on our deadlines, the communication breakdowns, the misunderstandings… ALL WHICH COULD HAVE BEEN AVOIDED WITH A MORTGAGE BROKER. I will, never, ever, ever make that mistake again. The mortgage-induced holes in my soul will forever haunt me.

3- House shopping advice sometimes seems silly in a small town. The one that keeps getting to me is “shop around for a home inspector and don’t use the one your realtor recommends“. Um… and how many home inspectors are there? Our town has one. I suppose if you don’t like him, you can ask the next closest one to make the 5-hour round trip to your house. Shopping around for a house inspector! How quaint! (Luckily, though, our local house inspector is great. He’s thorough, explains really well and makes nice, detailed reports for you. He also got the report to us without an hour of doing the inspection.)

3- A buyer’s market does not mean a cheap market. The average provincial house price in July (when we bought) was 403 666$ (SOURCE: Canadian Real Estate Association) and the median price for our town was 372 000$ (SOURCE: Canadian Real Estate Magazine – can’t make the link public since my town is small, but if someone really wants proof, I haz link). Keep in mind that like 1/4 of the listings for our town are in the various trailer parks, which charge rent comparable to that of an apartment and the roads are so bad you need 4 wheel drive. We wanted to stay under 300 000$ and avoid any condo-type properties that had maintenance fees over 150$/month. Which left us with about 5 houses to choose from. Those houses (and even some of the ones above our budget) all needed at least three of the following: new roof, new windows, new water tank, water damage repair, extensive drywall repair, new retaining walls, new floors, fixtures that don’t date back to the 80s. I remember how much work my parents had to put into their house before they put it on the market. Here, it seems like people neglect their house for 40 years and still expect to sell it for 10X what they paid for it! We ended up finding a house within our budget that had modern fixtures (was flipped about 6 years ago – cheaply, but it’s pretty if you don’t look close and the roof and windows are good), 900 sq feet, 60 years old, 2 bedrooms and an office, 2 bathrooms with nice tubs, gorgeous big open-concept kitchen (clearly the selling point!), small but acceptable yard and 10 min walking distance from my work (yay!). Still, by the time we’re finished the necessary repairs and upgrades to bring it to code, I estimate we’ll have spent about 10 000$ extra.

Our lovely kitchen. Sorry for the ultra-shit photo quality. I've been using my old phone since my modern one died and I took the pictures quickly to send to relatives who helped us afford our house. One day I'll get around to taking pictures with a proper camera.

Our lovely kitchen. Sorry for the ultra-shit photo quality. I’ve been using my old phone since my modern one died and I took the pictures quickly to send to relatives. One day I’ll get around to taking pictures with a proper camera.

4- There’s a lot to learn about home maintenance tools. A power drill? How complicated can shopping for one be? A lawn mower? I know how to mow lawns, I can buy a mower. Vacuum cleaners? Can’t you just buy one for 40$ at WalMart? …I feel like during our first few weeks in the house, we went to a hardware store every. single. day. Getting our power drill took at least 6 trips alone. My parents, who are accomplished DIYers, also picked that time to go sailing to the middle of nowhere, so we were on our own. As time consuming as it was, though, I learned a lot and I’m super excited about my cordless mower and embarrassingly fancy Miele vacuum cleaner.

5- Furniture ends up being very living-space specific. My old apartment was big and empty so I bought a lot of bulky furniture. Getting it to fit in our little house was quite the challenge. It felt like every room was about 1 foot too small. Our bedroom is 1 foot too small for my dresser (we crammed it in anyway, the door just doesn’t open all the way anymore), the guest room is 1 foot too small for a full sized bed (I think we will squeeze one in anyway…who needs closet access?), the living room is 1 foot too small for my couches and desk (again, crammed it all in, it’s, um, cozy) and the office is 1 foot too small to comfortably fit a nice chair between the futon and Ed’s desk (which is actually my kitchen table that we didn’t manage to cram anywhere else). I’m getting used to it now but moving in day was quite flustering.

6- You realize how times change and that your kids won’t have the same experience as you growing up. For barely more than the price of my down payment (not taking into consideration inflation, of course), my parents bought a long bungalow on a half acre lot with 3 bedrooms on the top floor and a basement that they eventually finished to create 3 more rooms, a den and a large playroom. Growing up, we had so much space to play and run around! There was even a forest behind the house to build forts in once we were old enough. My kids won’t have that. Yes, I know, for over a year I was around people who spend their lives in one-room houses with 3+ generations of their families. However, those kids have entire neighbourhoods or villages to run around in, here you can’t let kids outside without supervision until they’re too old to run around. Plus, people in one-room house cultures tend to watch a lot of television (at least the ones who have electricity). Really, a lot. The minimalist fantasy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

I’m noticing that my narrative is getting more and more negative. I think, though, that it’s less me being a downer and more me coming to peace with the fact that home-ownership for me won’t be what I observed with my parents 30 years ago. There are advantages to the small house – cheaper utilities, less maintenance and cleaning, less urge to buy stuff. Even once we have kids, perhaps having them play in the main room will be a good thing. It’ll be easier to supervise and clean up after them. Maybe living in close quarters will bring the siblings closer together (though that never worked on my brothers when they shared a room). We also have a super nice park not even 300 meters down the road to give us something to do as a family several nights a week. Plus, we’d like for our kids to attend bilingual school (English and Chinese – I figure it’s best they learn Chinese as early as possible so they don’t have to spend all their money on language schools in Taiwan like me) which means we’d have to move to the city in 5-6 years anyway.

The best thing about having our own house, though, is kitties! Ed’s cat Rock seemed lonely. I know you’re not supposed to project human emotions on cats, but he loved my parents’ cats (and by loved, I mean loved to torment) and shows interest cats outside as well as friends’ cats. So once we were settled enough, we adopted a kitten. He seems a little confused, I suppose it’s the first time he meets a cat who isn’t afraid of him, but they seem to get along ok. They take turns playing with toys and chase each other up and down the stairs in the evening. One time I even saw him let the little one give him a walk-by grooming lick.

Here they are, sharing a window.

Here they are, sharing the front windows.

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3 Responses to Home Ownership Lessons

  1. grimmtooth says:

    Grats on the new place! I guess you leveled up 🙂

    In our experience here, mixing a kitten with an older (or old) cat is pretty dicey, so I’m glad it worked out for you. People say they’re solitary creatures, but they really do seem to enjoy group-based play at times.

    (we have seven. it gets a little crazy.)

    • Ophelie says:

      Thanks! It’s the level up I never would have guessed 3 years ago!

      Seven cats! Your entire life must consist of vacuuming furniture and cleaning litter boxes! Though, I would guess that seven cats means you live in the countryside and your cats get decent outdoor time.

      I’ve always been told that it’s easier to introduce a kitten to an older cat than another older cat. But cats seem to be like people in that their preferences are pretty specific. I would have actually preferred an older cat because it’s a lot harder for them to find loving homes than kittens, but Rock is really playful (surprisingly, given how huge he is) and needed a friend with an endless supply of energy to keep up with him. When we lived with my parents’ cats, he was always trying to play with them and they got really annoyed, really fast. With the kitten, though, he can chase – and be chased back- to his heart’s content.

      • grimmtooth says:

        Hah, no, city dwellers actually. Even in the country, letting a cat range free is a good way to shorten their lifespans.

        We ended up with 7 because we can’t just abandon the strays that we take care of along the way when we move … Professor Jiggly (first of his name), for example, was a neighborhood stray that adopted us because we left kibble outside for him – he actually tanked the entire neighborhood to keep his spot in line.

        We were actually looking to adopt an older kitty when we ended up with Wash and Zoey instead, because, yeah, older cats have harder times finding homes. I’ve found that they tend to be okay with other older cats around as long as they are all on the same “let’s have a nap then eat stuff and then shed” agenda. Kittens like to shake things up, it’s what they do. Older cats are Not Amused by that.

        Big cats with a playful side are so cute it’s hard to contain one’s glee. A kitten is probably a good idea in that case. Being well socialized probably makes a huge difference.

        Here’s to years of fun with the kits! 🙂

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