Friday, January 09, 2015

2014 Recaputalization

Being an unemployed person who is a bit scared of weather below -15C, I have been indoors a lot this week. You know, because it's winter, in eastern Canada. I've been spending a bit too much time on the internet reading super important articles *cough* and reading some year-in-review type things. So here I am, typing my own 2014 summary, in between bites of emotionally-eating-job-rejection pasta and sips of I-don't-need-a-reason beer. I introduce to you, 2014, re-visited.

Work

A long time ago in a galaxy far away (about six months ago and a twenty-minute walk) I used to have a job. My workplace shut down at the end of June, which was surprising, but not oh-my-gosh-no-one-would-have-ever-guessed-this-could-transpire surprising. The loom of a shut down had been hovering over us for, oh, years, but it seemed that we were in a safe spot. An excellent example of perception versus reality, I suppose.

Things that happened as a result of losing my job: the weird tremors in my hands went away, my occasional eye twitch vanished, I made less money, and I was far less stressed/irritable. My job wasn't stressful, but the environment of will-the-job-exist-will-it-not-exist-who-knows isn't exactly a pleasant one to be in for two years.

The task of finding new employment also isn't a pleasant one. I'm pretty sure the last job boom in this province took place when a shipped dumped off some shady Scots  in the 1700s and they had to build homes otherwise they would freeze to death. We've been in a downward spiral ever since.

Travel

Now that we got the boring necessities of job hunting out of the way, on to the more exciting things.

This has been an excellent year for travel, and as the temperature drops more I'm going to actually put in some effort to do a few wee summaries of travels on this space. In May I went on a cruise with lovely friend Charlene and her mum. It was a "get me the frig away from here" vacation that I booked a couple of weeks after learning our work place was shutting down. The timing was quite excellent. I had to use up vacation. Charlene was going on vacation. There was room for me on that vacation. I went on the vacation. As discussed in an earlier post, it was a cruise from Fort Lauderdale to Quebec City, but I officially disembarked in Charlottetown to save the cost of a flight home. You know what's great when you need to escape? A cruise. It's also an excellent place to study for a government French test, which I wrote the day after I returned home and achieved the result I wanted.

In July I burned some Airmiles and met two thirds of my Disney 'ohana in Chicago for a mighty 30th birthday celebration for Erin.  (Fun fact: thinking about this trip just made me smile! Aww, bless.) I had not seen Erin in what felt like eight millennia, but was actually "only" 2.5 terrible, long years. Charlene I had obviously seen more recently due to our habits of planning elaborate honeymoon-style vacations together. Chicago in a nutshell: good food, fun drinks, lots of walking, a baseball game with all you can eat food and beer because AMERICA, more Walgreens than one could ever dream of, a city tour, a bicycle ride (me), an art gallery (Erin and Charlene), many laughs, and too many questions of "What?" because I'm deaf, Erin is on her way, and apparently we all mumble or get excited and talk too quickly or something. We should probably all learn sign language before we get together again.

In September I remembered that I had a boyfriend and should spend some time with him instead of Charlene. Back in January before I learned of job vanishment Josh and I had booked flights to Dublin on West Jet. The airline was starting transatlantic flights in May and was offering some pretty appealing flight prices. Initially they were as cheap as $450 from Halifax, but for some stupid reason we couldn't make up our minds and didn't book for a couple of months when the price had went up. That being said, it was still much cheaper than I had seen in years at about $685 from Halifax.

Europe summarized in one long sentence: beauty and a soccer match in Prague; amazing prices, lovely walks, being lost, and rain in Bratislava; wonderful scenery, delicious food, hilly climb, hilarious hotel owner in Salzburg; lots of walking, a big night out, excellent host, many beer in Munich; friends (!!), wine, more delicious foods, protests & strikes, and walking in Paris; touring, sleeping in the airport, odd budget hotel experience, beer drinking, hill walking, and happiness in Dublin.

There was happiness everywhere, but it's nice to finish the list with that. Also important: this was Josh's first trip across the Atlantic and before we even flew home he was already discussing a return adventure! Now I feel confident in our ability to further pursue a relationship.

In October Josh and I went to Halifax for a wedding. This counts as a trip due to the crippling toll of the Confederation Bridge.

Something very important took place in November: Josh and I went to Florida with my parents. And thank-friggin-goodness Josh liked the place and had a great time at Walt Disney World and in the Orlando area. Given my attachment to my second home, it's best that I love someone who is willing to go there. Also, we went kayaking and saw turtles which was pretty awesome.

Personal

I read another blog that had this category and I don't know what to put here. I had two splinters this year.  So... yeah.

Actually, here is something, which I already blogged about, having to put down beloved family kitty, Friskey. And because I'm trying to not be in a funk about a job rejection today, now is not the time to write about the vicious, wonderful kitty.

Home

Good bye apartment, hello house! Update: house is still awesome. Since blogging about home ownership I believe we have unpacked one more box, contended with a basement that was trying to turn itself into a swimming pool (leaky basements = classic PEI problems), have purchased a piece of furniture for putting things in that will aid in the next round of putting things away, and have acquired an extremely large poker table that has come in quite handy for card nights and other such things that involve more than four people.

Giant Kitten continues to love having a house and has just told me he has gained an additional pound of muscle thanks to his stair sprint regime.

Friends

I have friends! I wanted to include this because I feel very fortunate to have friends. It might sound a touch gushy, but I feel so lucky to have friends that I can spend time with, laugh with, whine with, and just have many wonderful relationships in my life.

"Official" Relationship Status

Throughout this blog I have mentioned le boyfriend excellente a few times. But, as I reach the end of this, he is no longer a boyfriend. Instead, he is a fiance (to me!) which is pretty amazing and exciting. I sometimes, in my many free hours of the day, think about how lucky it is that things worked out between us. Being two compatible people is important, but I feel that timing also plays a crucial role in whether or not a relationship can blossom. I met Josh when I was single and mentally ready to be in a relationship. The timing was right, it worked out, and it's so wonderful to be in a relationship with someone where both parties can just be themselves, even from the beginning. But gush gush gush, that's something that can be saved for a wedding speech or something.

So the year 2014 finished how it should had. I went wedding dress shopping with my wonderful mama in the morning, house related things with le fiance (!) later on, and then rang in the new year with friends.

Happy 2015 to you!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

HAL Veendam Cruise to Home - Part I


HAL Veendam docked at Bar Harbor
I was very fortunate at my old job to have about four weeks vacation per year. In PEI vacation starts at two weeks per year and after eight whole years of dedicated service vacation time jumps up to three weeks. By PEI standards I was completely spoiled and absolutely took advantage of it. For 2014 I was planning on taking most of my vacation in the summer and fall, meaning when we found out in April that we would be closing in three months I had a bit of vacation to use up as it was very possible we wouldn't be able to be paid out any vacation.

What to do? Finding people available for last-minute vacations can be difficult. It's much easier to attach yourself to someone else's vacation. In this case, I was lucky as my friend, Charlene, and her mother welcomed me with great excitement to their vacation! Charlene is a travel agent and gets excellent deals and wonderful perks at certain times of the year. She and her mother had booked a cruise from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to Quebec City on Holland America's Veendam, a ship that visits PEI weekly during the summer. This was the first run of the year of that itinerary, although the only one to originate in Florida. After that the ship's runs are from Quebec City to Boston or vice versa. This particular itinerary skipped Boston in lieu of Gloucester, Massachusetts, which is disappointing for many reasons that I will perhaps elaborate on in another post. That being said, it wasn't like we were surprised by that, it was in the itinerary. Embarkation was in Fort Lauderdale followed by: one sea day; Gloucester, MA; Bar Harbor, ME; Halifax, NS; Sydney, NS; Charlottetown, PE; another sea day; and disembarkation in Quebec City.

I knew I was going to be unemployed and still had three other trips (thanks Air Miles!) booked for later in the year, so price was a pretty important consideration in deciding to go on this trip. Despite Quebec City being only a ten-hour drive away, the cost of a one-way flight back to Charlottetown at the end of the cruise would probably be at least $300. Combine that with a flight to Fort Lauderdale (about $350) and that cost of the cruise (maybe $500?) I was feeling a bit ansy. However, I could easily save myself $300 by disembarking in Charlottetown and basically walking home rather than having an additional sea day and flying home from Quebec City. There are a variety of laws relating to not completing a full cruise and either starting at a different port or getting off the ship early. From what I read, a cruise ship that originates in the US has to travel a certain distance before it is considered to be in.... "something" waters - clearly I forget the actual word. Once the cruise passes that point it is allowed to have official disembarkation at a different American port than it originated. Essentially the government does not want cruise ships becoming a means of transportation that competes with airlines, trains, and gas stations.

Upon initial research it appeared that Canada might not be considered "far enough". I called Holland America and they didn't think it would be a problem to get off in Charlottetown instead of Quebec City, but the process required me to book the cruise and then complete a special form requesting early disembarking. The final decision would be made by the Government of Canada.

Another thing had to work out: Charlene had already booked a cabin for her and her mother. Given that she got a special discounted rate she was actually unable to choose her cabin and many cabins are designed for only two people. In order to go on the cruise, she needed to have a cabin with capacity for at least three people. Luckily, she eventually found out that her cabin was large enough for four people!*

*Four people in that room would had been hilarious based on size and layout. Two single beds against opposite walls, one bed pulled down from the ceiling, and one pull-out sofa. And barely any room to walk.

Once we found out the cabin was large enough we needed to find out if I could be added to her booking. Success! Of course I could be added! And at a cheaper price (taxes and port fees only, around $200) than what Charlene and her mother originally paid! Amazing! I paid for our hotel night as a thank you and to make up the difference.

Next step was securing an overpriced flight to Fort Lauderdale and putting in my request to disembark in Charlottetown instead of Quebec City. Flight was booked without any issues, arriving the day before the cruise left because, warning, you should never plan to fly into the city port the day the ship leaves. Too much potential for things to go wrong.

The following day I received word that I was officially cleared for disembarking in Charlottetown, and one week later I was in the air on my way to Fort Lauderdale!

Because I have some free time and will make this a multi-part series (so ambitious), I'll tie this up with some cruise and money chat, as I used quite a few dollar signs in the above.

Cost: What's Included

Cruise ships might appear to be an all inclusive vacation but they aren't unless you book the most expensive luxury cruise ship ever, which you probably won't. Additionally, the price you see listed isn't the final price. Taxes and port fees are added, which could be an additional $200 depending on the length of your cruise and number of ports. Included in that final price tag is your cabin, i.e., accommodation; food at the buffet and in the main dining room; most on-board activities like trivia, scrapbooking, and food demos; nightly entertainment; gym access; access to all the public areas; and borrowing items from the library. This varies from line to line (i.e., different cruise ship companies), but seems to be generally included in any ships I have read about or been on.

Cost: What's Not Included

A selection of free alcohol obtained on the Carnival Legend
Travel to the port is not included. Even once you are in the port's city you still need to pay to get to
the port. You can often make these arrangements through the cruise ship company or your hotel for an additional fee. In the case of the cruises I have been on, I was lucky to be on a cruise with someone who owned a car and we paid to park at the port or was dropped off at the port by a local friend. In Fort Lauderdale we were without local friends (tragic) so stayed at a hotel the night prior and then took a cab ($20) to the port. Likewise, you are on your own when you disembark and are responsible for your own transportation. Again, you can purchase ship-to-airport transfers from the cruise line, but they are not included in the original cost of the cruise.

While many things on board are included in the cost of your cruise, you could quickly run up a large tab if you aren't careful. Some activities have a fee: internet use, bingo, cooking classes, behind-the-scenes tours, etc. You won't accidentally do any of these and wind up paying for it, they will ask for your cabin/charge key up front and tell you about the cost.

Most food is included, but many ships now have specialty restaurants for an additional cost, ranging from $5 - $75. It's best to make reservations for these restaurants, so like activity fees you won't accidentally find yourself in the restaurant without realizing you need to pay extra.

Room service is free, but you are expected to tip the person who delivers the food.

Your biggest on-board costs will likely be tipping, shopping, alcohol/pop, casino fun, and spa treatments, although it is completely up to the individual and you could easily spend nothing on the latter items. For example, I spend minimal on shopping, a wee bit on alcohol, maybe $5 at the casino, and $0 on spa treatments. However, I suggest you always tip as it's how the staff makes the majority of their wages, sadly. You can pre-pay gratuities up front when you book your cruise or charge them to your on-board account after boarding the ship. You are expected to tip your room steward, who is in your room at least twice per day and your dining room staff. It varies on different cruise lines, but expect to pay about $10 - $15 per person per day in tipping.

If you are on a cruise ship you will likely be visiting at least one port. The cost of the cruise typically includes nothing in the ports thus you have to pay for any activities you might do there. (NB: some lines have excursions included, they tend to be the super expensive cruises on gorgeous ships that make my heart pitter patter.) You can book excursions through the ship, through a private, local company, or just wander the port on your own. One great advantage to booking a tour through the ship is that the ship will not leave the dock without you at the end of the day if you are late. When you are on a ship-sponsored tour they know where you are and have to wait for you. If you are on your own or booked with a private company and are late then the ship will leave without you.

How To Save Money on a Cruise

The easiest way would be to just not spend any money, but that's not overly fun if you feel like you have to constantly restrict yourself. Every evening on the ship your room steward will leave you a times guide for the following day's activities. In that guide it lists shop sales, happy hour specials, daily activities, and any necessary information related to that day's port. If there is something you wish to buy on board you will probably find it on sale at some point during the cruise. For alcohol you can often find two-for-one specials, happy hours at slightly reduced prices, or you can bring on your own alcohol, following specific restrictions. On Holland America and Carnival we were allowed to bring on one bottle of wine per person. On Disney we just brought on whatever we wanted! (NB: Disney is quite a bit more expensive as non-alcoholic beverages are free, I believe, and the lack of casino to supplement their revenue. And because it's amazing.) There are also art auctions which frequently feature free sparkling wine. Lastly, most cruise lines have some sort of loyalty program based on the number of nights you have cruised with that line. While I am not super familiar with them as I'm no where near being at an exciting level, I'm sure at some point you get a few free services, snacks, or beverages.

Next up: Fort Lauderdale, the ship, and other.

Monday, November 24, 2014

House Acquisition, Part III

In the first part, we found a house that was awesome then decided it was unawesome.

In the second part, we looked a bunch of houses we didn't want.

In the third part, we... oh, this is the third, and final, part. Carry on.

It was rainy and gross the morning we arrived to tour the old-lady-driven house. Upon entering the house there was a sense of relief: there was nothing immediately wrong with it! Nothing appeared to be sinking, it didn't smell bad, and nothing was falling apart. It seemed a bit old, but that's because the house was old and was filled with cat ornaments, crosses, and yellowing family photos from 30 years ago. You could tell the house was well loved and well cared for and the family selling it put in a lot of effort in making sure it was clean and presentable. The flooring was primarily carpet, which felt so soft and spongy on the feet compared to laminate and hard wood flooring.

The upstairs had two good sized bedrooms, one small one, lots of carpet, and a hilariously dated bathroom.

Success! There was nothing wrong with the house! It had a backyard! A shed! A deck!

We arranged to put in our offer at a slightly reduced price and a closing date five weeks away at the end of July. Within 24 hours we received a phone call from our realtor saying our offer had been accepted, but the sellers wanted a closing date of August 29. I was slightly disappointed to miss out on a month of backyard usage, but it wasn't worth it to say no and then try to find another place. We contacted a home inspector who would come in the following week and do a thorough walk through of the house. We also called an insurance company who would send someone to check out a few things.

The home inspector was incredibly thorough and, thankfully, didn't unearth any major concerns! He had suggestions of things we should watch for in the coming years but nothing that needed to be addressed immediately with the exception of the oil tank. New regulations had been implemented and outdoor oil tanks now have to be fiber glass in order to be insurable.

Is a home inspection necessary when purchasing a home? No.  Is it a good idea? Most likely. In our case the inspector found a couple of things that we addressed in a modified offer to the home owners. Even if a home inspector doesn't find anything it's nice to have advanced notice of things to watch for. If the home inspector does find something of major concern he/she might be saving you a significant deal of stress in the future.

Once the home inspection was completed we were able to modify our offer based on what we had learned. In our case, the oil tank had to be replaced. This didn't put us at a disadvantage in terms of our offer being rejected as it would need to be replaced regardless of who would purchase the home. We also requested the electrical panel be improved and for $500 off the agreed purchase place which would be used to.... something something chimney. I actually forgot about our chimney issue until now, and apparently can't quite remember what about it wasn't ideal. Too narrow for Santa? Tipping over? Dirty? Picky eater?

In this case we gave the owners more than 24 hours to respond as it was over the holiday weekend and they need time to contact an electrician. I really didn't expect them to agree to all three items, but they did! Apparently our realtor hooked them up with a discount on an oil tank, which saved them enough money to agree to everything.

Next up: one more visit with the insurance person as he needed to inspect the new oil tank. The owners were home on this visit, sitting in the yard and enjoying the sunny day. I felt a little sad for them that they were moving. We later learned from the neighbours that one of the owners was having some health issues and just wasn't up to maintaining a home for another winter. As a result of the previous winter's awfulness, they decided to move into an apartment. It was sooner than they had been planning but seemed like the right thing to do. The couple was lovely. They had lived in the home for about 40 years and asked if we were planning on doing any renovations. I could had rambled on about our long-term vision for the house, but we didn't really have one beyond updating the kitchen, getting a dryer, and adding a shower. It didn't seem right to tell them what was outdated in their house because it really doesn't matter and reflects personal taste. I complimented them (very sincerely as it was true) on the condition of their home and how well it had been looked after, and they seemed pleased. They offered us some things they couldn't take and that their family didn't need: some gardening tools, leftover paint, etc. It was very kind of them and they seemed pleased that a nice couple was purchasing in their home. In retrospect, it was probably similar to when they purchased the home in their mid 20s.

Six weeks later our closing date arrived and we did the final walk through of the home before going to the lawyer's office. The house was so clean, it'll probably never be that clean again. They really went above and beyond preparing their home for us. I actually feel guilty that we somehow have a stain on the carpet already and that Michu has tracked poop onto the kitchen floor. Sorry!

Moving from one side of town to the other is, surprise, incredibly different than moving to a new country with only your backpack and carry-on bag. It felt like we had so much stuff to move. However, thanks to a small army of awesome people, it took just under two hours to fill the u-haul, drive the so long 10 minutes across town, and shove everything into the house. This included an elaborate struggle trying to shove a queen-size box spring up the narrow stairs on an old home. (Tip: just take the front door off, it makes everything easier.)

And voila! We now live in a house. And it's pretty awesome. It's the little things I appreciate, like having natural light in the kitchen, lots of windows, a deck (!!!), a shed, not having to carry groceries in through security doors and having to constantly unlock the door for each load. It's wonderful to still be within walking distance of many things, and although we never received a noise complaint in our apartment building, it's still nice to be way less paranoid when having people over in the evening/into the night.

A few comments on the whole house buying experience.

Unexpected Costs
Beyond the price of the house, expect to pay for a home inspection (around $450), lawyer fees ($1200), a tank of oil ($900), and $35 on your cell phone for going over your daytime minutes allotment in lawyer and realtor calls. (Also an unexpected cost of being unemployed since you no longer have access to a free-to-you landline at work.)

Charlottetown Real Estate Market
Thank goodness for living in a have-not province!

Not really, but real estate in Charlottetown and all of PEI is much more affordable than it is in major cities. Home ownership will never be obtainable for everyone, but it is certainly much more obtainable here than in many other places. It's probably the only thing that holds up in the "You get paid less because the cost of living is less there," argument (which is a whole other conversation of PEI actually not having a low cost of living compared to its wages).

The market in PEI has also been a buyers' market for quite awhile. Of course, the excellent places will get snatched up quickly andI have no doubt our house would had sold easily if we hadn't jumped in quickly), but you really can't slack and try to get more than what your house is worth. We looked at homes that were much more expensive than the one we purchased and although they were bigger, they weren't in very good condition and were on smaller properties.

Necessity of a Realtor
You probably don't need a realtor to buy a house. I'm glad we had one since we hadn't gone through this experience before but I wouldn't hesitate to try and sell or buy through a private sale. If it doesn't seem to be working out, you can always take on a realtor at that point.

Realtors are useful in that they know the other realtors and have relationships with them and they will likely know a bit more background on the home, but it's actually the lawyer who does the transaction, checks the deeds, etc. However, I did appreciate having a realtor and they definitely work hard in making themselves available at all hours of the days, including weekends and evenings.

Kitty Approved!
Because I'm sure you are wondering, Michu loves the new house. He thinks the basement is amazing, the carpet has helped him increase his average sprinting speed, and the stairs are defining his leg muscles in ways he has never dreamed! All the windows are lovely and the dog next door provides minutes (hours!) of entertainment. And the horse and carriage rides that pass multiple times per day during cruise ship season? Amazing.

Big Blue Smurf Shack is Michu Butterkins approved.

Friday, November 21, 2014

House Acquisition, Part II

When I last left you, we were feeling a bit down about walking away from a pretty good house.

Apparently it was not the first time that house had been on the market. Our realtor said it had previously been on the market, most likely the summer prior when the residents were around. I'm not sure if it ever ended up selling. I biked by a couple of times and although the for sale sign eventually disappeared, it never had a "sold" sign attached to it. Despite being a pretty great house, I imagine it would be a bit difficult to sell for three reasons:

1) Potentially unreliable heating system, as previously discussed.

2) Selling the furniture with the house. While an asset for some, likely undesired from the majority of people purchasing a home.

3) The house was "their" house. Of course renovations are possible, but the owners had certainly made the house "their" home. Everything had been renovated to suit their wishes; things that the average person might not want. A very closed in patio with a gaping hole containing a green house seems pretty cool at first, but not ideal for Josh and I who have drunk friends who would likely fall into the large hole.

So we move on. The good thing about finding a house we thought we wanted was that we asked the realtor a bit more on the actual buying process. Basically, what happens when you find a house you want? I really didn't know. In the event that you don't know, here is what I learned about the initial steps.

If you have a realtor (real estate agent.... realtor keeps getting flagged and I'm starting to question if it's a real word that means what I think it means) you will never actually be in contact with the current owners, their real estate agent, or their lawyer. Your realtor is essentially the mediator and your main point of contact. You tell your agent what you are offering, typically on the condition of the home inspection, request a closing date, sign a document, and wait. The seller/seller's agent has 24 hours to respond with a yes, no, or counter offer.

The next house we look at had been on the market for quite awhile, or at least since we had started casually browsing the internet six months prior. It was a cheapish bungalow in a nice area that is a mix of medium-size to large houses. No one had lived there in awhile and it definitely had a feeling of  being abandoned. It was a bit dirty, which is fine, and had a lot of little things that one would want to fix. Also fine. There was some old food in the fridge (ew), parts of the roof looked questionable, and the basement had been through some pretty intense flooding that winter.

Water in basements isn't uncommon in PEI. We had a stupid amount of snow last winter. (Yes, that was the official final measurement. "Alright, it's May. How much snow did we have?" "Officially? A stupid amount." So. Much. Snow.) A mix of rain and the snow melting quickly in the spring left the ground overly saturated, like throwing a sponge in a full bathtub and expecting the sponge to absorb all the water. So while a touch of water was understandable, I have the feeling this place flooded for awhile and was perhaps unattended for a long period of time. It stunk of musty basement smell and seemed very caveat emptor: buyer beware. Despite the tiny red flags, I will say that the home had wonderful shelves built into the walls of the living room. The house is no longer listed, so hopefully it found some new owners.

We looked at another house in the same area that was pretty nice but had few drawbacks. Through discussions with our realtor, we learned that homes with three bedrooms tend to be easier to sell than homes with two bedrooms. Although Josh and I don't really have any need for three bedrooms at this point, we figured we should keep that in mind unless we find the most amazing two-bedroom house ever. This particular house had three bedrooms, but they were all quite small. The master bedroom had a regular-sized closet and then room for a bed and one nightstand. The other two bedrooms were quite a bit smaller and would be filled with up quite quickly. This house had also been for sale previously by the same owners, but they had pulled it off the market at some point and completed some lovely renovations. (Psst, this house is still available at the fare price of $149,000. Negotiate downwards and then put a bigger window in the master bedroom.)

When purchasing a home you don't want to spend more than you really have to. But you also should be suspicious of low prices in areas that are typically more expensive. This brings us to the next house. The pictures online looked quite promising! It also had something I had never heard of, a "great room". Exciting! I could only imagine the treats in the great room. It would be state of the art EVERYTHING and the GREATEST ROOM OF ALL TIME. A little internet searching told me that a "great room" is basically a room, often with high ceilings, that has the function of many rooms. Think a combo dining room living room den. In this particular case the house also had a living room; it seemed unnecessary to have both.

Side note: It's kind of funny how much more you think about new words as you learn them, compared to words you have known forever. Example, the word living room. Perhaps it initially had a different function, but if I had never heard of this word I might think it implied something much grander than it is. A room where the light tickles the wall, statues come to life, plants grow to sizes beyond what they ever would in a kitchen! But really, it's where the television usually is and a often has a big window.

We quickly learned why this house had a low price in a good area: the great room was an addition, as was a porch, and they were both sinking and very slowly splitting off from the original house. The bedrooms needed a few small updates, the kitchen had been updated, the basement was meh.... But part of the house was sinking. Tipping over. Being absorbed by the earth. Losing the fight against gravity. Our realtor said he would likely discourage future clients from even looking at it.

Luckily we had found a fall-back house that had just been listed that day. The pictures looked good, location was excellent, and the whole thing seemed to have a feeling of "old lady driven", like an older car that had been well maintained and loved over many years.

After the disappointment of a sinking house, there was optimism in the air. Something good was going to happen.

(In part III !)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Home Acquisition, Part I

Not unknown to most people, le Boyfriend and I bought a house and moved into it a few months ago. We were both first-time home buyers and somewhat unfamiliar with the process of buying a house. At the time I thought, "I'm going to blog about the house buying experience! How exciting!" but never did as the whole thing went pretty quickly and, well, it was summer. The only year I successfully blogged during the summer was a decade ago when I moved to Scotland. I didn't even have a computer or internet access at home, but it was all so exciting, and frankly, easier than emailing the same blah blah blah to multiple people when one has limited internet time. Now that I have pretty much unlimited free time (breaking news: still unemployed), here is the first post of a nail-biting series of two installments on the experience of house shopping.

Josh and I started looking at homes online about a year ago. Nothing overly serious, but seeing what was available and what price ranges could be expected given location, condition, size, etc. We weren't ready to move at the time as our apartment's rent included heat and we didn't really feel like moving during the winter. And thank goodness we didn't! It was rather cold and blustery last winter and the free heat and snow removal was quite appreciated. On that note, our apartment was pretty well insulated and the heat from the apartment below us seemed to be working double duty in heating our apartment and our neighbour's.

Prior to really getting into the house hunting spirit Josh and I discussed what we wanted in a house. Sort of. Not a formal conversation, but various discussions over the course of our relationship showed we were pretty much in agreement as to what we wanted in a home. A yard was critical, proximity to downtown would be a bonus, and a large house was rather undesirable. On a personal level, having more space means extra stuff and I'm not very organized when it comes to the home life and have minimal interest in being forced to buy extra furniture to hold "stuff".

(Says she who still have a five-year-old highlighting kit in a random drawer in the spare room. Slight hoarding tendencies, and why I shouldn't have a lot of space.)

Of course, the main bonus of a smaller home: less space to clean. Because, I don't know about you, but less cleaning = more happiness. In addition, smaller home typically = lower purchase space. No need to pay for space you don't actually need.

We were okay with a home needing some renovations, paint, etc., but preferred to invest in something that was structurally sound and generally might need some updating or aesthetic work.

The choice of which real estate agent was intensely debated. We were a hot, young couple with cash to burn and their sights on the high end market. Money was no object, and we wanted the industry to fight for our loyalty.

Wouldn't that be a laugh? In reality, we actually walked by a house we had noticed online and simply contacted the agent listed on the sign in the front yard. Shortly after we viewed that first house. It's a bit of a bizarre experience. I have no interest in ever constructing our own home, but initially it does feel a bit odd to be walking through someone else's home containing all of their belongings and trying to visualize your own furniture in its place. That first place was actually pretty nice, had lots of renovations, but, and I recognize the irony of this statement given my ramblings above relating to the advantages of small homes, the house was a touch small. The main level was fine, but I learned one of the first of many lessons: the definition of a 1.5-storey house. Essentially the space in the upper level is somewhat hindered by the roof cutting off a portion of the rooms, sort of like you live in the attic. Because of that there aren't a lot of options when it comes to fitting in furniture into bedrooms that are already a touch tiny. I felt guilty telling the realtor that we weren't really interested in the house because the upstairs was cramped. Of course, realtors are used to that, and I can't imagine he really thought twice about it beyond arranging viewings of other homes. Realtors are people too, and are aware of the strengths and weaknesses of each property they show.

This brings us to another learning point. When we viewed that house we told the realtor we had an appointment arranged the following week with a bank seeking pre-approval on a mortgage. Apparently it is not uncommon for people to wait and seek out financing after they find a house they wish to put an offer on. I found that rather odd. Why would you go to the lengths of looking at numerous of houses without knowing if you can actually get a mortgage? A waste of your time, a waste of the realtor's time, and somewhat misleading to the home owners. Way to ruin your dreams.

A few days later we looked at three more homes. I don't remember the order of the first two, but the only real selling point was the fluffy cat on the stairs in one of the homes. The home with the cat was an old home that had been on the market for at least a year. The backyard had a shed, and then only enough room for, oh, another shed. The house was full of the owner's stuff, which is to be expected, but the owner had about two houses worth of stuff shoved into the place. It was the type of place that you could probably clean for three weeks straight and still not want to walk around in your bare feet. The second house had a similar feel of caked-in dirt, but at least it wasn't stuffed full of things to the point you couldn't really see the walls. After these two visits we realized that perhaps we did not want a 120-year-old home and should stick to something that was built within the past century. In the end, we ended up purchasing a home of an unknown age, but estimated to have been built around 1920.

The third home we visited that day gave us a bit of relief. It was a bit newer, but not new by any means. It felt more fresh and had been better maintained and seemed to have fewer unknowns. The house was listed at about $169,000 and was being sold by an English couple who lived there only during the summer months. The price included all their furniture and a small greenhouse that was sitting in the yard where a pool had once been, surrounded by a large patio.

It was all very promising: well maintained, good location, a big yard, and furniture, which we were somewhat lacking. Despite many check marks, the elephant in the room which Josh and I didn't pay much attention to on our first visit was the heating system.  There was a small propane heater in the living room and a heat pump at the bottom of the stairs on the main level. As the house was unoccupied during the winter months, heating costs of the previous, chilly year were unavailable and it couldn't be said how effective the heating system was, particularly considering the bedrooms were upstairs where they wasn't an obvious heat source. We were disappointed when we decided the heat factor was too risky given frigid winters and my general inability to stay warm. In the long run I am glad we didn't purchase that house, but the few we looked at after just seemed to disappoint more and more, so I did question our decision for a brief period.

During this time we went to a bank and were pre-approved for a mortgage. Hurrah! Truthfully, I was slightly rushing to move forward on the whole thing as I knew my job would be ending within six weeks and was concerned it would affect our ability to obtain a mortgage of a certain value. Looking back, I think that was my actual stress in saying no to the pretty good house. Would we find something better in that short amount of time?

Next up in the series: the year of flooded basements.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Friskey

Despite having little to do this summer, I haven't blogged very much with the exception of a bunch of posts sitting in a draft folder. One thing I wanted to write about was Friskey. He was my family's cat from 1993 until, sadly, 2014.

I received Friskey as a gift from my brother in mid December 1993. Our family, specifically Jeff, had a cat prior to that. He name was Charlie and he was a "passing gift" for Jeff successfully completing grade 2. Unfortunately Charlie vanished in November 1993. We eventually learned in spring of the following year that he had been hit by a car, ran under the neighbour's patio, and died. How did we learn that? Well, we received a phone call five months later from the neighbours, who had found a dead cat under their patio and remembered that we had lost ours as I was allowed to take a day off school to stuff Lost Cat flyers in numerous mailboxes.

In mid December I was still in a sad funk over Charlie's disappearance. According to the handy family video, I was moping in my room, and Jeff came in with an unnamed kitten and gave him to me. Apparently he had been in the house for a couple of days already but had been hidden from me.

Unnamed kitten eventually became Friskey, inspired by his high energy levels and love for running and jumping. Furthermore, he eventually was fully named Friskey J. R. Charlie Garfield MacPhail Jr., which is what happens when you let an indecisive 11 year old have the responsibility of naming anything.
Still tiny!
About a year after his arrival in the MacPhail, Friskey (and Jeff!) were responsible for the worst scar I have. Sitting at the bottom of the stairs I was attempting to snuggle a very independent and wild Friskey. Success level of snuggles was probably only 4 out of 10, which would be pretty good for Friskey at that age. However, Jeff decided to sneak up and scare us both and I still have a nice three-inch scar across my thigh. There was a smaller one below it, but it has mostly faded over time. Also, you know how band-aids are the cure all for some children? While perhaps band-aids did the trick when I was young, at some point in grade 6 I graduated onto an ankle wrap being used every time I "hurt" myself. Perhaps slightly attention seeking on my part? Feeling like I had somehow missed out by never actually breaking/spraining anything?

The second worst scar I have was also influenced by Friskey. I was sitting in my bedroom doing homework or something, (something = watching a combination of the Family Channel, i.e., shows I was likely too old for, and re-runs of 90210, a show I was likely too young for) and Friskey wandered into my room as he often did. My desk was below my bedroom window which hadn't been opened since the previous fall and it was likely April or May at that point. Remembering how cats enjoy sitting on window sills (a fact heavily supported by research I'm sure) I tried to open my window for Friskey. It wouldn't budge. Instead of pushing up on the frame of the glass, I pushed up on the glass, and then pushed my hand through the glass, leaving a nasty gash on my wrist. I remember screaming, and then wondering why my parents didn't come running, but I was probably just being loud and annoying that day and they thought, "Oh fantastic, she's being loud and running around with the cat again."

Fast forward 2-3 years and another desk incident takes place, this time with Friskey as the wounded. At some point during junior high candles became the go-to gift amoung girls. Having a slightly irrational fear of fire, I never really partook in the trend. I received one candle as a birthday gift and it was kind of neat: burgundy, sort of wrapped around itself wax, and stars wedged into it. Did I ever light it? Not for at least a few months. Then, one day we were sent home early from school because of the weather (hello, snow). I decided I would bravely light my candle. I don't remember how I actually lit it. It probably took 20 minutes of me sweating and trying to light a match, a task that, today, still causes me a great deal of stress. Anyway, somehow the candle was burning. I didn't hear Friskey come into my room, and then he jumped up onto my desk as he always did, but landed on top of the candle. I, of course, panicked, but acted responsibly and blew out the tiny flame on his fur and then tried to hug him a lot. For him, the hugging was probably more stressful than the fire, which was quite tiny and just left a few pieces of fur singed on the end.

Initially Friskey was going to be an indoor cat, particularly after the final incident with Charlie. However, Friskey wanted to go outside. Eventually we let him go outside on a long rope and harness, which was cute. The cute part was us thinking this would be adequate. Friskey would hold his breath while we were putting on the belly part of his harness and make himself as big as possible, to the point we could barely snap it shut. We would let him outside and about thirty seconds later, see him wandering down the driveway heading out on an adventure. You see, once he was outside he would exhale, instantly become smaller, and then back out of the harness and head down the street. In contrast, if Michu, current cat, gets off his harness he immediately comes to me. Oh, him.

There was much contrast between the first tens years of Friskey's life versus the last ten. While the shift was not immediate, it was evident. He used to torment my younger cousins by conveniently blocking doorways they wanted to go through; he knew they were all scared of him. He wasn't much for snuggles, although I tried (thus annoying him and probably making him hate people even more). I would try to lock him in my room overnight so that he would be forced to sleep with me. He would sleep for a little bit (under the bed, or on the bed but as far from me as possible), but eventually wake me up by knocking many things off my dresser: earrings, hair elastics, and then heavier things, like my alarm clock.

Friskey was rather fiesty. We had him declawed at a very young age because he scratched excessively. Maybe we should had just left him alone more, but I was a teenager and needed my cat to love me and hug me or something else he clearly hated. When we went to visit him at the Vet College after his operation, he had a sign on his cage: Danger, Attack Cat. I thought it was hilarious, but in retrospect he probably had a few issues and hated people. He hissed frequently and wouldn't let any other cats ever visit our yard, with one exception being his cat friend next door (had many years to get used to the idea of having a friend, so it was eventually okay for Felix to visit). To go along with his unfriendly attitude he also liked to play rough and enjoyed chasing Jeff and I through the house.
Picture time with Friskey
He mellowed out a lot in decade two. Eventually he would purr and let you hold him for awhile when you came home. He would sometimes sleep in bed with you. Although he was becoming nicer, he still enjoyed his rough play and chasing.

There were, of course, signs that he was getting older, but it really wasn't overly evident until the past few years. The eyes became glassy, he became even nicer (whaaat?), and he lost his hearing. He would usually know when you were around though, even if he was asleep, like he could feel your steps through the floor. I always felt bad waking him up if he was in a deep sleep as he would be quite startled, but instantly content for some company.

Eventually he stopped grooming himself very much. It took a lot of energy and the bumps on his tongue were gone, so he probably couldn't actually groom himself. He was still sharp, but started to look old with his changed eyes and unkempt fur. Eventually his hind legs and hips seemed to get weaker and weaker. He would still go outside and enjoy himself, but slept more often.

Last  year we celebrated his 20th birthday. We didn't typically celebrate Friskey's birthday, but we invited all the people he tolerated (i.e., us), and let Friskey eat some cake, knowing it would likely be his last birthday. Also, who knew that cats adore carrot cake?!


Cake?! Gimmie!
Friskey continued to be pretty good until April, when he hurt his back legs jumping off my parents' bed. It really put in perspective how lucky we were that Friskey had been in pretty good health for so long. He did get a bit better after that incident, but it was apparent that it was the beginning of the end. My parents went away shortly after that incident and one day I was at their house sitting with Friskey outside. He was walking up a step and I reached out to pat him. He wasn't ready for the 'force' of the pat and tipped over off the side of the step into the garden mulch below. I felt terrible and burst into tears. He looked up at me with pieces of dirt on him slightly flabbergasted. It was like he realized he was getting old and would have to be more careful. Except he wasn't more careful and continued to try and do everything he used to do. He was often successful, but would still sometimes tip over. It was so sad seeing him get worse. And of course, the dilemma, how bad can we let him get before we take him to the vet for his final moment? That sad day was June 30th, also etched in history as my last day of work. I didn't go on that trip to the vet with him, and perhaps I should have. But he had my mum and dad there, and I would had been bawling and probably struggling to breath properly in and out of a brown paper bag, like they inexplicably do on television.

I still miss Friskey. Three months later it still feels strange going to my parents house and not having him come greet me at the door. He used to sit by the front window by our door so you could see him sleeping or watching when arriving or leaving. I still feel like he's going to try and sneak out the door when I leave, still expect his purrs to greet me.

When I see families with older pets I always get a little sad. It reminds me of Friskey and how much we loved him and how sad we all were when it was time to say good bye. I also feel sad for the pet's human family members, knowing that they will have to say good bye someday, maybe soon. But although there is always sadness at the end, Friskey was our little baby for so many years and gave me so much happiness. And although he wasn't always very loving, I know he was happy too.

Your food... I need it.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

How I Became an EI Princess

I'm unemployed!

I was having trouble deciding about whether I should blog about being unemployed and the crumbling of my last workplace as potential employers could read this, as could former colleagues, but I don't think I have anything groundbreaking or controversial to say on the topic - nor shall I reveal information that isn't public knowledge. Mostly this is a wee bit of what happened but more so how it felt to be involved in the long, dragged out death of an organization.

After 7 years of employment, my workplace closed at the end of June after almost eight years in operation. It was a rather drawn out affair as we had been on month-to-month contracts from January 2013 through the end of October 2013. At that point, we were surprised as our contracts were extended from November all the way until  June 30, 2014 and a job posting was released for a new manager. At that point I, and probably others, figured we would be around until at least late 2014 or, more likely, early 2015 given the work load we had signed on to do. After seeing our workforce reduced from six or seven staff to three, it seemed like we were going to have a bit of a resurrection.

But then we didn't. On April 2nd, two months after our manager was hired, we attended a somewhat 'mystery' meeting that had an unknown purpose. When you walk into a meeting with an undefined mission and are immediately introduced to the mystery guest from the Human Resources department, the odds of that meeting having a pleasant mood are rather low. To be fair, the precedent of previous meetings with higher ups usually didn't have great outcomes. The first I can recall was a quick, everyone-come-to-my-office-immediately meeting in which my team was given the exciting news that Canada Revenue Agency was waiting in another room and would be searching all of our offices, files, and laptop content, and we were to go home for the day. The second such instance was to tell us that five of us were getting booted from our one-person offices and we were all moving into one office, like a big, crowded family.

I was rather surprised when I found out we were shutting down. The timing seemed odd, kind of like a Christmas tree lot deciding to close in mid November. We were gearing up for a lot work, but things happened, and our contracts weren't renewed. There are so many things I could say, but I won't, because I don't think I'll ever know what really happened with 100 percent (or even 75 percent) accuracy. In the end, we faded away with the spark of a wet match, just kind of disappearing. Oh, and my cat, Friskey, died at the same time. This was far more upsetting than the closure of my workplace. On the same day as the meeting where we found out we were closing, Friskey the 20-year-old geriatric kitty had a wee tumble and never fully recovered. On my last day of work, my family had to put down our furry baby. But that's a whole other post complete with 100 percent more feelings.

After seven years of employment, how does it feel to be unemployed?

One-word answer: amazing.

Allow me to elaborate as to not create a cliffhanging ending. The initial years of my job were great, I learned many new skills, the organization had good momentum, I got to put my university education into action, and I felt like good things were happening.

Then things happened, which I will not write about. For a tiny organization, we had a lot of turnover in management. Our momentum completely stalled and it seemed like we were always begging for funding. It felt like our work wasn't being used (and perhaps it was, but we never knew for sure), which was discouraging because we put so much effort into producing good, valid 'products'. I have told friends it was like remodeling a home, but then just locking the door and walking away, or perhaps only having access to a small porch. We were a lost organization, floating in the harbour without an anchor.

I didn't realize how frustrated I was with the situation. As coworkers, we would laugh about it together. We had worked in such a mess for so long that it was hard to realize that our environment wasn't really normal. It was beginning to feel like we were part of a business case study, and the answer students were to give at the end of the analysis was just, "No, proceed with caution, probably shouldn't get involved". It's hard to say what caused the end. Like a relationship, it probably wasn't one huge thing, but a bunch of small little things.

Now, being unemployed, I feel so free. At no point have I thought, "Wow, I wish I still had that job." I am perhaps using slight hyperbole, but by the end it seemed like a bad relationship. Like a bad relationship, I didn't realize the invisible weight I was dragging around. Unfortunately I also feel like I have a relationship hangover. After getting out of less-than-ideal relationships (before I met awesome boyfriend) I tended to retreat and not want much involvement with my desired sex. I needed time to let the baggage float away. I'm feeling similarly about the end of my job. I needed a bit of time to get over it. The idea of having to work another job made me want to cry. Colleagues that left prior to 'the end' have told me that the rest of the work world is so much better and after five weeks off I finally feel ready to face the world of employment again. While I have been looking for work over the past month, nothing has panned yet. But maybe I had a mental block in that I wasn't ready for it to pan out. Now, I can handle work again. Yes, a bit dramatic, but when you spend months and months in such a frustrating environment it can blur your vision of the world.

In all this, I have to say, through miserable times, good coworkers are worth so much more than their wage. I was always very fortunate to work with a great group of people which made the last months so much more bearable. Beyond my immediate group, other staff in my building were wonderful and supportive. After we received our notices we, or maybe just I, felt a little lost and forgotten about, but the other people in our building offering support was so helpful and meaningful.

People ask me what's next. I don't know what's next. What do I want to do? I don't know. I'm feeling a bit lost. I probably should had left my job after year five, with my new knowledge, still positive attitude, and, perhaps most importantly, confidence, which is now delicately perched on a teeter-totter. But I'm looking forward to whatever comes. And this time, I hope I have learned my lesson. Like relationships with boys, it took me awhile to stand up for myself and learn to seek out the best. Now I have learned that lesson in a work environment: you need to look out for yourself because no one else will. I don't mean that we need to be cut throat go getters, but when you are feeling defeated and hopeless for months on end, it's time to make a change.