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.