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.

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