Category Archives: Home Sweet Home

Plugged in, Switched on

One of the biggest little differences I’ve noticed about living in the UK is the plugs and switches. Specifically the switches.

Everything that could have a switch, does.

Of course lights are obviously controlled by switches. But they’re far from the only ones. All the plugs must also be switched on before the power is activated. All the hardwired (or hidden plug) appliances, including the fridge, freezer, boiler, dishwasher, oven, stovetop, etc. have switches.

Photo by on Flickr

This in addition to the power switches on individual lamps and appliances.

I suppose it’s a safety mechanism – with the potential to send 220 volts coursing through your person, any additional failsafe is probably a good thing.

But it’s one of those things I’m starting to refer as EEDD: ExPat Extra Degrees of Difficulty (see also: TV Licenses, Sunday Trading Hours). Things that are perfectly sensible in the context of local knowledge, but a bit baffling to outsiders.

So we figured out relatively quickly that we needed to flick on (and leave on) a number of switches before anything in our house would work. But there is one switch that’s still got us baffled:

Switched on

This switch is in the middle of the first-floor hallway. It’s flanked on either side by a hallway light on the left, and one unused socket and the bathroom light on the right. Thing is, we can’t seem to figure out what, exactly, it does, aside from turning on a red LED when it’s switched on.

It does nothing to the bathroom fan. It doesn’t impact how the rest of the lights on that floor, or the second floor, work. There are no appliances on that floor, or anywhere we can find, whose switches haven’t already been identified.

So, before we email or call the property manager with what turns out to be a stupid question, do any of you have any ideas what it might be?

Other than a switch whose sole purpose is to illuminate a red LED (with the side-effect of being confusing as fuck), of course.

Homeowners no more. Thank goodness!

Edit: Hi visitors! I’ve added a few more points of interest at the bottom of this post if you want a few more details about our condo and the sale.

The sale of our condo closed yesterday afternoon (late evening for us), and while we slept, we amassed a delightfully large bank balance.

That’s basically what we have left after paying off our mortgage and the other costs associated with selling (realtors fees, mortgage penalty, etc.). Sadly, it’s not all Ale & Whores from here on out. The cash has since been moved into our managed portfolio to be looked after by someone far more savvy and responsible than ourselves.

But the big question: did we make out like bandits by buying into the Vancouver real estate game? Or was purchasing a condo during the bubble instead of remaining renters our ruinous downfall? If all the real estate hype is to be believed, we must fall into one or the other of those camps, right?

Renting vs Buying

Not so much. The actual result, after crunching the numbers, is decidedly underwhelming.

Real Estate purchase info is publicly available, so I’m not giving away anything particularly personal when I share that we purchased the condo in 2006 for $610,000 plus 5% GST ($640,500 total) and sold it in 2012 for $699,000. A gain of $58,500 over 6 years, or just over 9%. And if you want to get really silly, you could call it a gain of 45% on our original 20% down-payment. Not bad, right?

Not so fast.

Take away from that the selling costs we paid of realtor fees, repairs (new paint & floor), staging, legal fees, and we barely made away with $20,000 profit. And of course that doesn’t take into account all the costs of holding that investment: property taxes, condo fees (including a couple special assessments), and mortgage interest.

Putting all those numbers in, we spent about $1750/month “rent” (those holding costs, not including any mortgage principle repayment) for 55 months to make that $20,000.

What would renting for the same period have cost?

We know the mirror-image unit across the hall was charging just about $3000/month rent. They’ve got a few more square feet, and an amazing view of English Bay, so say ours would have rented for $2500/month. It would have cost us an extra $41,250 (plus the $20,000 we wouldn’t have made) to live in the same suite.

More realistically, we’d have stayed in our previous rental. Accounting for the maximum 4% annual rental increase, we would have averaged $1855/month in rent. At $100/month difference ($5500 over the 55 months we lived there) it’s almost enough to call it a wash.

So, the real question becomes, could we have done something different with our down payment of $130,540 to make $25,000 in 55 months? Maybe. The markets were absolute shit during those few years, so getting 5% a year wasn’t likely, but I think in the right investments it was probably possible.

So there you have it. Renting vs. Buying, in our particular situation, had no clear winner.

I did love our condo and really enjoyed both the space and the location. It was a great place for us to live, so I’m happy the numbers didn’t show it was a financially terrible idea to have done so.

But, considering renting isn’t bankrupting us either, I’m really enjoying the freedom and flexibility of non-ownership, and am in no hurry to buy property again any time soon.

Edited to add: Our condo spent three months on the market (after letting ourselves be talked into listing FAR too high by our delusional realtor) and sold for $36,000 below assessed value. It’s a penthouse unit in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood, and we only sold because we’ve moved away from Canada. We bought what we could afford, with 20% down, and didn’t buy with any intention to flip. We had considered selling in November 2011, but ultimately decided we liked the unit and wanted to stay. In March 2012 the opportunity to move abroad came up, and renting wasn’t going to be cash-flow positive, so it was time to sell. We’re currently happy renters living in Oxford, UK.

There are no sidewalks here

So we’ve lived in the ‘burbs for a couple weeks now, and are getting into something resembling a routine.

And I feel confident in my assessment that I am not built for this place. Or rather, this place is not built for me.

I understand that we’ve been a bit spoiled with our central location and not actually having to leave the building to go to the grocery or drug store, but that’s not actually what I’m missing.

I miss neighbourhood planning that fosters community, rather than animosity.

There are no sidewalks here.

Ok, that’s not entirely true, but the roadways are fully designed for cars, and walking feels like an exercise in risk-taking, rather than a viable way to run errands or explore the area.

There is a trail nearby where we’ve walked the dog, and shared smiles with the few other dog owners we’ve seen there. But it’s all a bit soured when walking the dog to the trail, and she inevitably poops as dogs do, and someone driving by feels the need to holler (from his extra large truck, natch) “PICK IT UP!”

Which of course, we did. As we always do. But it’s obvious on that walk, and elsewhere, that poop-scoopers are in the minority. Because there are NO garbage cans to be found. There is a dumpster at a nearby elementary school if you hop a couple fences. And there is one about 750 metres down the trail (once you’ve gotten to the trail). Other than that, nothing for a few kilometres in any direction.

No there are no garbage cans, not even near the playground at that elementary school. The sidewalks (there are a few) also don’t connect in any meaningful way. They seem to be there for optics, rather than use.

Before I moved to Kitsilano, I thought that it was necessary to spend a lot of time in a community and that one had to make a big effort to get out do things to meet people. But when you live in an area that facilitates running into your neighbours while out and about, seeing the same people at the dog park, and getting to know your neighbourhood shopkeepers (because there are neighbourhood shops, not just big box stores a few kilometres away), it’s actually no effort at all.

And now that I’m in the suburbs, I’m saddened to be reminded that my most recent experience is the exception, rather than the norm.

But at least it’s a good reminder of what’s going to be really important when deciding which neighbourhood we end up in next.

For Sale

Because one successful week back at work full-time is reason enough to shake things up yet again, we’ve decided to sell our condo.

For Sale / For Snail

The volatility of the Vancouver real estate market has been bugging Neil and I for a while. And even though we still fit in our current place (just), and there are no babies on the horizon, we know we’re going to want more space eventually.

The Spring market is the time to sell in Vancouver, so we felt like listing now was a great time to get any gains out, rather than wait until we really have outgrown the space or find a perfect place, and are forced into a sale and into accepting less than we’d like.

It also gives us a stronger position when we do find a great place to buy, since we won’t be subject to financing as lending rules tighten and banks are more reluctant to give new mortgages to people who already have one.

But what about the meantime?

We’re *gasp* moving in with my parents.

In the suburbs. The deep suburbs.

This surprises nobody more than me, but it does make a whole lot of sense. We’ll save a bundle for a few months on mortgage payments and childcare. We won’t need to cram into a sub-standard rental (since with the tiny kid and big dog we have two huge strikes against us as far as landlords are concerned) while we look for a new place either to rent or buy to stay in longer-term.

My commute will be absolute balls, but Neil will be able to take the train downtown.

Overall we’re excited about this next step, and it feels like the right thing to do, but the past week has been nothing short of total insanity, and it doesn’t look to be slowing down much.

So, wanna buy a house? (listing goes up April 6th for the interested, curious and nosy.)


The reality of hanging out with an infant all day is that not much happens worth blogging about. But we have had some progress on a few things I mentioned recently, so for those who’re interested, here’s how life is shaking out these days:

The Dog

We had a session with a trainer who confirmed what we suspected – we have a really great dog who had a really bad day. And who is suffering from a distinct lack of leadership. Two distracted humans does not a quality dog-owner make, so we’ve been working hard on giving her clear directions, a “job” to do, and acting more like leaders who are capable of “protecting the pack” so she doesn’t feel she has to.

She also didn’t have a good command for getting out of an uncomfortable (to her) situation, so we’re working on something called “This Way,” which is basically a cue for us to give her so we can make an about-face and walk away from whatever is stressing her out, be it a rude dog or a loud noise or just a chaotic environment. So far it’s all going quite well. Sasha hasn’t had an aggressive moment since, and we’re well on our way to having a much less neurotic dog around.

The House

We are not moving. We are, in fact, not doing anything. We are sticking our heads in the sand for at least a year and just enjoying the place we have now, which is, a la Goldilocks, just right. Well, it’s not quite just right – the outdoor space is still pretty barren and uninspiring, so we’re going to attempt to remedy that so we can enjoy it through the end of this summer and whatever nice weather Spring/Summer/Fall 2012 brings us.

The biggest factor in the decision was the fact that we really love the neighbourhood we’re in. The amenities, parks, local shops, community centers and activities are pretty much perfect, and we make good use of them on a regular basis. We’d love to stay exactly where we are, but local prices in the 8 block radius around here are insanely overvalued, and with the Westside teardown market being what it is, finding something bigger than 2 bedrooms that’s not $1.5m and/or falling down is actually really tough.

So we’re holding tight and waiting until we really are out of space before doing anything.

The Trip

I didn’t end up posting much about the logistics of our trip to DC and Montreal, but traveling with Isaac went really well. He was an absolute charmer, and really calm and quiet on the flights. He didn’t sleep particularly well at night while we were away, but made up for it with an abundance of stroller & ergo naps while we were out and about.

We took a lot more luggage than we’re accustomed to when traveling alone (we generally fly with 1 or 2 very small carry-on bags each), but I think still managed to fly pretty light:

  • 1 medium-sized suitcase for Neil and I
  • 1 small duffle bag for Isaac (that straps onto the suitcase)
  • 1 stroller, checked in a travel bag (about the size of a large suitcase), along with a pop-up travel bed for Isaac and a couple extra baby blankets, etc.
  • 1 diaper bag (carried on)
  • 1 backpack with the computer/camera/usual carry-on comforts for Neil and I
  • This setup meant we each had one wheeled thing to pull, one back/shoulder bag, and one of us carried Isaac in the Ergo. We navigated airports, train stations, rental cars, buses and taxis easily.

    In fact, the one packing fail we had was packing for me! I totally misjudged the weather, what I’d decide to wear on a day-to-day basis, and what would make most sense for exploring and nursing on the go as well as how much I’d be spit-up and spilled upon. I only wore about half the clothes I brought, which is really quite bad compared to my usual efficient packing.

    Excitingly, we get a do-over next month as we’ve just booked tickets to Europe for September. I feel a tiny bit more nervous about this one, mostly because we don’t have our accommodations and intra-European transport all planned and booked yet, but it should be pretty fun.

    And if you have suggestions for baby-friendly things to do in Amsterdam, Barcelona and anything between the two (along with a way to traverse that – we are torn between driving and training), and a day or two in London near Gatwick, drop a comment.

    Otherwise, that’s pretty much it for us. It may sound like a lot, but in reality, we mostly do a lot of hanging around:

    House Hunting Headdesk

    Not that we’re planning on moving any time soon, but eventually Isaac will have a sibling, and we will outgrow our current apartment. And with the nutty state of real estate in Vancouver, thinking about this makes my head swim a little. Even though moving is far from imminent, I can’t not think about it now.

    selling panama
    Photo by raysto

    On one hand, it’s a place to live. Above all, it should feel safe & comfortable and be in an area we like living in.

    On the other hand, it’s where a significant amount of our net worth is tied up, and losing much (any!) of that makes me feel all squeeby inside.

    And none of the options I can think of sound particularly awesome.

    Option 1: Wait until we truly feel we are out of space and need to move (dealing with cramped quarters until we found a new place), suck it up and swallow a potential loss (though values would have to plummet around 30% before we actually lost any money from where we initially bought) knowing that if the value of our place is down, the price of the place we’d be buying probably is as well. Try to stop thinking about it in the meantime.

    Option 2: Start looking for a new place now, hope we can find a good deal, and start submitting offers subject to (among other things) sale of our existing apartment. Maybe we’d have an accepted offer and a new place in a year, but we’d spend a lot of time touring houses and having inspections done, etc. in the meantime.

    Option 3: Sell, sell NOW and rent until prices go back down or we find a place to buy that’s a home we like at a price we can live with. This would likely be the best option to protect our current investment. I don’t actually mind the idea of renting, but I do mind the fact that houses are flipping so fast around these parts (as the last of the speculators try to get their money in and out) that it’s almost certain we’d be moving at least yearly until we decided to buy again. And of course renting is made even more difficult because we have a big dog. Kids and dogs: two big strikes against us as tenants, no matter how well-behaved either of them may be.

    Option 3a: Find someone who’s interested in buying our place as an investment property, and rent it back from them for a year or more as a condition of the sale. At least it would shave one move off the experience.

    And as much as I don’t want it to be an issue, it seems like having a kid (and someday kids) complicates the question of “where to live next?” Now, it’s not only a matter of finding adequate space suitable for us and the dog, along with our list of must-haves (laundry, dishwasher, balcony, nearby amenities). We also need to start thinking about things like play space, storage space (especially as we’re currently keeping Isaac’s baby things so we’ll have them around for eventual kid #2 – offsite storage is of course a possibility, but comes with a cost), outdoor space (either our own, or nearby parks & playgrounds), and schools.

    I can’t be the only one thinking (obsessing) about all this. Gentle readers, what are you thinking about Vancouver real-estate these days? Or are you trying not to? Have I missed any bright, shining options or opportunities that you’re seeing? Commiserate with me.

    The Moving of the Things

    Whoops. We’re not even into double-digit days here, and I’ve already missed a couple days of BloPo-ing for the NaMo.

    Apologies, but I was busy moving 85% of the things that I own to other places, and back again.

    It started innocently enough with the bathroom sink. In a battle of Porcelain Sink vs. Ikea Vase, the vase was the clear winner. The sink didn’t stand a chance. Apparently the sink was somewhat bitter, though, about the unfair matchup, because it exacted its revenge by being the most impossible thing to replace, ever.

    The contents of the cupboard below my sink have been living in a couple of laundry baskets for the past couple of weeks, being shuffled through hallways and rooms, depending on where we needed the space.

    After a hunt to find the make and model of the sink, procure a replacement, undertaking some some tentative removal experimentation and eventually summoning a work party of husband, dad, brother and a motley assortment of tools used normally for everything from standard household maintenance to aircraft repair, the sink was replaced! Huzzah!

    It wouldn’t have been a particularly big deal, except it also butted against the deadline weekend of rearranging the rest of our furniture to make room for other stuff.

    We’re off next weekend to visit the in-laws and retrieve our supply of lamb, so we needed to replace the deep-freeze we got rid of during the summer with a smaller model that would fit indoors. Except there wasn’t room indoors without downsizing and moving a bunch of the office furniture out of the way.

    We also had to move the TV from the 2nd bedroom (previously the office/TV room, on its way to becoming the baby room) into the living room, which meant losing a bunch of bookshelves, which led to cleaning out the closet in that room and purging a bunch of things, and also swapping the former-TV-room couch with the music room chair (aside: free IKEA Klippan – interested?) so we’d have room for our now trimmed-down book supply and the new glider (thanks mom!) that’s supposed to be delivered sometime in the next week or so.

    It’s all cleaning and organizing that we knew was coming, but had procrastinated on dealing with until the last minute. So we’re done, until the next round, when we need to find, procure, make space for and assemble a crib. Personally, I think my idea of some shredded newspaper in a drawer is looking better all the time.

    This is what you find when you move a couch in my house.