Dreaming of a house…


1926, Maurice Vlaminck, lithograph; acquired at auction and now in our bedroom


By Caitlin Kelly

Blame it on journalism, an insecure business that lays people off every day and pays poorly.

Blame it on my insistence on living close to a major city, which spikes real estate prices; I lived for 18 months, (albeit pre-Internet and pretty broke), in a small rural town in 1988. It was a very poor fit, making me wary of being so far out again.

Blame it on a lifelong love for travel, blowing bucks on a trip to Paris instead of scrimping for a larger down-payment.

And, I admit, my aesthetic preferences for homes 100+ years old and my lack of carpentry/electrical skills also in play…

But I’ve never owned a house.

I re-arranged the artwork in our bedroom recently and noticed a subconscious pattern — a French lithograph from the 1920s; an anonymous oil found at a flea market and a watercolor bought at an antiques fair.

Each shows a house, surrounded by forest or land or near a river.

Not in a suburb.

Not in a city.

But a discrete dwelling with no immediate neighbors or nearby visual impediments.

A few other factors have made home ownership feel difficult-to-impossible — working freelance with a variable income makes mortgage lenders jumpy.

The serious responsibility of costly repairs — like a roof or boiler — is intimidating.

And, with no children, no real justifiable need for extra space, like multiple bedrooms or bathrooms.

There’s also no “Canadian dream” of home ownership and — unlike the U.S. whose policies make mortgage interest a tax deduction, making home ownership more appealing — Canadian banks usually insist upon a 30 percent down payment, not the 1 percent “liar loans” that got so many American home-buyers into terrible trouble in 2008.

And houses aren’t cheap!

The ones that are would require so much time, energy and renovation my heart sinks at the prospect — and we go off on vacation instead.

I lived in a house at 19, at home with my father and his girlfriend, later wife. It was white brick, two story, probably built in the 1920s or 30s, on a busy Toronto corner and facing a park.

I lived in a house in downtown Toronto, the top floor of a narrow Victorian home, then in a sorority house for a summer and then, my last Toronto home, rented the top two floors of a small house even as I lived alone.

But since then, I’ve shared hallways and a laundry room and adjacent walls — through which I can hear our neighbors’ laughter and conversations — in a six-story co-op (owned) apartment building in a suburb of New York City.

I like our life here — there’s a pool and Hudson River views and nice landscaping and I don’t have to shovel snow or clear gutters or mow a lawn.

But I long, deeply, for a private place where I can crank up my music really loud.

Where there isn’t a long tedious list of “house rules” and restrictions on everything from bird-feeders (verboten) to grilling outdoors.

Where we could easily host multiple friends, finally able to reciprocate their house-owning hospitality to us.

Which we could rent out and leave if we want to.

We’re thinking of a road trip to Nova Scotia — and found this, a 3 bedroom with 2 acres and ocean view, built in 1815.

And went a little mad with desire until I read that it’s the rainiest place in Canada except for the very rainy B.C. coast.

My father has owned many houses — including a great Georgian pile near Galway City in Ireland, built in 1789; a massive Victorian in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia and an elegant early Victorian in a small town in Ontario.

He just bought his latest, built in 1810, in another small Ontario town.


Do you live in a house?

Do you own it?

What’s it like?

37 thoughts on “Dreaming of a house…

  1. Just so you know, Canadian mortgages are on a scale. 5% down on the first 500,000 and 10% down on any amount over 500,000 up to 999,999. But there are other rules around buying, particularly in Vancouver and Toronto (designed to deter foreign and out-of-province buyers). BC’s rules have recently become the most difficult. There are loads of good places to buy though. Calgary for instance or the Okanagan Valley. Very mild winters and lots of sun in the summer and shoulder months. 🙂

    I have owned a townhouse, a house and right now, a condo, which I really, really dislike. We will be selling it after I’ve finished working in the north and will likely buy a small house (that’s the plan) here in the Okanagan (there are lots of good properties under 400,000 – our ceiling) after giving Calgary serious consideration and then deciding against it. The weather, wine and good restaurants are just too good to give up. 🙂

    1. I’m stuck if I stay in the States as a non-resident buyer — 35% down payment expected, which is a lot. And not at all sure where we want to go or can afford to go or if/when to sell our place here — which we love but are not allowed to rent. It’s all annoying in some measure.

      All my closest friends live in Toronto (impossible except for a condo box or renting) so Ontario near-ish to there seems likely. But my longtime dream was to spend a lot of time in France…

      1. Maybe outside of Toronto? Guelph or so? Markham? Public transit is good, but I’m sure you’re quite familiar with the ins and outs in the TO area. And yes, non-resident buyers are being discouraged. But given Trump’s behaviour, I’m sure you’re keeping an eye on the north, and NS is good value. My M and I considered it but decided that all that snow would just be too much. A lot is riding on your November election outcome – there’s been a surge again in American immigration queries to Canada.

      2. Guelph is surprisingly (or not) quite expensive, actually. The ideal would be a way to keep our apartment in NY (with ready access to NYC) and have a place in Ontario. Not sure that re-patriation would help us with work — and we still have to work…

  2. Jan Jasper

    What a fascinating topic! I have lived in my current house for the past decade, prior to that I was in a different house for 4 years. Before that, decades of apartment living. Both of my houses were made feasible due to my late husband, who had a good job. It would be nice if I could say “I could have afforded a house on my own,” but that was not the case.
    I absolutely love having a house – the space, the quiet, the garden, the fenced backyard for my pooch – and yes, the freedom from Homeowners’ Association rules.
    I find that with the mortgage paid off, surprisingly, it’s cheaper to live here than in an apartment. I’ve done the math. Even factoring in property taxes, flood insurance, and maintenance, etc – it’s less expensive to be here than to rent an apartment of a reasonable size. Of course the wild card is the possibility of a major maintenance bill – such as the roof needing to be replaced. If that happened, it would be a dent in my retirement savings, for sure. We did need a big roof repair due to damage from Hurricane Sandy – but insurance covered most of it.
    I love having my own place… knowing that nobody will be partying upstairs until 4 am, depriving me of sleep… and having a garden (that I haven’t weeded because it’s too humid to go out and do that work now).

    1. It sounds great….and having a good job makes all the difference.

      Jose loved journalism and it just doesn’t pay anything near what corporate or law or other jobs offer, even in good jobs at a major place like the NY Times. So we have decent retirement savings but not sure how we will ever afford a house — unless we sell our (much loved) apartment and move somewhere rural, which makes me nervous. Because you don’t just stay in your house but want a social life and welcoming community. I’m not much of a rural person.

  3. Jan Jasper

    I forgot to mention that my house was built in 1875. When my husband was alive, we did a lot of maintenance ourselves, to save money. And it was satisfying. Since he’s passed, I find myself assessing potential dates (partly) in terms of whether they’re DIY-friendly. If you have an old house, you have to enjoy taking care of it, or you’ll be miserable, Also, if you need to hire a contractor for every single blasted thing, the cost of home ownership is higher. Couples who rent or are in a condo don’t have to think about this stuff. If I need to crawl under the porch to re-connect a loose drainpipe, I certainly don’t want to do it all by myself. (I can do it myself, and I have done it alone – but that’s not the point.)

    1. All true…and the only houses that really appeal to me are at least 100 years old, and have some character and architectural appeal.

      Newer flat boxes (post 1940s) seem depressing to me…our apartment building is mid1960s, red brick and has nothing at all to recommend it visually — but for gorgeous views and a lovely hilltop location.

  4. I can certainly understand your longing to own a house, but ironically, I am longing not to own a house. I bought my little house that I affectionately call ‘the cottage ‘ due to its little size, about 14 years ago. Prior to this, when I was married, we bought 2 houses and when I divorced I lived in apartments/flats for many years. Buying my own house was very powerful for me on so many levels. I’ve enjoyed my time here. My neighborhood, my neighbors, but I am ready for another chapter. I recently decide to sell my house, and with the increased value, pay off all debt, put money down on a condo in the same city, and eliminate repair costs, debt load, and time spent caretakimg. I know I’m giving something up in the process but yearn for the simplification/liberation of it all. I want to have less financial and time constraints, and want to spend more time traveling and working on projects of my choosing without being beholden to the house and all that goes with it. I look forward to it and I’ll keep you posted.

    1. Good for you!

      I totally get why these are good choices for you. Our apartment is finally, sloooooowly, appreciating in value as our town keeps gentrifying — if and when we sell I hope to realize at least some profit, although (given our renovations) I doubt it will be more than $50,000 at most. Which is nice, but not that much help in many places.

      I agree that we’ve likely saved a lot in NOT owning — although we’ve had to spend at least $5-10,000 on repairing endless/repeated cracks in the damn walls, $1,600 for all new windows (which SHOULD have been the co-op’s job, seems to me) and new air conditioners.

      We blew the cost of an entire house (a very small one, somewhere very far away) on our renovations in 2008 and 2012 but they were well worth it to us. Daily enjoyment helps me more than a once-a-year trip.

      1. Two sides of the same coin. My little house is over 100 years old, which I love, but also which comes with its own set of issues to deal with, which I’ve grown tired of.

      2. jan jasper

        It is not only 100 year old houses that require a lot of work. I have known people who own a house that’s 20 years old who have found it has all kinds of problems. It seems that things just aren’t built very well anymore.

  5. I live in a house, our second, and let me begin by saying that we have almost nothing on the walls. Partly because we’ve never made the effort to acquire anything but also because I don’t really like most art on walls. However, I ADORE that first print!
    We built (read: had others build) both our houses as it was a cheaper way of getting something we liked than buying anything already constructed. Anything really old and renovated costs significantly more than a new build. Essentially it seems the French are risk-adverse and if you are willing to go through the steps of getting a lot and finding a builder, it is entirely feasible to get something built to specs or according to a preset design. However, you have to budget for every single lighting fixture, kitchen appliance and closet fitting as they come with no bells and whistles! Not to mention plant the grass (no sod here!) and all the trees and flowers. So it’s no small undertaking but well worth it in my view. (Even though neither of us are handyman types and many things just had to wait). However, that said, we are currently thinking of downsizing to an apartment or townhouse in a few years as we find the upkeep on the house (and garden and yes, a pool!) is just too much. When it comes down to it, you realize that quality of life is about choosing the thing that makes you happy — and for both of us that means more time to do the things we love. So maybe you have already got it right?

    1. It’s all such a trade-off!

      We really splurged hard, for once, on our bedroom last fall — 2 pieces of art (a Dufy engraving hangs over the bed), new queen mattress, new bookshelves, custom-made blind w Pierre Frey fabric. I don’t see moving anytime soon.

      One of the reasons owning a house scares me is the cost of furnishing all those rooms! I have (cough) expensive taste so wouldn’t be up for a ton of Ikea.

      I’ve also thought of — maybe — buying a piece of land and having something built.

      So many decisions…

  6. I never thought of myself as a home owner until this past year. I don’t know what, but something triggered my desire to own my own place. I’ve even stalked real estate sites a couple of times just to see what’s available. I’ve even thought long and hard about where in Columbus I want to live, and that would be my mother’s neighborhood. Not because I’d be close to her and my stepmom (though that would be a perk), but because it’s a beautiful, diverse neighborhood with nice homes, most of which come with plenty of space to spread out and even some backyards, and the prices are very affordable. Not to mention it’s within driving distance of several grocery stores, a library, and a decent hospital, among other things.

    Up until recently though, it’s been a far-off dream. I don’t have a car, and to live in that neighborhood I’d need a car to commute to and from work (because let’s face it, even with recent successes, writing full-time is still very far off). Thankfully I recently passed my driver’s test, and that means I can finally start looking into buying a car. And once I have a car, a house isn’t too far out of the question. Especially if I continue to do well at work and maintain a good income. We’ll just have to wait and see, I guess, but I’ve plenty of reason to be hopeful.

    1. It’s neat that you’re thinking about it.

      I spent a LOT of time this week looking at Nova Scotia houses (all under $200k Canadian) and learned a lot about what I like — and what’s actually available.

  7. I owned a house when I was married, back in the 90’s, with my own garden, and a front porch to watch the world go by from. Not my dream home, but it had my name on the mortgage, the paint colour on the walls was my choice, the birdfeeders out back, the plants in the garden, all mine, and I do miss that feeling.

    And I grew up in a house that’s been in the family for over 100 years, and that we still have and is where my sister is with her family, two girls and hubby, and a river runs by, and out on that old porch many a part of my family have stood over the years, lots of memories stored in those old wide plank pine floors. And I’ve since always gravitated to apartments in old houses. Love, like you, those old walls, and crown mouldings and tall ceilings of those old rooms, the weird and wonderful little details, hidden and not so hidden, the history in the walls.

    Well, so just lately I caught this homeownership bug, like on my own terms this time, with MY money, for me and just me kind of ownership, and that is craziness of the highest order…but…some tiny home somewhere? Yeah, so I’ve been poking around and seeing what, and how, and you never know. : ) Ugh.

  8. It must be an age thing because, the same age as you, I too dream of living in a smallish house (whereas I didn’t before.) But it has to be a house with a lovely smallish garden. Because my dream is to sit in my very own garden (beside a tinkling fountain?) or in the shade of a weeping willow while reading, writing, eating and chatting with friends. My winter dream is to sit indoors in front of my very own crackling fireplace. And to think that I had all that growing up (and took it all for granted, of course.) We had a large house with garden in the Toronto burbs and on the weekends drove to our 100-acre farm situated between Warkworth and Campbellford.

    Today I live in a micro-apartment in Paris (with no balcony.)

    Those house prices in Nova Scotia are very low indeed. New Brunswick is also a province to consider, I think, no?

    1. YES to all of this. I’m desperate for a fireplace; my father just sold a house with one that I loved dearly.

      NS is gorgeous and cheap…but we know not a soul (OK, 3 people.) NB doesn’t appeal to me as much, maybe because I’ve been to NS a few times and my Dad owned a house in Lunenberg for a few years. I’m a little wary of moving to a place where we know not a soul and would have little in common with neighbors…that was a brutal experience for me in New Hampshire and left me cautious.

      I think small apartments have some charms but having a space entirely your OWN? Heaven, seems to me.

  9. I am in my first (maybe last?) house, my “fixer-upper” that isn’t quite there yet (will the aluminum siding ever be removed, the clapboard underneath restored? I hope in my lifetime). I have lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere (17 years!— I lived in NYC for the previous 30). My last pre-war apartment was bigger than my house. But, I have a garage (almost-art studio) and attic and basement. So. I am hanging onto it as long as I can. (Just like my marbles 🙂 What has suffered most is disposable income and travel. (But that’s not the house’s fault, it’s the marketplace and dwindling value on what I do—art and writing. And how worn down I feel when addressing “the career.”) I do, however, have bird feeders and a bird bath, monster hydrangeas that were once table centerpieces, and even a tiny waterfall—and a sense of peace that comes with knowing that I, a single woman, have poured my blood, sweat, and tears, into something that, had I known then what I know now, would never have had the courage to embark upon. No regrets! (And, seriously, come visit! I am right up the river! We can have a glass of wine on my tiny deck that I just noticed is rotting!)

    1. Ohhh, that sounds good. Feel free to email me privately.

      I so admire that you’ve done this. And, boy, do I hear you on the dropping income front. It’s very disheartening. I’m glad we spent the $$ we did when we had more of it (when Jose had a FT job) to renovate our place as it gives us great pleasure every single day. And, when we sell, I hope to realize those gains back.

      There are things I might regret spending $$ on, but rarely on home, especially since I’ve been working from it since 2006.

      1. I think it really dawned on me that my life was different when the boiler and roof replacements took precedence over, say, a jaunt to Cozumel. And sitting on the deck watching for hummingbirds became my meditative retreat.

      2. I hear you!

        I love love love living, literally, in the treetops — we have so many birds about 15 feet from our balcony and our garden is getting lots of bees and butterflies.

  10. I’ve had my house for twenty one years and it has been a journey, from painting over the Pepto- bismol colored living room (The new color was disgusting until we covered it completely) to the massive foundation repair and everything in between. This house is my home, more than any other place ever was. Still I can’t help but feel that I might have another change of scenery in me. My wife talks about Maine a bit. You can get a good deal on a nice house there, that’s for sure, but I’m not quite sold. There’s the weather and my one droll Yankee friend here in North Carolina. I love him, but I don’t know if I’m ready for that much droll.

    1. That’s a good long time…

      We’ve been thinking about a change of scenery, but are also so spoiled with the combination of a charming small town, river views and ready access to NYC. I’ve never not liked it here, (until this year, and the problems are political and economic, nothing to do with the town itself.)

      Climate change is a new and compelling issue as well. We are spending this summer (miserably so) shut indoors paying $$$ for air-conditioning. Not at all what I enjoy.

      Maine IS gorgeous and you can get a really nice house there, if not right on the water. Winters would be tough, though.

      Whenever I think of going back to Canada, I also know I would miss some of my life in the States. Friends, not so much, sorry to say — and that’s the eternal draw back to Ontario. My friendships here, even after 30 years, are not deep or numerous and that really bothers me. If I can STOP working, I don’t want to feel lonely and bored.

  11. We moved here to be near my in-laws, since my wife is an only child. I’m (I was) pretty good at making new friends, mostly by trial and error, but it was kind of rough on her for the first year or so. We still don’t have a large circle of friends but the ones we do have are solid. This deepens the change of scenery dilemma. No hurry, though. In fact, we’re pondering a couple improvements.

    1. I really want to stop working; that removes the necessity of living near NYC or Toronto (with real estate spikes) for networking, etc. But until then, I think we’re stuck.

      I love our town. I hate the cost of health insurance and am frustrated by the lack of deep friendships I’ve been able to create here. We have maybe 6 people who I would call at 4 a.m. in a crisis (that’s my definition of friendship.) I find NYers obsessed with work or their own families.

      I left Toronto 30 years ago but people still ask when I’ll come back. So maybe some Canadians value friendship more?

      1. Jan Jasper

        Wow, if you have six people you could call at 4 a.m. you are extremely rich in friendships. I envy you!
        Another home-related topic is safety and the likelihood of break-ins. While I don’t miss living in an apartment, it was a plus that there was only one way a thief could get in – that was the door. (We were 11 stories up). In my current house, there are three doors (2 with large glass windows), and a great many first floor windows, plus basement windows. There are a fair number of break-ins in my neighborhood. My ground floor windows are all quite secure and I have grilles over the basement windows. (My next door neighbor, who also lives alone, does not have grilles on her basement windows – she was astonished and scared when she woke up one morning to find a man in her house.) I have an alarm system that I use regularly. I am usually home and am careful who I open my door to. I do a lot of shopping online and I get a text message when a box arrives on my porch – I retrieve it immediately. I do this because there are people who travel around my town filching UPS deliveries off people’s porches. I know friends who live in apartment buildings who who have deliveries held by building staff downstairs, they never have to think about this. I feel safer because my house is on a corner which means two sides of my house can be seen from the streets, also I have neighbors who keep an eye out for each other. There are houses in my town on large wooded lots, but they seem to have more break-ins – probably because even a vigilant neighbor may not be able to see what’s going on next door due to all the trees.

      2. Well, I’m not sure anyone would be thrilled to GET a 4 a.m. call — and some of the people I feel closest to emotionally actually live quite far away from us.

        I would also feel vulnerable with that many glass doors/windows, although an alarm is a good idea. Do you have motion-sensor light outside? I would add those (not that you’re asking!) And check in with the local police to find who’s breaking in and are they armed? I lived in Montreal on the 6th (top) floor of a fantastic 1930s apt. bldg — but it was broken into a lot and that scared me esp.since I lived alone and my bedroom was at the very back of the apartment. Luckily I was never hit but it was not fun to feel targeted.

        It pays to be smart about security!

      3. Jan Jasper

        My 2 closest friends live several states away. And no one enjoys being wakened at 4 am, that’s true.
        As for home security, I have lights on both porches and the back patio, they turn on at dusk. the only reason I’m not more worried about all the first-floor windows is that they are 2 layers deep, meaning there are storm windows which are hooked shut to the window sill _from the inside_. So a burglar would have to break 2 windows. Of my 3 doors, only one can’t be seen from the street, and that has a grille on the glass. A policeman who came and spoke to our neighborhood association said burglars tend to avoid breaking glass because it makes so much noise. And I have a dog who barks a lot. And, believe it or not – I never open my first-floor windows. That also keeps the house cleaner!
        My backyard is partially wooded, but it’s entirely fenced so it would not be easy for someone to get in.
        The neighborhood break-ins are often more like walk-ins, i.e. the resident doesn’t have the brains to lock their door. There are actual break-ins, though. I have never heard of a weapon being used in my neighborhood (on the other side of town is a different story). Years ago there was a home invasion several blocks away and an elderly man was badly beaten. But that is extremely rare.
        My lights are permanently on timers so they turn off and on in different rooms in the evening.
        When I go away for longer than a day, I have a trusted neighbor come in and open and shut my curtains and also bring the mail in.
        Actually, none of this bothers me and I feel pretty safe here. I have never, in 10 years here, had a break in or robbery. I have had a few times when people came to my door for suspicious reasons and a couple times, I heard a person on my porch try the doorknob. BTW, if someone rings the doorbell and I look out the window and I don’t recognize them, I never open the door (regardless of their skin color).
        Well, it’s funny how I’ve gone into all these details, but I do think people in apartments – unless their building has adjacent balconies that could give a neighbor access – have a much lower risk of break-ins. I guess the crime risk is one of the few downsides of a house, especially for a woman living alone.

      4. Well, yes and no….

        Our building is full of elderly people (70s to 90s) and known for that, even though maybe 1/3 of us now are in our 30s through 60s. People have a bad/lazy habit of buzzing in people they don’t know (!!!!) and without a doorman, that’s a problem. I keep the bottom lock (even living on the top floor) dead-bolted to forestall a possible push-in.

        I normally wouldn’t think about this stuff at all — except for the specifics of our building’s population, which (de facto) makes them physically more vulnerable and possibly less cautious.

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