I bought a house on Tuesday night.
It was a surreal experience.
When I first saw the listing for the house, I was excited by the lowish price. I went to see it immediately and I liked the feel of the place. The house was solid, adequately sized and had two nice features - a livable basement with a separate entrance and a decent-sized backyard. I could rent out the basement without being too embarrassed. I'd seen better basements but I'd seen a lot that were way worse.
And as far as the backyard goes, when I started looking for houses, I didn't realize how many tiny backyards there are in the city. You can turn those tiny backyards into beautiful spaces and I wouldn't have rejected a house for a small backyard but still a backyard of this size - not huge but respectable - was a nice bonus.
Initially I didn't think much about the neighborhood. On the one hand, it was a little further west than I had intended to go; on the other hand, it was a real up-and-coming neighborhood with lots of restaurants and cafes and such, and I knew a few people who loved living around there. That didn't excite me. I would have preferred a less happening neighborhood, as long as it was closer to the part of the city that felt like home to me.
Let's just say I was ambivalent about the neighborhood. And I guess I still am.
I was more concerned about the actual street. But there I also found ambivalence.
When I went looking for a house, I think I imagined it would be on some leafy residential street, tucked away from the main streets. And that image also produced ambivalence. I love those leafy, tree-lined streets and the sense of isolation from the busy main streets. On the other hand, when I leave my house to buy milk or catch the streetcar, I don't like to walk too far. When I rented apartments, I always chose something close to - or even on - the main streets. I guess I just assumed that when I bought a house, that would change.
But it wouldn't change if I bought this house. It's on one of those little feeder streets where you don't even expect to see houses. There's a gas station a few doors away, a giant condo going up right across the street, and another condo going up a few doors away. And my backyard butts up against a row of autobody shops lining the street behind me.
It's steps away from two main streets and three different street car lines. I guess ultimately I preferred that to the more residential streets but I was afraid this street was a bit too..... industrial?
I kept asking people whether the condo across the street would drive down prices on the street. Every single one of them said "No, just the opposite".
I guess I was thinking that you'd rather look across the street and see another house with a tree and a garden. But the people I asked were just thinking of all the services that would inevitably accompany the condo.
The condo across the street, by the way, is being built by Harry Stinson, one of the few developers in the city who actually has a public face, by virtue of the infomercials he's done to promote his condos. And the building is sort of half interesting, half ugly. It's supposed to be state of the art, with rooftop gardens , an atrium, and some environmentally-friendly energy system.
All I care about is how ugly the part across from my house will be. And whether, even with its own parking spaces, the condo residents will make it hard for me to find a spot on the street. I don't have parking and it's the kind of street where, if you don't find a spot near your house, you're fucked.
The other condo, three doors east (or north... the street slants) seems like it might be bearable. It's not very tall, it has sort of interesting modern design and if the drawing on the outside is accurate, it may have a pretty little garden that could be visible from my backyard.
It's an area in transition, they say. Maybe someday the gas station will be gone along with all the autobody shops and I'll be surrounded by groovy condos. Or maybe they'll buy me out and condo the whole neighbourhood.
Anyway these were the things I was thinking about when I first looked at the house. But then my agent gave me the bad news. They weren't accepting bids for almost two weeks, the low asking price was almost certainly offered in order to create a bidding war, the house I was attached to had just gone for thirty five thousand more than they were asking for my house and that house didn't have a finished basement like mine did.
In other words, I wasn't going to get it cheap. I wasn't going to steal it.
And I was going to have to wait a long time.
So for almost two weeks, I dreamed about what it would be like to live in that house. I started referring to it as "my house" or "my backyard" and then catching myself; I drove by it a few times at night and even drove a friend or two by it, to get their opinion. I was going a bit crazy, just waiting. My agent kept telling me that it was a good house in an upcoming neighborhood with rental possiblities and it was going to go at least fifty thousand over asking price. I hoped she wasn't right and kept wondering whether the long wait would be worth it. I don't even think I looked at any other houses while I was waiting.
Then the day came. I couldn't sleep the night before. The plan was that I'd register a low bid with my agent and then she'd find out how many others were bidding on it. Then, according to how many bids they'd received, we'd guess how high it might go and at six o'clock she'd drive up to the agent's office and deliver our higher bid before the seven o'clock deadline.
So I phoned my agent at noon and she told me that they already had five registered bids.
This was apparently bad news. It meant there'd be a bidding war of some kind. I wasn't going to get it for anywhere near the asking price.
That was okay with me, in principle.
In my time of looking, I'd never seen a decent house in a decent neighborhood that was anywhere as cheap as the original asking price on "my house". That original asking price was actually precisely what I wanted to pay for a house when I first started looking. It was the price my friends had paid a year ago, for a house I would have been glad to own. I wanted to pay what they'd paid. Yes it was a year later and prices did go up but people kept telling me they were about to level off.
In approximately three months of house-hunting, I'd seen a few houses in that general price neighborhood. But they were always compromised for me. Compromise was necessary. I could never afford a house in the neighborhood I wanted to live in. But when you go looking for a house, you have to juggle your compromises and pick the more important ones. These more affordable houses were usually in a kind of isolated neighborhoods and almost always were the kind of cute, smallish house row house that I just couldn't see myself living in.
Or they were decent sized but needed tons of work.
Or they were beside a parking lot with a huge industrial fan that probably grinded away all day and night. Or there were four dogs next door, including a pit bull.
It wasn't that I wanted a big house. It was that I wanted a decent sized living/dining room. That was my focus. Any of those cute houses had enough space for me, all told. But I spend the vast majority of my life in a room with a computer, a TV, stereo, couch and chair and that was my focus. And so the second floor, with the bedrooms etc, was almost irrelevant to me. I needed a kitchen that was big enough for a table so I could dedicate the entire dining room to expand the size of my living room.
"My house", as I thought of it, had that potential. It also had a lovely second floor. I fantasized about my airy master bedroom with the bay window and lots of light, my guest room, my office, my sunroom but mostly I was thinking of the main floor, the basement and the backyard.
I was willing to pay a bit more because I hadn't seen anything in that desired price range and didn't really expect I ever would. And I was willing to pay a bit more because from the beginning I'd said that I'd pay more if the house had a decent basement apartment with a separate entrance.
I'd said that but obviously I hadn't really thought much about it.
So anyway the agent told me that we'd have to raise our price a fair bit and she'd phone me around five thirty and we'd decide on a price. And I spent the afternoon at work, discussing the situation with my friend and editor Chris, who was a recent homebuyer and a big proponent of home ownership.
He encouraged me to go with the highest price I could imagine spending. Or to put it another way, "If it goes for two thousand more than your price, will you be pissed off or will you just think that you gave it your best shot?"
That's the logic that kills you.
I would have been happy to get the house at thirty five thousand over asking price but given what the house next door had gone for and the number of other bids, that didn't seem likely. I would have been happy enough to get it for forty thousand above but it didn't seem likely that would be the highest bid. So I decided to bid forty five above asking and then when I was on the phone with my agent, I upped it another thousand, in the hopes that someone else would stop at the round number and I'd beat them by a thousand.
The truth is that both my agent and I figured someone would probably bid seventy thousand over. Somebody would pay that because of the neighborhood. For me the grooviness of the neighborhood created ambivalence but for some young couple with a kid, the stroller-density of the neighborhood would be a major bonus.
So I offered forty six thousand, my agent drove up to the suburbs and I went home, figuring she'd call me in an hour and give me the bad news. And part of me, I predicted, would be relieved. It was a lot of money, basement apartment or not. The basement would make it easier for me to handle the mortgage but still it could be a struggle.
My agent called me around the appointed time and told me they were considering three bids and ours was one of them. I didn't understand that. Surely there was one of the three that was highest. Why didn't they just take that one and put the rest of us out of our misery?
And what if mine was the highest one?
(As it turned out, it wasn't.)
My agent agreed with me. She told me she'd argued with the agents and almost felt like walking away. But maybe if I offered another couple of thousand dollars, we could put an end to it.
I so wanted to say no. But... I don't know, once you're up at forty six, do you really want to walk away for two thousand more?
(Maybe you do if forty six is more than you can afford and you only offered it because you thought you wouldn't get it.)
I said "Okay, forty eight" and she went to give them my bid.
Ten minutes later she told me that they weren't accepting my bid because it was only verbal. If I wanted to actually bid that much, I had to drive up to the suburbs and initial it.
"And if I drive up there and initial it, does that mean I'll get the house?" I asked my agent. She couldn't say for sure. What??? So if I drive up there, I might not get the house but if I don't drive up there, I definitely won't get it. Is that basically it, I asked her. Sheepishly she confirmed it.
So I got in the car and headed up to a part of town that I hadn't come anywhere near since my old cab driving days. A half hour drive if I was lucky.
Ten minutes into the drive she called me again. "How far away are you?", she asked. The post rush-hour traffic was already driving me crazy. I didn't need questions like that.
Then she told me that they wanted two things from me. An earlier closing date and two thousand dollars more.
It wasn't what I wanted to hear while I was fighting traffic.
The earlier closing date didn't bother me particularly. But the two thousand did. My agent asked if I could do ONE thousand. Then I heard her yelling at the sales agent. Then she came back to me and asked me again. Then she yelled at the sales agent again.
I don't know what I was thinking but I said i'd pay a thousand more but there was no fucking way I'd go two. My agent said "Keep coming, I'll get back to you".
So I kept driving.
When I was about five minutes away, she phoned me and asked if I was close. I said I was. She said she was waiting in the parking lot because the sales agent was driving her crazy.
I had to phone her once more because she'd given me bad directions but finally I pulled into the lot.
My sales agent was looking at me strangely as she told me to follow her downstairs.
Wait a second. What was happening here?
She was explaining to me that someone had bid fifty thousand over asking price but insisted on a later closing date, that the sellers had wanted fifty FIVE thousand over asking, that the agents were a pain in the ass, and I was following her like a zombie into this ugly office building, down this ugly circular staircase and into this ugly little office....
Where an Indian couple in their sixties were waiting along with this beefy male sales agent and his insincere female accomplice.
And they were all smiling at me, shaking my hand, slapping me on the back, saying "Congratulations" and sitting me down in front of a pile of contracts.
"Initial here, here, and here. Sign and date. Sign and date. Okay just three more copies".
And it was slowly dawning on me that I just bought a house, that I was paying A LOT of money, that maybe I could make the downpayment but given that I basically don't make a living, I'd never be able to afford the mortgage, and if I stopped initialling and signing, maybe I could run out of there, drive home, stop answering my phone and the nightmare would end.
But I kept signing as I looked over at the sellers and silently begged them to stop smiling at me like the cats that ate the canary.
"A lovely couple bought the house next door. You'll like them".
A lovely couple? I'll probably hate them. They'd better not bug me about my music or I'll just plant myself under their back window and let cigarette smoke waft inside.
When it was over, I still hadn't recovered the power of speech but my agent hugged me and I got in the car for the long drive back home.
I called my brother and tried to rationalize it to him. He was happy for me but agreed it could be a challenge. Then I called my editor and friend, Chris, who was joyous.
Misery loves company. Now we were both tied down to huge debts.
He suggested we go for a celebratory drink.
I was still speechless with fear when he joined me on the patio, along with my good friend Lee who was there to help me recover my senses.
"Why do people keep congratulating me and all I can think of is the bank coming to my house and kicking me out???"
I stayed like that until a new thought slowly dawned on me.
The house I just bought already had an apartment on the second floor. My plan all along had been to open up the second floor, get rid of the kitchen, take it down to the basement, live on the first and second floors and rent the basement.
But what if I kept it like it was and slept in the basement?
"Do you think I could sleep in the basement?", I asked my friends. And we mulled over the question for the next hour.
"You wouldn't be living in the basement, just sleeping there", one of my friends offered. Or maybe that was me.
Like I said, I'd been fantasizing about that upstairs master bedroom, the guest room, the office....
I was sort of glad to give up the idea of the office. The only reason I was planning to put an office on the second floor was due to implied peer pressure. People with a third bedroom on the second floor usually made it their office and kept their livingroom computer-free.
"What do you have the room for if you're not going to spread yourself through the house?", the logic went.
I would have gone along with that idea. And about a week into my new residency, I'd be sitting at my computer in this little room upstairs and wishing I was downstairs near the TV and the stereo and the kitchen and cursing myself for the very idea of an "office".
So that would be a non-issue if I rented the upper floor.
But when I'd been fantasizing about the master bedroom, I must admit I often thought about what a prospective new woman in my life, might think.
"Nice bedroom", she'd think. And she'd stand in the bay window, look back at me, all the time thinking to herself "I could sleep here".
Would she think the same thing if I led her down to the basement?
"Where are you taking me, the dungeon?"
Of course some women I know would like that idea. But it wouldn't be a dungeon. It would just be a bedroom. I'd be sleeping in the rec room, like some teenager who convinced his parents he needed more privacy.
Maybe I should get a black light poster.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized I had no choice and the more I started to relax. If I rented out the second floor, I would have less renovating to do and more importantly the people upstairs could almost pay my mortgage. There are a lot of little things you have to pay besides mortgage. Water, heat, electricity, insurance, property tax. That can cost you in the neighborhood of six hundred bucks a month.
I could have the basement guy pay the six hundred bucks OR I could sleep in the basement, forget about a guest room and an office and hope that any new women in my life would admire me for making my upstairs tenants pay the vast majority of the mortgage.
And there's the fact that we could make more noise down there.
The funny thing is that I did meet a new woman the very next night after I bought my house. And if this doesn't go into the "small world" file, I don't know what does. This new woman, with whom I will likely have an undefined but very welcome relationship, bought a house about a year ago.... on the same street as me! And she sleeps in her basement!
She lives on other side of one of my nearby main streets so I won't necessarily run into her but if we ever get into the "booty call" thing, it will be convenient.
And she's become - by necessity - an expert in home renovation. So yesterday we went through my house and she told me everything I'm going to have to do.
She thinks I'll be happy sleeping in the basement.
I'll be happy if I can pay the bills.