Sunday, February 28, 2016

Condo conundrum, continued

The front door of the house
where we've lived for the past 26 years.
(Photo taken before recent repainting!)
(The light fixture & mailbox have changed too.) 
(Warning: Loooonnnnnggggg, rambling post, written on & off over the last few months.)

You've probably noticed a few posts within the past year about my attempts to declutter my house and downsize my belongings (including my vinyl LP collectionmy beloved books and even (gasp!!) my pregnancy clothes).  

In part, it's because the house needed it (erk) -- but it's also because we've been talking condos. Again. Seriously.

Four-plus years ago, I wrote a post titled "Condo conundrum," in which I weighed the (mostly theoretical, at that time) pros & cons of selling our house & moving into a condo. 

(As I explained back then) As background: 

We bought this house almost exactly 26 years ago for typical reasons -- we'd been renting a small apartment for five years, were starting to think about having a family, and we had finally reached the point where we could afford to buy a house. It was the logical next step in our adult, married life.

The house had to be affordable, and it had to be somewhere within a reasonable commuting distance to work on public transit. (We didn't want the stress of driving to work in downtown Toronto every morning, nevermind trying to find parking, let alone the COST...!!)

And then dh's cousin phoned to tell us about a house that was for sale on his street, in a suburb just outside of the city proper, on one of the main commuter train lines. We didn't buy that house, but the price was right, and so that phone call became the catalyst that launched our search, in the same area. We'd looked at a few places in the city that people had told us about, and hadn't been too impressed by what we'd seen. We knew we could buy a whole lot more house for the same or (more likely) much less money out here in suburbia.

So after viewing about a dozen houses, we bought this one -- small(ish) (about 1,400 square feet), three bedrooms, with a big, kid-friendly back yard (big enough to accommodate a swimming pool, or a swing set, or maybe both), a few blocks away from Cousin/Neighbour and his growing family, a 15-minute drive from FIL, and close to good schools, shopping and transit. We thought we would only be here five years or so before moving on to something bigger to accommodate an expanding family. 

Fast-forward 26 years: of course, the kids never materialized, and neither did the urgent need or desire for a bigger (more expensive) house. In fact, even though it's not a big house, much of the space is never fully used.  The spare bedrooms were never filled with children, and get used more for storage than guests these days: the last visitor we had who stayed overnight was my mother, in 2008. She used to come to visit at least once a year, during her vacation time -- but retirement, aging, her dislike of flying and an inconvenient change in the cross-Canada train schedule (and, no doubt, the lack of grandchildren as added incentive to visit) have combined to keep her away these past several years. She's now in her mid-70s, and while she may still pay us a few more visits in the years to come, I expect they will probably be fewer & further apart.  

Because we spent so much time working & commuting, and because we never had kids (and thus never got plugged into those parent networks in the neighbourhood, at school and at activities), we have never developed many friendships hereabouts. (We have cordial relationships with a few very nice neighbours. And then there are a couple of neighbours that we are increasingly tired of co-existing with...!)  We gradually, inexplicably drifted apart from Cousin/Neighbour & his family and seldom see them these days (much to our sadness).

Both dh & I are now unemployed/retired, so commuting is no longer an issue (although we still do use the train whenever we need or want to travel downtown).

That big, kid-friendly back yard has been mostly unused, and after 26 years, dh is getting pretty sick and tired of mowing it (not to mention that he now regularly mows the lawn for FIL too). He's also tired of shovelling snow from the driveway (particularly over the last few brutal winters).

I have (mostly) enjoyed living here -- but I have to admit that we are living a very different life than the one we thought/expected we would be living, and many of the reasons why we bought this house and moved here are no longer relevant -- if they ever really were in the first place.

In retrospect, I wonder if home ownership for us was like what parenthood is for many people: something we did because it was the next logical step, the next major life step that we were expected to take. (Indeed, dh's relatives were horrified that we didn't buy a house right away when we got married & actually PAID RENT to live in an apartment for FIVE YEARS -- ignoring the fact that we had absolutely NO money in the bank as newlyweds, and that even when FIL generously offered to help us with a down payment, our combined income in those early years of our marriage wasn't enough to carry the mortgage.)

Like parenthood (I'm am guessing), home ownership is one of those things where you never really know what you're in for, until you're in the thick of it. And sometimes, the reality can be kind of overwhelming, and not quite a match for the picture in your head.

In my fantasies of what home ownership would be like, I always pictured myself entertaining our friends & relatives at fabulous parties on our big back deck, where they would compliment me on my well-manicured flowerbeds and putting green-worthy lawn. The reality is that our social circle is rather limited (see above);  I get nervous having more than two people over for coffee, let alone a full-scale party; the deck faces west, bathes in the afternoon sun & gets awfully hot, so it's seldom used; and it's all I can do to keep the weeds at bay, let alone keep the lawn watered and fertilized. I don't even try plant flowers most years anymore, because more often than not, we go away for a couple of weeks in the summer, just as they're starting to grow nicely -- and without regular watering and weeding, they're usually in pretty sad shape by the time we get back.

I know some people who love being outside in their yard all the time, when the weather is nice. They thrive on gardening and doing renovation projects around the house. I like the IDEA of a deck and lovely garden, but in terms of actual usage (nevermind the work that's involved to keep things looking good)? -- It's just not us. We keep the place looking presentable, but we'll never be in one of those magazine spreads. I might WISH my back yard & garden looked like the ones I see in the magazines (or even just like some of my neighbours') -- and we do have more time for home & garden upkeep these days, now that we're both essentially retired.  But realistically, when push comes to shove, I think both of us have to admit we'd rather spend our free time inside, in air-conditioned comfort, on the couch, reading a book. ;)

Even without the cosmetic stuff, there are things that need to be taken care of when you're a home owner. The reality of home ownership is that sometimes, toilets overflow, bathtub enclosures leak, basements walls seep water after a torrential rainstorm, mice invade the kitchen, wasps build nests in the garden shed and under the soffits, and squirrels invade your attic. (All of the above has happened to us at one time or another over the past 26 years.) And you're the one who has to fix the problem, or call someone and pay them to do it for you. It can be expensive, it can be anxiety-inducing. It can be hard work.

Still, the I have to admit that sometimes, I feel like home ownership is just one more thing I've failed at. I failed at family building. Now I've failed at being a good suburbanite.  :(  (Children, of course, being a key ingredient in the stereotypical suburban lifestyle.)

*** *** ***

In the years since we realized that children weren't going to be in the picture, we've talked on & off about ditching the house in the kid-friendly neighbourhood with the big kid-friendly back yard and  buying a condo. Maybe. Someday, down the road. We looked at some real estate listings and realized we could get a pretty nice, reasonably sized one or two-bedroom condo for about the same money -- or less -- than we could probably sell our house for.

I'd always assumed that, if we started looking at condos, it would be around here -- if not in the exact same town where we're now living, close by. (Neither of us wants to live in the city again.)  After all, we've lived here 26 years -- it's what we're familiar with, and it's not too far from FIL. It took me awhile to wrap my head around the idea of a condo, but I was starting to warm to the idea. I even had my eye on a couple of prospective buildings -- one existing, one currently under construction, both near the lake, which I love, and yet close to both transit and shopping.  And I assumed this was all still "someday," in the future.

But then, last year, dh started talking condos again in earnest. He wants to move -- sooner versus later. And he wants to move closer to where his brother lives. Which is 45-60 minutes from where we currently live -- on the other side of the city.

I have to admit, I was taken aback. (Initially, at least.) 

Beyond the absence of snow to shovel and lawns to mow (and (hopefully) squirrels in the attic) -- dh misses his brother. They were not especially close as kids (there's a five-year age gap), but in the three years since dh's layoff, BIL has faithfully called him several times a week to check in on how he is/we are doing & share family news. The reality that their father is not going to be around forever has also drawn them closer.

Now that the nephews are grown up, we've been spending a little more time with BIL & SIL as a couple, like we did when we were all first married -- and that's been a lot of fun. There would be a lot of advantages to living closer to them and to our nephews (and perhaps, in the not-too-distant future, some grand-nieces and nephews??), and building closer relationships with them -- particularly as we age. After all, our nephews are the ones we'll likely be asking for any help we might need in our twilight years -- and it will be easier for them to check in with us and give us a hand if we live 10 minutes away and not 45 minutes, as we do now.  (Dh's pre-Christmas trip to the hospital -- just the two of us there, with me keeping BIL updated via cellphone -- certainly drove home the advantages of living closer to family.) Dh has told them that we are thinking about moving closer, and they are all happy and excited about the prospect (which is gratifying). There are other relatives living in the same area, which might give a boost to our social life.

Dh has also pointed out that it would be much easier to leave a condo empty and travel for a couple of weeks at a time, as we'd both like to do, now that limited vacation time is not an issue. BIL or one of the nephews could easily come by to check on the place for us, if we lived closer. We used to be able to rely on FIL to do this for us -- but he's 87 and doesn't drive as much or as far as he used to (and believe me, that's a good thing...!), so that's no longer an option.  

So I understand the benefits of living closer to family, particularly as we get older. I just really never pictured myself living in that particular location, and dh caught me completely off guard when he announced he wanted to move there. It's a larger community than the one where we now live, and more congested. There has been rapid growth there over the past 30 years, but services have been slower to keep pace.  A new hospital has been long promised, but not yet built, and public transit, while slowly improving, is still not great. And it's nowhere near the lake, which I love. 

On the other hand, family attractions aside, while it's not near the water, there are some lovely forested areas nearby -- parks, golf courses and conservation areas.  There is good shopping, some excellent restaurants and a few notable cultural attractions. And it's a lot closer to the airport than our current location.

And things are changing hereabouts as well, not necessarily for the better: as I mentioned in a recent post, construction has started on a massive new development nearby that will DOUBLE the population of the town where we're now living over the next decade or two, and will no doubt change the character of the place significantly. There's been a lot of roadwork locally, and traffic here has been a lot heavier than it used to be too.

While I have to admit that this particular location was not on my radar as somewhere to move, I'd probably find moving anywhere at least a little bit difficult. True, it's something I did a lot of when I was younger (although obviously, I haven't done it in 26 years now...! -- so I am sadly out of practice).  But it was never something that I got used to doing, or said "Yay!" to -- it was almost always a traumatic upheaval in my life. I spent my growing up years moving from one small town to another -- 11 houses in 7 different towns in two provinces by the time I was married (even more, if you count university dorm rooms and summer apartments in two different cities in two different provinces). It was never a choice:  my father was told by his employer that he was being transferred, and that was that. Back then, most people didn't question or refuse a transfer, unless they were quitting their job, and of course, kids had absolutely no say in the matter (although my father did eventually switch jobs, in part because my sister & I were thisclosetofinishinghighschool and, understandably, wanted to graduate with our friends).

(Dh, on the other hand, spent almost his entire life growing up in the same house in the same neighbourhood, with most of his aunts, uncles & cousins living close by. The idea of moving does not faze him;  he is excited by the prospect. I cling to my possessions;  he could care less. There's probably a dissertation somewhere in there...!) 

The only non-school-related moves I can ever remember being really excited & happy about were the last two -- from my parents' home to start married life with dh, and then when we moved into this house from our tiny apartment. Even then, I cried buckets the last time we walked out the door of that wonderful little apartment -- my first adult home, my first home with dh. I had loved it there. It was a great apartment in a great neighbourhood.  But I was also excited and looking forward to creating new memories -- and a family -- together in our new home -- the first home that was truly OURS. 

Growing up, we were always sad whenever we moved from one place to another -- just as we'd been sad leaving the last place to move there. And I'll admit I am sad at the prospect of leaving this little house, no matter how exciting the prospect of a new place might be. I've lived here longer than I've ever lived anywhere in my life (my previous record was six years). We had so many dreams and plans and hopes and expectations for our life together when we moved in here. And of course, some -- many -- of those dreams never materialized, and never will. I realize that I am, in part, grieving all over again for the life that I thought would be mine, the life (& child) that never materialized.

But I am also pretty sure that, if/when we find the right place, I'll start to feel the excitement that dh is already feeling -- and that, eventually, it will feel just as much like home as this house or our little apartment in the city once did. (Sometimes it just takes me a while to warm up to a new situation -- I'm already feeling more positive about the whole idea than I did a few weeks ago. A shiny, modern new kitchen, with stainless steel appliances? And maybe a walk-in closet? Hey, I can learn to live with that, lol.)

If I've learned anything in a lifetime of moving around it's this:  there are good things and bad things, everywhere you go. It's up to you to find the good, and make the most of the situation. (I'm just a little out of practice...!) And, as I've learned from experience, there will always (eventually) be new dreams to replace the old ones that didn't quite work out.

Most importantly -- while I could probably be happy staying here for an indefinite while longer, dh is clearly itching to move. This is obviously important to him -- and while I love my house, it's not as important to me as he is. If moving will make him happy, then I will move. As my Classic Pooh suncatcher (described here) says, "It didn't matter where they went, as long as they went together."

*** *** ***

Over the past few months, we've had a look around the community and scouted out some buildings we're interested in via the online listings, and we'll probably start looking in earnest sometime this spring. (A lot will depend on finding the right unit in the right building in the right location for the right price, of course.) We need to make some repairs and improvements to our house before we can think about selling (last fall's painting project was an important step in this process), and we need to get rid of some of our stuff. (OK, a LOT of our stuff. :p ) (OK, MY stuff, lol.)  (1,400 square foot house plus basement, garage & garden shed vs 600-900 square feet of condo plus storage locker of yet-to-be-determined proportions -- you do the math.) 

And I've made a pretty decent start of it: about 60 cartons and umpteen bags full of stuff donated to the thrift store since last spring (including almost 40 cartons of books alone!), as well as a good chunk of my scrapbooking supplies to Oldest Nephew's fiancée (although believe me, I still have plenty left for my own projects...!).  Doing some much-needed deep cleaning and purging was always something I had in my head as a retirement project, anyway. My parents are also making noises about selling the house they've lived in for the past 30 years and downsizing, and I'll probably be called upon to help them with their own downsizing/de-cluttering (if only to make decisions about my own stuff that's still there...!) -- so if anything, this will be good practice...!

It is hard to part with the treasures I've accumulated over the past 30 years. I do find, however, that the more I do it, the easier it gets (to a point, anyway).  Sometimes I have to sit with the idea for a while (just like I have had to sit with the idea of a condo for a while, too)... I think, "Okay, I'll part with that, but not that," come back a few days later and think, "Oh, what the hell...!"  & into the Sally Ann box it goes too. So far, I've had very few pangs of regret over something that went out the door. In many cases (especially with the books), if I really, really do regret my decision, I can always buy another copy. It's just stuff, after all. It's hard to let go of, but most of it IS just stuff, and stuff that can be replaced, if need be. The memories are what's most important.

We have created some good memories in this house. Some painful ones too, of course. My late 30s & most of our 40s were a time of transition for us -- stillbirth, infertility & learning to accept permanent childlessness -- and now, in our mid-50s, it seems like we're in another period of transition -- the loss of both of our jobs over the past two years, earlier-than-expected retirement and adjusting to that. We're both dealing with aging parents, and I'm (still!) navigating through perimenopause. Moving into a condo seems like something you do when you're first starting out in adult life, before you move up to a house -- or when you're in your late 60s or 70s and looking for an interim stop between the family home and the seniors home. :p   Maybe that's partly why the idea of a condo is giving me pause. We're not OLD -- but we're not young anymore either, and the reality that we're not getting any younger is becoming all too clear lately. As an online friend recently observed, "Midlife ain't for the faint of heart."

More to come, soon... :)


  1. We've owned our condo for 9 1/2 years and I've been on the board the whole time. So we should definitely talk. There are some big benefits to condo living, but some things people don't consider is 1) sharing walls and maintenance decisions with everyone else in your building and 2) preparing for major maintenance projects. More than happy to talk with you about this, as a lot of this stuff is available but not always easy to detect.

    That aside, I've had neighbors who travel regularly and outside of some weird things (dying fire alarm was most memorible), there's zero issue. So big bonus.

  2. This post is so relevant to me, but on the opposite end of the spectrum. We're trying to buy our first house and are navigating through some of the same things as you are. I've always been fine renting but I'm finding the need to put down roots. To own something. To be able to paint my own walls. To pick out my own appliances. But at the same time I enjoy having someone else cut my lawn and not being the one to pay when something breaks. It's a conundrum, for sure.

  3. Funnily enough, when we found the house we now live in, we chose it because the school was at the end of the street, the park was next door, and the community centre was one street across. All now still unused by us.
    But we also chose it because it was a 3 minute walk to the shopping centre – doctor, chemist, supermarket, library, bus stop – thinking WAY ahead into our old age that we were close to amenities and able to get to them when we would need them (having a hubby working in aged care, we always have to take the long term (old age) view into account)!

    I see you as the hipster mid-life couple living your travel dreams, embracing your hobbies, organising your daytime outings, freeing yourself from the ties of a house and using the condo as the base for your next lot of planning and new experiences to come. The easy-to-lock up-and-leave at a moment’s notice when and where the impulse takes you.

  4. As a person who is most definitely NOT in love with home ownership, I find myself feeling very excited (and a bit jealous lol) for you! New beginnings are always a bit scary, but there is just something so appealing about starting anew, and building a new life. This move sounds like a wonderful opportunity to truly embrace THIS life- a life that may not be the one you had dreamed of, but a life that is full of exciting possibilities that are yours for the taking. It sounds amazing to me!

    I really don't think a condo is the last stop before the retirement home anymore. I have plenty of friends who have chosen condo living, even in their 30s, in order to have the freedom to travel and spend their time as they wish. Some of them are in condo townhomes, others in apartments, depending on their need for space. Both are a great option for any age group!

    It's funny- as I have read your posts over time, I have found myself guessing where exactly you live, and now, where you are considering moving to. I get the sense that if you do make this move, you will be moving a lot closer to where I live. And it's not so bad this side of Toronto- I certainly think you would have a great time exploring your new neighbourhood, and discovering new restaurants and activities. I've been living in the area for almost 20 years now, and I have always been quite content.

    In any case, I'm really excited for you. I look forward to reading more as things progress... I'll live vicariously through you until I can convince my husband to give up the big house in favour of a more simple life!

    1. You have mail. :) Curious to know if we both guessed right. ;)

  5. I've been wondering how the decision has been going. I'm in the opposite situation. I'd like to move, but DH doesn't. If we did move within this city, then it would definitely be an apartment. Though I'm not sure I could live in 900 sq feet (if the metres calculation was correct) let alone 600.

    I did smile a little about being able to leave your apartment for longer than your house. Yes, it would be easier on your mind maybe. But you have to be more ambitious than two weeks! Your trip to New Zealand will be a month at least. ;-) Maybe though, we could apartment swap?

    1. We could... but then we wouldn't be able to see each other! :( ;)

  6. Things I love about condos: No yard maintenance. Mostly worry free when you leave for a period of time - I once left for 2-3 weeks, and I don't think I ever had anyone checking on my place.

    Things I don't love about condos: Noisy neighbors with dogs (find a pet-free building!), association fees (to pay for that maintenance that you don't have to do), special assessments (for when the building needs a roof, or the parking lot needs repaving, or when the board decides to redecorate).

    I was very glad when my mother sold our family home and moved to a condo (mostly because I didn't have to mow her lawn anymore!). She liked the place she lived, and joined the board, and she always had stories to tell about her neighbors.

    I hope you find a place you like, in an area that feels comfortable, near your husband's family. And I think, once you finish culling, you'll feel a bit lighter overall. Possessions sometimes just weigh us down. Good luck!