Friday, October 16, 2009

The To-Do List

In the weeks between having our offer accepted and arriving to take possession, the not-so-fun task of arranging insurance fell to me. One company flat-out refused us coverage, which didn't bode well. But then PEI Mutual, who apparently covers most of the old farms on the Island, came through. But they had a list of demands to be met, the first of which was to get rid of the old oil tank attached to the outside of the house, and the other to remove the old wood-burning stove from the back room. So those were tops on our list, but our absolute number one priority was to have the roof replaced.

And as we drove up to the house for the first time since it had become ours, it became apparent that some lawn care was in order. This is what we were met with:

The house was now sitting in what looked like an overgrown hayfield, with long grasses and wildflowers rippling in the breeze. Mosquitos were rampant. In the second photo, the old oil tank is visible sitting on its rickety wood platform.

The pictures don't really show just how long the grass was, but Cameron could barely walk through it and it was probably up to the tops of my legs. Here's a view along the fenceline to the west:

Seems there will also be some tree work and fence repair in our future, although the new property line was extended a good 20 yards past this fence, giving us about three-quarters of an acre. The roof was still looking pretty desperate too:

Inside, things were exactly as they'd been when we'd seen the place in April. Not a stick of furniture had been removed, and it was clear that it was all now ours. Of course, none of it was very appealing, but it would be handy to have the large dining table and chairs to use while we renovated. In one corner of the living room were two boxes filled with old photos, yearbooks, dishes and other odds and ends. The kids had fun exploring the boxes. Cameron uncovered this ceramic treasure:

Amongst the family photos, there were a few treasures too, in some old pictures taken in and around the house a long time ago. It was clear that the photos were from the '70s and '80s, and the house looked to have been in pretty good shape then. Seemed like that was probably the last time it might have been lived in full-time. One character kept popping up in a lot of the photos, and he looked like the father of his young family and that he'd been a bit of a good-time kinda guy, if you know what I mean. It was quite fascinating to pore through the pictures.

After exploring the house for quite a while, we left for that day, headed back to my inlaws' cottage with a slew of calls to make the following day.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The big purchase

For a good couple of weeks after returning home, we debated endlessly. I wanted it. He didn't. Just when I was about to give up, he'd light the fire again by suggesting that maybe he was into it. I'd get all revved up again, and we'd go back and forth, back and forth.

Eventually we decided to put in a really lowball offer, just to see what happened. The asking price was $39,500. We figured that if we could get it for way less, it might just be worth it. We contacted agent Mike and let him know we were coming through with an offer after all, but that it would be a lowball. I drafted an email for him to show the vendor, detailing all the things the house needed immediately and wild guesses about what it would all cost. We figured the highest we'd be willing to go was $28,000. So we put in an offer at...wait for it...$19,500. I felt ballsy and daring, and thought we might just get flat-out rejected. The optimist in me thought that we might get lucky though (or would that be unlucky??!).

The counter offer came back (a good sign). The vendor came down a lot, to $24,500. I was ready to just sign the dotted line right then and there, but Chris, ever the cheapskate, thought we should try and get it lower. We countered at $22,000 and then finally settled at $23,000. I couldn't believe it. We'd just bought a house (albeit a total dump) for $23,000. In PEI, like we'd always wanted.

Fast forward two months to mid-July, and we had another $500 knocked off the final price for the plumbing not being hooked up in the bathroom. The water test had checked out fine, and we were driving down to the Island again with an appointment with a lawyer for the Monday after we arrived. We'd be picking up the key to our new house. Lots of plans in our heads and a line of credit burning a hole in our pockets!

Heading home (disappointed...maybe)

When Chris got back to the house after the inspection, he was raring to hit the road as soon as possible, a day earlier than planned and only a day after we'd arrived. Apparently the news all over the radio was that a major winter storm was coming and that if we didn't get out ASAP, we'd be stuck here, possibly for days. We raced back to the cottage, packed up and hit the road without looking back. We stopped near Fredericton for dinner and made it to Woodstock for the night. During all the driving, we didn't say much about the house. I do remember Chris saying at one point, "You'd have to pay ME to take that house!" It was pretty much over. We were both disappointed, but kind of relieved. However, I still couldn't stop thinking about it, and now that I'd seen the inside, thinking about how great it could be. But I kept my thoughts to myself.

That night in the hotel I could hardly sleep. I just couldn't make myself stop going over each room, even the yard, thinking what could be done, how the house could be saved. The next day, driving through Quebec, I admitted to Chris that I still thought, just maybe, I know it's crazy, you're going to kill me, but I kind of still wanted the house. Thankfully he didn't divorce me on the spot.

The Inspection

The house inspection at this point seemed like a waste of money, but we were prepared to accept that. We had to have our first and only look at the house, and the inspection, all at once. We were planning on heading back home the next day so this was our only chance to do it all.

Once we met the inspector, we decided that the kids had had enough running around a dangerous, cold house and snowy, cold yard. Chris loaded them into the car and took off for Summerside for McDonalds and Wal-mart - two places guaranteed to keep them entertained for a while. Agent Mike also had to go to another showing, so I was left on my own to face the inspection. I zipped my coat higher and started the exterior walk-around with the inspector.

There were no surprises here. The roof shingles were badly curled on one side and needed replacing. This was visible to even the most untrained eye, aside from the fact that we now knew the roof had leaked in the bathroom. The old shingled siding badly needed painting, and some areas probably needed replacing too. The front door sill was rotted entirely away at one end. Windowsills were spongy in some spots and needed replacing or at least a good coat of paint. The old oil tank was rusty and would definitely need replacing. (Oil companies in PEI now can't even fill an oil tank unless it's been inspected and tagged.) The foundation, however, seemed fine.

Inside, the inspector didn't point out much that wasn't already glaringly obvious. The house needed to be rewired with a new upgraded panel. The two furnaces in the basement were now good for scrap metal only. The plumbing needed repair but was actually a bit of a mystery since it hadn't been connected in time for the showing. We could see that the toilet was actually not even connected to the water supply. There was some water damage on the window interior frames. Perhaps the only good news was that the stove and fridge were relatively new (like, say, 10 years old) and seemed to work fine.

He offered some suggestions for fixing the leaky basement, none of which sounded cheap. He warned against doing simple patch-job cosmetic fixes to the house, rather than tearing it up and fixing it properly. I didn't even think it was possible to just cosmetically fix the place. It was bad. He did a lot of head-shaking. I wrote him the cheque and he was just packing up when Chris returned with the boys.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Showing, part 3

As we ascended the stairs, we could see the floors in the upstairs hallway had been covered over by newer plywood subfloor some years ago. Nothing else shocking in the upstairs hallway. It had a charming little window at floor level that allowed some natural light into the space. It was also a fairly decent-sized hallway:

The bedrooms were a mixed bag. Two of them were pretty bad, having had their walls partially torn out and not yet fixed. One room had had the original plaster removed, but the lath was still in place and covered over partially with ugly 1970s faux wood panelling. Yucky stuff. Again, layers of stained and rather hideous wallpaper covered any intact walls. Flooring was also a mix. In the two bad bedrooms, layers of old linoleum were laid on top of the original wide-plank pine subfloors. And one of the worst parts is that these two rooms were missing all of their original trim. Only the battered old original doors were there, but without doorknobs. Here are those two rooms:

The other two bedrooms were better, but hardly charming. The largest room was sort of L-shaped, and would likely be considered the "master" bedroom. It had old pink wallpaper on most walls, and a wall or two of badly peeling paint. Aside from that though, the original wood floors were intact and in decent shape, and all the trim was in place:

The fourth and final bedroom was also in fairly good shape. It was a long, narrow room with a closet in one corner. The wallpaper was circa-1980s pink with rainbows (exactly the kind of wallpaper I would have coveted when I was a girl). Again, the floors and trim in this room were largely fine:

The bathroom was next. After the kitchen, we were somewhat prepared. And we've seen some bad bathrooms in our lifetime. It turned out that the roof had leaked, and was still leaking, in the bathroom area. The room was bright and had a dormer window. It was very small but workable, and everything fit in a logical layout. But the ceiling was partially coming down, with mouldy bits of insulation and drywall falling all over the place. The plastic tub/shower surround was coming away from the wall and it looked like nobody had dared take a shower there for years. The sink sat on chrome legs and the toilet wasn't even connected. But still, it could be worse. All the fixtures were white, after all, rather than sky blue or pink. But it was definitely a gut job no matter what. Brace yourself:

OUCH. This is about when Chris was ready to throw in the towel. It became a bit obvious that we were going to be walking away.

But still, the house inspector was due to arrive at any minute, so at the very least we were going to be out about $300 to have the place checked out. We quickly dashed down to the basement, only to find that the entire lower level was flooded with about four to six inches of water. Two ancient furnaces (one oil, one wood) sat partially submerged in the flood, clearly unusable and possibly even a fire and safety hazard. We went back up to the main level and that's when agent Mike asked us, " it what you expected?"

I answered simply, "It's worse than I thought it would be."

That's about when the house inspector arrived.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Showing, part 2

We rushed over to the house the next morning for our 9 a.m. showing. Mike the real estate agent was there waiting for us and seemed quite happily surprised that the crazy Ontario people showed up to look at his derelict listing in the snowy PEI springtime. The date was April 11th, and this is what the snow conditions looked like at the time (Cameron and Andrew had fun running around the yard):

We mentioned that we'd been by the previous day to take a quick look, and Mike told us that the house had been unlocked and it was too bad we didn't try the doorknob. Doh! Oh well. Perhaps it's best that we'd waited. We were in for a bit of a shock.

We entered through the back door (the only option, since the front door had no porch or steps) and into a small mudroom-type space.

It was rough, but you could see the original hardwood was in decent shape and just needed refinishing. The original window and door trim was intact, but the baseboards were missing. An immediate right turn through a doorway led to the large back room/dining area:

Gross old laundry appliances sat under the large back window, and the room was otherwise empty except for the ugly dining set and this crazy old woodstove/oven to the left:

That doorway on the left side led into the kitchen, which was TERRIBLE:

These pictures don't even show how bad it was. The floor in front of the sink was rotten and spongy, to the point that I didn't even want the kids going in there. The full-size stove and fridge were crammed into one end of the small closed-off room, and there wasn't room for both to sit side-by-side without blocking an entire section of lower cabinetry. The cabinetry (which was definitely original to the house) was filthy, broken and ugly. Layers of wallpaper showed years of grime and the ceiling showed signs of water damage. The sink (which was old white enamel, possibly original) had a strange spot that looked like a hole had been glued closed). Everywhere you looked were dead flies and wasps and mouse droppings. It was BAD.

Two doorways led out of the back room, one down to the basement and other other to the front hall and staircase. Here, a wide doorway led into the living room, which was quite fine, even pleasant by comparison, after the shock of the kitchen:

The floors were in decent shape in this room, all the trim was intact, and two large windows looked north and west. There was no fireplace, but there was one large, blank wall where one could be created in the future. The room really just needed decorating, whatwith the tacky wallpaper border and the rather frightening pump organ in one corner. The wide doorway looked straight at the unique and quirky banister going upstairs.

Back out in the hallway, the front door looked original, as did the electrical panel (YIKES):

We'd been warned by agent Mike that two of the bedrooms had had their walls torn out and not replaced, so we were prepared to find a bit of a mess, but we were still not quite prepared for how bad things would be. We headed up the original stairs, which were nicely intact and in good shape thanks to the hideous and filthy linoleum runner that had obviously been protecting them since about 1963:

We climbed the stairs with much trepidation...

The Showing, part 1

As we approached the house from the road, it looked much like it did in the MLS photos, except it was now early spring and there was patchy snow over the dead, soggy brown grass. I would suggest to anyone that this is actually a good time of year to look at a house - there is no being charmed by lush greenery or bright flowers. The house and yard was clearly at its ugliest, and we could see immediately that the roof was in terrible condition and that the shingled exterior badly needed a coat of paint or three. The other thing that was immediately jarring was the fact that the front door (which wasn't visible in the MLS photos; it suddenly became apparent that the small deck in the photos was actually at the back door) had no porch or steps leading up to it; there was no way to enter the front of the house. Hmm.

We parked the car and got out, walking around and around and trying to see in the windows. Not much was visible beyond what we could see in the pictures we'd already seen. The lot seemed somehow smaller that I'd imagined, and was a distinct wedge shape. A line of tall spruce trees ran along the back of the property, and in all directions was farm fields and trees. The place had a derelict air about it, that was certain. But I wasn't scared away, yet.

We got back in the car and did some exploring of the immediate countryside. At the end of a road about a kilometre to the north was an old pier that looked towards Lennox Island (one of the Island's native reserves). We found out later that this was where the ferry used to cross over, before they built a bridge in another spot. About three kilometres east of the house the road gradually disappeared over a hill into a farm field, but we deemed it too muddy and impassable at that time of year, even for the Outback. To the northwest of the house, about a two-minute drive, was the entrance into Green Park, a provincial campground, museum and beach. Straight west was the charming village of Tyne Valley, complete with hospital, small grocery store, liquor store (bonus), post office, and famous for its annual oyster festival. We definitely liked the home's location. It was off the well-beaten tourist path, but still near interesting and scenic Island attractions. Five minutes from Tyne Valley for quick grocery and booze runs, and about 20 minutes from Summerside for big grocery stores and all other urban conveniences.

We trundled back to the cottage and anxiously awaited the official showing and inspection the next day.

Getting there

We planned to drive down to the Island over Easter weekend, with both kids in tow. An ambitious plan indeed. We decided it was prudent to set up a house inspection for the same time as our one and only scheduled showing, since we likely wouldn't be back again until the summer. And should we decide to buy it on the spot, we wanted to be fully prepared and know what we were getting into. After several calls to the agent, we set up a showing for the Saturday morning of Easter weekend at 9 a.m. and a house inspector was to arrive at 10 a.m. We figured that if we hated it, we'd eat the $300 of the inspection and consider it money well spent in saving ourselves from many years of work, stress and expense.

We piled the boys (and their books, DVDs, games, activities, snacks, drinks, etc.) into the car on Thursday afternoon before the Easter long weekend. After the five-hour leg from home to Quebec City, we had a lengthy stop there for dinner and a change into PJs before hitting the road for the overnight shift. After a while the car was silent but for the sound of snoring from the back seat, and Chris and I had nothing but the open road ahead, and many hours of watchful driving through moose country. We had loaded up on Red Bull and coffee and we felt excited and eager to just get there.

Chris drove straight through the night and finally called for a switch around Shediac, only about an hour from PEI. (He's a trooper when it comes to driving long distances.) I took over and had the rest of the drive to myself in total silence. The sky to the east was just starting to lighten to a pale silvery glow, as we approached Confederation Bridge. It was at this moment that everyone woke up and the thrill of crossing the bridge to the Island took over. As we came off the bridge onto the red soil of PEI, it was tempting to just drive straight to the house for a sneak peek, but tiredness and car fatique took over and we headed for my inlaws' cottage first for a rest, breakfast and a break from the car. After a family nap, we hit the road again to go check out the house. Our official showing and inspection weren't until the next day, but we wanted to see the house and investigate its location. It was in a part of the Island we weren't all that familiar with, and we didn't even know how to get there. With map in hand, off we went.

We were pleased to discover that the area past Summerside to the northwest was just as pretty as the central north shore that we were used to. We drove over bridges that spanned sparkling rivers and inlets, farm fields sloping down towards glassy bays and edged in lines of dark spruce. Brightly painted country churches and shingled farmhouses dotted the roads, which were in terrible condition after a harsh Island winter. As we came into the tiny farming village of Port Hill, I was charmed by its old homes, churches and community halls. At the one and only corner, we turned right at a stop sign and soon found ourselves face to face with the house.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Lost and Found

We decided that the price of renting our own place for two weeks this summer was just too much. But, unbeknownst to one another, we both started searching MLS again. For "shits and giggles," of course. Nothing serious, just more wistful, and wishful, daydreaming. Chris was at work and I was at home, on the very same day, looking at el cheapo little cottages or dumpy little shacks for sale. I think we both topped out our search price at $50,000, if that. We laughed when we discovered that we were both up to the same thing, sending each other MLS numbers for the other to check out. Some were interesting, but all of them were pretty crappy. Any of the half-decent little cottages were all "to be moved," a common practice on the Island. For $25,000 you can buy a cottage, but it doesn't come with any land; you'll have to find and purchase a lot, then pay to have the cottage moved onto it. Not something we were interested in, thanks very much.

But then Chris sent me another batch of about four MLS listings to peruse. One of them stood out to me. A little old shingled house, seemingly unspoiled by any horrid vinyl siding or 1970s "improvements." The description read, word-for-word:

Ideal summer home. Century-old character farmhouse located minutes from beautiful farming village of Port Hill. Minutes from Green Park (provincial camp ground), shipbuilding museum and the historic Yeo House. Various beaches, golf and fishing are also close. This four-bedroom home sits on a solid poured concrete foundation. Hardwood floors, trim, pine plank floors and nine-foot ceilings.

I perked right up at the mention of the floors, trim and ceilings. I have a real weakness for old houses, especially those with all their character and architectural detailing intact. I will take crooked floors and rotting old windows over ensuite bathrooms and open-concept floor plans any day. The pictures really got me too. These were the ones on the original listing:

I loved the staircase, the original old wood floors, the unspoiled shingled exterior. The size seemed perfect: four bedrooms (room for us, plus guests!) but not a huge rambling farmhouse. And the price was the real point of interest. The house, including .7 of an acre, was being sold for the asking price of $39,500.
Chris simply said, "I knew you'd like that one."

For days we kept going back to look at the listing online. This was in late March. Within a week we couldn't stop thinking about it and decided we would go look at it over the Easter long weekend. We were getting kind of serious about it all of a sudden. We called the listing agent and asked him some more about the property. We even lined up a house inspection for the very same day, just in case we wanted to make an offer. We knew we wouldn't be back to the Island again until later in the summer, and someone else might have snapped it up by then.
Obviously it was in dire need of some renovations. It's always a red flag for me when an MLS listing is without pictures of the kitchen or bathroom. So I knew the kitchen and bathroom would be bad. How else could they be asking less than $40,000 for a cute little house?? I knew its mechanical systems, like heat, wiring, plumbing, probably needed attention. I suspected it might also have roofing and foundation issues. But we decided we needed to go and see it. Little did we know what we were about to find.

In the beginning

Chris and I have a long-held love for Prince Edward Island. This goes back to birth for Chris, who was born in Summerside and lived there for the first five years of his life. Being an Air Force Brat, he moved from there to Trenton and then finally to Ottawa, where he finished high school. During his university years, his parents moved back to PEI, and Chris again lived there in the summers. This is about the time we met.

As with many adolescent girls, I grew up on the fiction of Lucy Maud Montgomery and the magical worlds she created for beloved characters like Anne and Emily. I loved those books fiercely, and L.M. Montgomery was one of my childhood heroines, inspiring in me the ambition to one day become a writer. I longed to visit PEI, and nagged my parents to take me there for a family vacation. They never did. It was during my first year at Mt. Allison University in Sackville, NB, that I met several girls, who are now good friends, from PEI. I soon made it over for my first visit, in the dead of winter.

Here is a picture of me at Green Gables for the first time in 1994. My friends humoured me by visiting the park when it was closed in the middle of winter.

And here I am visiting the grave of Lucy Maud Montgomery, looking awfully chipper for a cold winter's day and a visit to a cemetary.

That was 15 years ago, and I've been to visit the Island every year since for one reason or another (except in 2007, when my youngest son Cameron was born right in the middle of the summer). Chris's parents live back here in Ontario now, about two minutes away from us, but they bought a cottage there in about 2000 or 2001. So we've had plenty of opportunity to visit, either camping or staying with them or on our own at their cottage. We even got married there in 2002. In a future post, I'll put up some of our very scenic wedding photos. So, needless to say, the place means a lot to us.
On and off for those 15 years, Chris and I (but mostly just I) would wistfully peruse the MLS listings for PEI, and for a couple of years, before having kids, we fantasized about moving there permanently. The prices were amazingly affordable and I had romanticized notions of living in the picturesque countryside in a charming farmhouse that we would buy for a song. But life - and making a living - got in the way. Now here we are, having left that dream behind with the birth of our first son Andrew in 2004. Having kids makes you want to be closer to family, so we packed in the Toronto lifestyle and moved to this small town outside of Ottawa in 2005, where we live 40 minutes from my parents and two minutes from my inlaws.
Now our visits to PEI are in one- or two-week blocks in the summer, happily squished into my inlaws' two-bedroom cottage. Sometimes they are in residence when we're there, and sometimes they're not. As this summer approached, it looked like it was going to be the first year we'd be there as a family of four, with my inlaws there as well (they were travelling in England when we were there last year). Chris and I went over the logistics and sleeping arrangements with them, and again wistfully thought how great it would be to have our own little cottage nearby, so that we could have our own space and not crowd them out with all our noise and chaos and stuff. We even did online searches for rental cottages nearby, discovering that $800/week was an off-season bargain, and that anything approaching decent was more likely to cost $1,200/week. And besides, the cost didn't seem worth it since we did in fact have a free place to stay. End of discussion.
Or was it?