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?