Home Ownership & Travel – Lessons We’ve Learned

Our big old house in Toronto.  Sold in less than 7 days!

Our big old house in Toronto. Sold in less than 7 days!

We have finally sold our house.  Renovations took about a month longer than we had hoped but the sold sign went up today. We are relieved and excited to begin planning our travel adventures and also a bit anxious since, in less than 8 weeks, we will be homeless!

To understand how we came to the decision to sell everything, take a pass on the 9-5 rat race and explore the world, we will back up to pre-2007 when the house-buying saga began.  When we moved back to Toronto in 2005, we rented a cute little house on the east end of the city.  It served us well for about a year and half until our landlord decided to sell.  Then we were faced with a dilemma.  We had a bit of a savings and although we had been enjoying the freedom that comes with renting, we were in our late 30’s and felt the social pressure to buy a house.  

Given that our love of travel was already well established, our decision to spend our savings on brick and mortar seemed counter-intuitive to us even as we were traipsing from one open house to the next and shopping for pre-approved mortgages. Although we had always had a vague idea of “someday” buying house and putting down roots, we hadn’t put any serious thought into it until we were being forced to move. At the time, the economy was showing its first signs of tanking in 2007 so we figured we would take advantage of the highly forecasted “housing bubble” burst and low interest rates.  We also had the looming 60 day deadline to move out of our rented home pressuring us to move forward.  Despite the economy, Toronto’s housing market was still booming and designer renovated two bedroom semis that were priced within our first-time home buyers’ budget, were poised for bidding wars that saw them selling for sometimes 100K over asking!  The rental market was also ridiculously tight in the city with every good rental unit having multiple applicants and the over the top rent prices.  

This is the saga of how we became “reluctant” home owners of a big  4+1 bedroom detached fixer-upper house with “loads of original charm” that was built in 1927. We convinced ourselves that home-owning was the mature, adult, responsible thing to do. But even as we signed a mortgage that felt like we were about to drown in an ocean of debt, we told ourselves we would pay down and fix up the house over the next five years and then use the profits to take a sabbatical from our careers and travel.

Now, being university educated office professionals, we are not the handiest of people and generally only learn to do do-it-yourself jobs out of necessity.  We had done some drywalling, minor repairs and painting in the past but this house desperately needed new wood flooring on the main floor and all the beautiful original woodwork had not maintained so desperately needed to be stripped and repaired.  The house had been a rental for years with a slum-lord landlord who lived somewhere North of the city and only did the minimum of repairs. It immediately needed a whole new HVAC system as the system was from the 1950s and was barely functional.  

To get a sense of the amount of tender-loving care this house needed, understand that the floors creaked so loudly that we could not carry on a conversation while walking through the living room and, on one of our first nights in the house, we were awakened in the middle of the night thinking there was an intruder in the house, only to discover that it was our 6 lb cat prowling the main floor that caused floor boards to creak.  We also lost many a sock to stray nail heads poking up from the splintering wood.  As soon as we could, we replaced the flooring and got to work on stripping the wood.

Architecturally, the house is an atypical Craftsman design that had obviously been separated into three units at one time.  The original craftmanship of the house was solidly built and a lot care was taken in terms of aesthetics but we have lovingly coined the retrofitting and repairs done over the years since as “MacGuyver fixes” (for our younger/international readers, this references an 80’s TV show in which a secret agent with the requisite mullet hairdo would manage to get out every jam using a paper clip and chewing gum or whatever else he had on hand).  All this to say, the house had “good bones” and great potential but it was going to take a lot of “sweat equity” to make it shine.  Luckily we have some handy family members and were able to hire great people who have been instrumental in getting many of the big jobs done.

Carol's nephews Tim & Dan

Carol’s nephews Tim & Dan

Carol's brother Ed

Carol’s brother Ed

Carol's Mom

Carol’s Mom

To be honest, the biggest challenge we have faced in bringing this house back to it’s original charm over the last five years was financial.  Due to buying a home in an expensive city like Toronto, the sticker price of our “starter” home meant we spent five years being “house poor”.  With mortgage payments that were more than double what we had been paying in rent and, between property taxes, now needing an emergency repair fund, and the higher utility bills of a much larger home, we went from  a renters’ budget with plenty of expendable income to barely keeping our heads above water each month.  

This budget transition was painful and, although we slowly improved our situation with our yearly cost of living raises and adjusting our budget (going back to regular veggies instead of organic, fewer dinners out, less shopping and a whole lot less travel), we really began to resent this house.  It felt like an anchor holding us down.  Our lives went from last minute trips to Cuba with our tax refund money and splurges on the newest hotspot restaurants in the city to using that money to pay off debt or trying to be excited about finally having enough money to buy paint, wood stripper and other house renovation supplies.  Due to being in a constant state of renovations and financially strapped, we really didn’t get to enjoy much of the positives of home ownership in the early years – having dinner parties, home decorating, gardening, or even just relaxing in a comfortable home.

From a travel junkie’s perspective, the lowest point in our house saga was the day I (Carol) cashed out five weeks of vacation leave to pay for our new deck!  It was definitely money well spent in that, with our travel wings clipped financially, our back deck became our summer refuge and Al has perfected his barbecue techniques (his cedar plank salmon is amazing). We also became very engrossed in our careers and, for a time, our desire to do long term travel faded to a whisper, although it never completely disappeared.

Now, we don’t want to leave our readers with the impression that we hated our lives because that wouldn’t be true.  It’s interesting how we learned to adapt.  We’ve probably discovered more of the city of Toronto and surrounding area in these last five years than ever because we could only afford to do day or weekend trips.  My job also afforded opportunities to travel within Canada quite a lot and we took advantage of this to do a road trip out to the Maritime provinces and to Ottawa a couple of times.

In 2009, I also had the opportunity to work in Cyprus for a couple of months which allowed us to take a month vacation in Egypt afterwards. That trip satisfied our itchy travellers’ feet for a while and we came back with a rekindled dream of taking that sabbatical yet we still had no financial means to do it. But God works in mysterious ways….

During the next two years, as we focused on our careers and work on the house slowed to a trickle due to lack of time and dwindling motivation for it, we again lost sight of our travel dreams… until a series of disappointments, frustrations and negative changes in our both of our places of employment made it feel unbearable to keep doing the 9-5 grind. We also came to the realization that, in all our busyness trying to make ends meet and to meet the never-ending demands of our careers, we were losing sight of truly connecting with life and each other.

It was then that the haunting questions of “is this all there is to life?” and “what exactly are we working so hard for?” resurfaced and, after many long walks and longer talks, the true spark for long term travel reignited mid 2012. In retrospect, it seems that God was slowly squeezing us out of this predictable, socially-expected life in order to give us a chance to create the life meant for us.

To clarify, this was not an all-at-once epiphany moment. We struggled and struggled hard to make this “normal” life work before we got the message. We came up with a ton of other options — starting a private practice, Al going back to school and changing careers, moving to another city, and even discussed having a baby at one point. But, no matter which direction we considered going, it seemed that we were stonewalled. Then our mortgage came up for renewal and the opportunity to refinance in way that would allow us to complete our renovations became apparent, so with the help of low interest rates and housing market improving, we saw a way out. But even in late 2012, when we were planning our trip to Southeast Asia, we still weren’t ready to pack it all in and just travel. We left for Southeast Asia with a plan to test the waters on possibly renting out our home and moving temporarily to Thailand. Our trip showed us it was a very feasible plan and would actually be a lot easier than we expected but then we realized we would just be temporarily escaping one 9-5 life for another and that was not what we were after. Once again, God stepped in. This time through the voice of my (Carol’s) mother who asked a simple but life-changing question: If we felt our house was more of a burden than a joy and we wanted the freedom to follow our dreams without looking back, why keep ourselves tied down with the financial responsibilities of a house in Toronto rather than sell it and invest the money? Good question. We didn’t have a good answer for it.

Al staining new garage siding

Al staining new garage siding

Drywall dusty basement

Drywall dusty basement

Thus, the last two months have been a whirlwind of house renovations, drywall dust and incurring line of credit debt that has culminated in the For Sale sign going up on May 27, 2013, the first showing on May 30, 2013 the Sold Sign going up on June 4, 2013 and a closing date of July 26, 2013.

And we can’t help but think that “Closing Date” is a very apt term as we end our home ownership saga and close a great and challenging chapter of our lives.

Watch our before (photos of the house from when we bought it) and after (photos of house for selling it) slide shows:

So, the lessons we’ve learned from this? They’re pretty self-evident when written here but, to paraphrase CS Lewis, they have been taught to us by the toughest teacher out there – experience.

1. Finding happiness and contentment means being who we are meant to be not what society says we’re supposed to be. And the life we choose will be as right for us as it would be wrong for someone else. Therefore, there is no need to seek approval, to live up to others’ standards or to “keep up with the Joneses”. Comparison really is a happiness killer.
2. The road map of life has been drawn by God to lead us to where we are meant to be. It is revealed in bits and pieces and consists of a series of gentle nudges (and sometimes violent shoves) to keep us heading in the right direction.
3. Home ownership was a lot more sacrifice than we anticipated and did not seem to be something we were cut out for but it has made it possible for us to pursue our travel dream financially. So, in the end, was it worth it? Yes. Would we do it again? Probably not, but never say never.
4. Our identities are much richer than our professional personas and “success” is not defined by where we live, what car we drive, how many new toys we have or how much money we make. For us, these things are defined by our first point – finding happiness and contentment by discovering who we are meant to be – and our second point – learning to follow God’s road map to where we are meant to be.
5. Our society talks about time as though it is a never-ending commodity – spending time, buying time, finding time, losing time, wasting time, “time is money” – but time is finite and waiting for the “best time” or the “right time” to do that thing we’ve always wanted to do means losing precious seconds of our lives that could have been spent having the life we dreamed of.
6. Don’t fear change. Nothing is predictable and everything changes. If anyone had asked us two years ago, what we imagined our lives to be like in five years, we would likely have optimistically described promotions and positive career changes but nothing drastically different from what we had at the time. We certainly would not have been talking about travelling for more than the few weeks of paid vacation time we had accumulated. Two years from now? What will our lives be like? Who knows, but as long as we keep our sense of wonder and curiosity as well as our sense of humour and don’t let our fears dominate our decision-making, we’ve learned, as Bob Marley sang, “Every little thing’s gonna be alright.”

While sorting through our belongings for a yard sale recently, we stumbled upon two things that had been packed away all these years along with our travel dreams: the Dr Seuss book, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! and a fortune cookie slip we had saved from before we had taken our first international trip that said, “Your feet will touch the soil of many lands.” So one final lesson we’ve learned is that dreams might fade to a whisper but they never really die and all it takes is a leap of faith to follow them. World Travel or Bust – at least we’ll have no regrets.

When we look back over these last five and half years, we are reminded of what Dr Seuss wrote about escaping “The Waiting Place”:

The Waiting Place…for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring,
or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or No or
waiting for their hair to grow. Everyone is just waiting.
Waiting for the fish to bite or waiting for wind to fly a
kite or waiting around for Friday night or waiting,
perhaps, for their Uncle Jake or a pot to boil, or a Better
Break or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants or a wig with
curls, or Another Chance. Everyone is just waiting.

No! That’s not for you!
Somehow you’ll escape all that waiting and staying.
You’ll find the bright places where Boom Bands are
playing. With banner flip-flapping, once more you’ll ride
high! Ready for anything under the sky. Ready because
you’re that kind of a guy! …

…  And will you succeed? Yes! You will, indeed! (98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.) …

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Carol & Al “the Travelling Mudskippers”