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Renesting

06 May 2015
LINDSAY WRIGHT
Every once in awhile, life can throw you a curve ball, turn your life inside out, backwards from forwards, and leave you with that sinking feeling that comes from being momentarily disoriented.  It’s reminiscent of that powerless feeling you had when you were 8 years old, strapped into your favorite carnival ride as you’re being held upside down for just a little too long.  Your stomach is lurching as you try to decide whether or not this is sheer terror or the prospect of unbridled excitement of what is yet to come.   

If there is one constant in life, it’s change—and no doubt, change is good, but sadly even good change can tie you up in knots and turn you into a tightly wound ball of stress.  Six months ago, my wife and I decided to downsize our life and move into a smaller space right in the heart of downtown Toronto. 

The move was precipitated by a conversation we had with our son a few months back about how difficult it is for young families like his to gain a foothold on the expensive property ladder in Canada’s largest city.  The rent he and our daughter-in-law were paying on their apartment was comparable to a monthly mortgage payment, but their ability to save up for a down payment on a house or a condo was slipping away as the increasing competition nudged their dream further and further out of reach. 

This conversation took place around the dinner table in our beautiful two-bedroom house in the desirable Upper Beaches neighbourhood.  To be honest, it was the perfect house for my wife and me, and we had spent many wonderful nights envisioning ourselves whiling away our retirement in this quaint abode.  But as the poet Robbie Burns said, “the best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray.”  Like it or not, it felt as though the universe was conspiring against us, and a door had opened that we felt we simply couldn’t turn our back on.  

From the moment our son, Noah, took his first tentative steps, we knew we had our hands full.  His fierce independence was only tempered by his immense likability and his unbreakable sense of optimism.  When I read about the trials many parents face with their teenagers, and I think about the hell I put my parents through, it’s hard not to feel that my wife and I had it ‘easy’ when it came to parenting Noah during his adolescence. 

I should state from the outset that in no way am I trying to portray our family as an iconic Normal Rockwell painting—in fact, it was far from that. By the age of 18, Noah felt that it was time to step away from our micro managing of his life, so he decided to move into his own apartment with a friend from high school.  Like many young people discover, life outside of their parents’ home isn’t all rosy, and the drudgery of paying bills and managing limited finances quickly becomes a reality.  As is the case with many young adults, circumstances dictated that Noah boomerang in and out of the parental home a few times before he was able to finally make his way on his own. 

Mary-Anne and I were only 22 when we had Noah, so here we were in our early 40’s basking in the glow of being ‘empty nesters’.  Don’t get me wrong—we love being parents, but what parent doesn’t long for a reprieve from curfews, unpredictable moodiness, and the anxiety that goes along with navigating that fine line of being a vigilant parent or an intrusive busybody. There was no doubt we were living the ‘high life’, and we were the envy of our friends who still had younger children at home.  We wholeheartedly embraced the empty-nester lifestyle of impromptu dinners at romantic restaurants, lazy afternoon movies, and quick getaways to New York.

The amazing thing is that as soon as Noah moved out, our relationship with him became even better.  We started to appreciate the limited time we had to spend together, and we took immense pleasure and pride in watching him discover himself as he carved out his own niche in this world.  As they say, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”, so I guess we shouldn’t have been too surprised that Noah decided to get married at the ripe old age of 21.  One of the greatest joys we’ve had is getting to know Jackie, Noah’s wife for the past 4 years.  If you ever want to see firsthand your ‘footprint’ as a parent, just sit back and watch your child interact with his or her partner. You’d be shocked by how much the scale tips to ‘nurture’ over ‘nature’.   

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(Jean-Paul, Mary-Anne, Jackie, & Noah heading out for a celebratory meal the evening of the house purchase.)

So let me bring you back to last fall when we sat around our dining room table commiserating with the kids as they felt overwhelmed and frustrated with the prospect of breaking into the robust Toronto real estate market.  Everything came down to that insurmountable down payment, and the longer they saved for it, the more it compounded and inched further out of their reach.  After they had left, Mary-Anne and I sat around for the remainder of the evening bouncing around a few ideas about how we could help them out.  We are fortunate in that we have only one child, so we were able to weigh options that would be financially impossible if Noah had siblings to contend with.  No matter how we crunched the numbers, there didn’t appear to be a way that we could free up enough capital for the kids’ down payment, and the prospect of taking on increased debt at this stage of our lives absolutely terrified us. 

The next time the four of us got together, the subject of buying a house came up again, and Mary-Anne and I mentioned that we could probably give them some money, but nowhere near the amount they would need for a down payment on even the most modest of homes.  It was at that point, that I started thinking aloud, and I blurted out, “Why don’t we buy a big house we could all live in?”  Mary-Anne looked at me like I was nuts, but the more we thought about it, the more we realized this scheme might just be crazy enough to actually work. 

So, after much deliberation, here was our plan.  Mary-Anne and I would sell our little house in the Beaches, and we would use the equity from that sale for a substantial down payment on a duplex all four of us could live in.  By us shouldering the down payment, the kids would be able to use the money they’ve been saving to put towards a percentage of the mortgage on the new property.  More importantly, they would not be subjected to an inflated interest rate on their mortgage because they would be able to sidestep the CMHC insurance surcharge they would be subject to had they come up with the minimum down payment on their own.  If all went according to plan, we would all live in this new property for 5 to 7 years, at which point, we would sell the property and divide any profits accordingly.  Noah and Jackie would not only gain the benefit of being ‘eased’ into home ownership but also they would surely have accrued a healthy down payment for their next house.  As for Mary-Anne and me, we thought that by that point, we would be ready to use our proceeds from the sale to purchase our dream condo in the downtown core. 

It all sounded good in theory, but whether or not it would ever come to fruition—well, that was another matter entirely.  Our next step was for all of us to sit down with a real estate agent to discuss making our harebrained scheme a reality.  Not knowing where to turn, I sent an email to the most prominent brokerage in our neighborhood, The Wright Sisters.  A few weeks later, the four of us sat down with Lani Fumerton, someone who would eventually play the most prominent role in our home search, and during which time, she would ‘wear many hats’—real estate agent, family mediator, trusted adviser, and eventually a member of our extended family.

I don’t think the general public gives real estate agents enough credit for the emotional roller coaster they ride as they delicately navigate families through the stressful process of buying and selling their most important asset.  I can’t imagine the pressure Lani felt, as she had to balance the needs of not just one couple, but two, and then add into the mix the emotionally charged dynamic of working with parents and their children. 

I’ve since had the opportunity to ask Lani how she approached the house search, and in her words: “I wouldn't say I went about anything differently, but I would say in working with you it was even more important to get a very clear understanding of how you all envisioned this space, and how it would need to be set up to work best for you. We knew this would have to be a unique space in order to work for everyone, and we knew it would take a while to find it. It wasn't as simple as finding something with 2 units—both units had to have a great layout and enough space so you didn't feel cramped in one house.”

Mary-Anne and I could sense that most of our friends and colleagues thought we were a little naïve thinking that we could find joy living in such close proximity to our son.  And really, who willingly gives up the freedom of an empty nest?  Of all the things, this was what we were least concerned about.  We envisioned finding a house that would accommodate two very distinct and private spaces—one for us, and one for the young couple.  The biggest obstacle for us to overcome was that Mary-Anne and I were willing to compromise on living in a smaller space, but we were adamant that quality and finishes or our new place had to be comparable to what we were giving up in our house in the Beaches. 

After much deliberation, here was the brief we gave Lani in her search for our new communal home: 
·      We had just over a million dollars to buy and renovate a house that would contain two separate spaces so that each couple would maintain their privacy.
·      Being close to public transportation, particularly 24-hour streetcar service was a must because both Noah and Jackie work in the restaurant industry, so their shifts often start and end in the wee hours of the night. 
·      Mary-Anne and I craved a space that felt light and airy, while the kids wanted a large space to entertain and a potential of ‘chef’s kitchen’.

Given the challenge of finding a property we could all agree on, we decided it would be wise to buy the new house before we put our current house on the market—No one wanted to be pressured into settling on something just because we were under a time constraint.  Lani felt fairly confident that the right house for us was out there, and she reassured us that our fully renovated house in the Beaches would sell in quick order. 

And so, we were off to the races… Lani customized our search criteria into the MLS system, and every morning we received an email with properties that fell within our search parameters.  But as you can probably imagine, four home buyers equals four opinions, and more often than not, we were not all in agreement when it came to deciding which houses warranted a visit.  

This is the point at which Lani demonstrated she was the perfect agent for our ‘high needs’ search.  I recently asked Lani how she dealt with four, often dissenting, voices and she said:  “Working with 2 couples simultaneously was a bit daunting, but you all made it easy. I think the key was to have streamlined communication, which Mary-Anne took the lead on. She collected the feedback on your end and then she and I would talk about which houses to see and coordinate timing on showings. It was really quite seamless, actually. I think that's key - having 4 people emailing with thoughts, feedback and wanting to book showings would be a lot to manage!”   And she went on to say, “I always find it interesting working with buyers and going through the process of discovering their wants and needs, and how that criteria can change along the way, but in your case it was amplified because of having 4 sets of wants and needs to keep in mind and try and find the perfect balance so everyone is happy. I think we did it!”

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(Noah carries Jackie over the threshold of their first home!)

Despite being buoyed by early optimism, we quickly came to the realization that the house we were looking for might not exist—at least not within our price range.  We kept running into the same dichotomy of houses: ones that had already been duplexed, but to a very low standard and thus would require an inordinate amount of money to bring it up to move-in condition, and houses that had already been renovated for a single-family dwelling.  In which case, we would be paying a premium for someone else’s renovation, only to have to tear out a custom bathroom or kitchen to accommodate our duplex requirements. 

The most contentious issue was agreeing on which couple would live upstairs, and which couple would have the downstairs unit.  Noah and Jackie were reluctant to have one or both of their bedrooms in the basement, especially with the prospect of a baby on the way in the future. Mary-Anne and I were more concerned about us living downstairs due to the possibility of being disturbed by Noah and Jackie’s irregular work schedules.  Two months into the search, I was convinced neither party was willing to compromise on the ‘subterranean issue’. 

With the fall housing market drawing to a close and the holidays on the horizon, we all agreed to keep looking for one more week, and if we didn’t find anything, we would resume our search in the spring.  If there is one thing you need to know about my daughter-in-law, it’s that she is a meticulous planner and really quite resourceful.  Every day, Jackie would scour the real estate app on her smartphone looking for places that may have slipped through the cracks, or houses that had only been on the market for a few hours.  It was on a Wednesday around lunchtime that we all got an email from Jackie saying: “Hey guys, check out this place.  It looks promising.”  It certainly did look “promising” on paper, but we weren’t getting our hopes up because we’d been disappointed on so many other occasions.

Lani went over that afternoon to the view the property, and she too agreed it was definitely a contender, so she arranged for us to visit the house two days later.  Located right in the heart of the city core, on the edge of a slightly ‘dicey area’ of the downtown, one that we now lovingly refer to has having “character”, was a majestic old Victorian row house that had been recently renovated into 2 separate units, both of which perfectly suited our diverse needs.  Mary-Anne and I fell in love with the upper unit that had the vibe of a ‘hip’ downtown condo spread out over two floors.  The natural light flooded through the windows, and the open concept plan was just what we were looking for.  The kids were ecstatic about the downstairs space that maintained a lot more of the charm and detail of the original house.  Even the finished basement had high ceilings and lots of space for a growing family. 

The problem with falling in love with a house is that you lose all perspective and you become anything but ‘rational’.  I knew we were in trouble the moment we all started imagining ourselves in the space—While the kids were figuring out where their sofa would go, Mary-Anne and I were already planning the layout for our kitchen reno.  It was now late Friday afternoon, and Lani informed us that there would be an Open House tomorrow and Sunday.  As soon as she said that, some of the wind left our sails, as we couldn’t stand the thought of someone else snatching up our ‘ideal’ house. 

Knowing the reality of the competitive Toronto real estate market, we decided to put in a “preemptive offer”, also known as a “bully bid”, in an attempt to secure the property before it went to open house and the inevitable multiple offer bidding war.  After much deliberation, we decided to submit an offer $50,000 over the asking price, and now we had to sit back and wait to find out if the seller would take our offer.  We woke up Saturday morning feeling dejected by the news that our offer had been declined.  My initial reaction was contempt at the seller’s audacity to turn down our generous offer, and I was so angry that I promised to walk away from the property and not submit another bid on the predetermined offer night.  As they say, “saner heads prevail”, but in my case, you can call it “insaner heads”.  After moping around for the morning, I slipped out and called our real estate agent, and without discussing it first with Mary-Anne, I asked Lani to submit a bid for $100,000 over asking.  Lo and behold, the seller accepted our offer—Just one problem, now I had to tell Mary-Anne what I had done.  Let’s just say it definitely ranks right up there with one of the more irresponsible things I’ve done, but thankfully it all worked out fine in the end.  We had a long closing, so we didn’t have to put our house on the market until 2 months later.  And further proof of the insanity of the Toronto housing market—our house sold in less than 24 hours for a “preemptive offer” of more than $100,000 over asking.  Looks like we had karma in our favor!     

After what felt like the longest winter ever, we finally took possession of our new home at the beginning of April.  The scarcity of affordable homes, combined with a robust economy and increased urbanization has meant that more and more young couples are being locked out of the housing market in big cities like Toronto and Vancouver.  Our decision to purchase a communal house with our son and daughter-in-law may seem extreme to many people, but if the current inflated market continues, more families might choose to “re-nest” rather than “empty nest”. 

I thought I would share with you some of our Lessons Learned and Insights Garnered:

A garden that has been lovingly tended and nourished, bears beautiful fruit.
There’s not a parent on the planet who hasn’t gone through periods of feeling frustrated, unappreciated, and taken advantage of.  Now that Mary-Anne and I look back on all those memories of late night feedings, contentious parent-teacher interviews, endless arguments over curfews and homework, we see that all of our hard work, and at times thankless parenting, has brought us to where we are today—the proud parents of a young man who has become one of the most incredible people we will ever meet.  By purchasing a house with our son and daughter-in-law, we were afforded an opportunity that very few parents ever experience—the opportunity to interact with their child as an ‘equal’. 

If it doesn’t bring you joy, let it go
When Mary-Anne and I sold our ‘forever home’ in the Beaches to move into a funky downtown duplex, we realized that we would need to do some serious culling and downsizing.  When you move downtown, space is at a premium, so clutter is not only costly but also burdensome.  A few months before we moved, Mary-Anne read an article about how to divest from unwanted things in your life.  By asking yourself a simple little question, you can be free of things you’d never thought you’d let go of.  All you need to do is ask yourself, “Does this bring me joy?”  If the answer is yes, you keep it.  If the answer is no, you let it go by throwing it away or donating it.  So, that’s what we did for the two months prior to our move.  We ‘let go’ of all the clothing we never wore, gave away all our books except for 10 that held special meaning to us, got rid of all our CDs, and donated much of our furniture to a housing cooperative in the city.  For the first time in our lives, there is nothing surrounding us that “doesn’t bring us joy”.  Choosing to live with less has been not only liberating but also incredibly empowering. 

It’s possible to fall in love with your city one step at a time.
When I say we live downtown, I mean right downtown!  We are a five-minute walk from the Eaton Centre, St. Lawrence Market, and The Distillery. Even better, we can all walk to our jobs, so gone are the days of spending time stuck in the car in ever increasing gridlock.  I’ve always loved Manhattan, and I think it’s primarily because when I’m there, I feel connected to the vibe of streets.  You walk everywhere, and it’s impossible not to gaze up at the soring architecture surrounding you.  Now that we’re living downtown, we feel like we’re rediscovering Toronto’s abundance of restaurants, parks, and boutiques, one step at a time.   

Happiness lies in establishing boundaries.
All four of us went into the house purchase with only one primary goal—that in order for this to work, we would need to establish clear boundaries so that each couple would maintain their privacy and that no matter what, we would all feel like equal partners when it came to matters related to the property.  In addition to the discussion we had about personal space, we met with a lawyer who drafted a legal agreement that covered all the unsavory issues involving divorce, death, and property maintenance.  I think we all agree that the piece of mind was money well spent, and it allowed us to enter into the house purchase feeling like equal partners, not parents and children.  

What’s the greatest gift you can give your child?
When all is said and done, the thing I’m proudest of is something intangible and very difficult to put into words.  When Mary-Anne and I decided to sell our house and use the proceeds to purchase a house with our son and daughter-in-law, we tied our nest egg to the young couple who now live downstairs from us.  Many people thought we were crazy for taking such a financial risk, but my response is what greater gift can you give your children than the gift of having faith in them and betting on their success. Like it or not, all four of us are strapped into the same carnival ride.  It’s both terrifying and thrilling at the same time.  And given the choice, I wouldn’t want it any other way!     

- Jean-Paul Bedard