A tale about housing

Posted by Karen - March 19th, 2017

The full title of this blog post should actually be, “A tale about housing, or real estate in Vancouver is insane”. Yep, today my post is about our recent… “struggles”… concerning buying a house.

The story starts back in 1999, before my husband and I had kids. We wanted to buy a home, but not pay through the nose (or what we thought was through the nose – ha), so we decided on a townhouse. We got a pretty great place, just shy of 1800 square feet spread over 3 levels. This home suited us very well for a few years, through the birth of our son in 2002 and then our daughter in 2005. In fact, all was well and good until Armageddon in 2007. By “Armageddon”, I’m of course referring to our daughter Miranda’s diagnosis with fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP).

In case you’ve never heard of FOP, it’s a genetic disorder which causes muscles, ligaments, and tendons to become converted to bone through progressive flare-ups of the condition. Gradually, over time, joints become locked in place, restricting movement. It starts in the skull and spine, then moves into the shoulders, arms, and eventually, legs and jaw. If it sounds like total crap, that’s because it IS. FOP is not something you wish on anyone.

Anyway, as we learned about FOP, it became clear to me that a day would come when our house, with two sets of stairs dividing the levels, would not be suitable for Miranda. In short – stairs and FOP don’t mix well. Still, I figured that time was at least a dozen or more years away, so I put this little problem in the back of my mind. I knew the clock was ticking, but we would be OK for quite a while yet.

More time went by… And then things started to seriously change in 2013. I think that was the year Miranda had her first FOP flare-up below the waist. The flare took some right knee movement, and then in 2014, another flare fused her left ankle. By then, the ticking clock was getting quite a bit louder. Still, by 2015 things were stable for Miranda, but then we started hearing about a bunch of other kids with FOP, all within a couple of years of Miranda’s age, who were starting to have serious problems with leg mobility due to hip and knee flares. As well, a major study of FOP progression was released, and it revealed that hip and knee flare-ups often start (though there is a lot of variability) around age 9. Miranda was 10 in 2015. That’s when we started to take a hard look at our situation… Yes, Miranda could still handle the two sets of stairs in our home, but for how long? We decided to hang in there until we paid off our mortgage at the end of 2016, and then start looking for a new place.

Now, running parallel to all of this was the fact that housing prices in Vancouver had become frankly absurd. At some point around 2012 or 2013, prices started to tick seriously upward, and then by 2016, the market was very seriously out of control. By 2016, the housing market in Vancouver had become something like the second or third most expensive IN THE WHOLE WORLD. Not only that, but stories started to circulate about sellers holding open house showings and fielding multiple offers, on the spot, with no conditions whatsoever and for up to $100,000 or even more above list price. At most, properties for sale would stay on the market for a few days and then be sold before the week was up. Basic 2000 square foot detached homes built in the 1950s through 1970s were selling for $3 million plus on the west side of Vancouver (!), and for $1.5 million plus in the suburb of Vancouver in which we live. GAH. See what I mean? House prices had become thoroughly detached from reality.

This house business was, as you can imagine, pretty scary. Still, we didn’t have any choice but to deal with the conditions as they were. One thing was promising, though, which was that in the second half of 2016 the government of BC instituted a hefty “foreign buyer tax” which taxed overseas buyers who were purchasing houses in the Vancouver area and not actually living in them. This cooled off the market to a noticeable degree. I was actually starting to get hopeful that maybe buying a new home wouldn’t be a complete gong show.

And so… This brings us to early 2017, with our mortgage freshly paid off. Our plan was to get our financial “ducks in a row” to buy a new house first and then sell our existing house. We thought this would be the best way to do it because we knew we couldn’t buy just any old house; we needed a house which was wheelchair accessible or could be easily made to be so. This meant, at a minimum, that we needed the living room, kitchen, one full bathroom, the master bedroom, and at least one other bedroom all on the main floor of the house. We thought we might not find that right away. We didn’t want to find ourselves having sold our house and with nowhere to go. Anyway, we had all but the very last bit of our financial picture in place, so we decided to begin. My husband and I agreed that I would vet the houses first, then get him involved if I found something promising.

Returning to the FOP end of things, for a moment – around this time, Miranda also developed a new flare-up in her left leg. Since January, my poor girl has been dealing with leg swelling which has affected her from mid-thigh right down to her ankle. This rotten flare has been a doozy – it’s winding its way to a close, and in the end, it stole almost her whole left knee movement and limited her hip. Miranda can still do stairs at our house, but it’s become ever so much more difficult. That ticking clock has become very loud indeed.

Back to the search… By fluke, the first place for which I went to an open house would have been PERFECT, and was even completely wheelchair accessible with no alterations needed. Honestly, what were the chances?? We could have moved in and done nothing to the place. It was, however, at the very upper end of what we expected our budget to be, and as I said, we still didn’t have the last bit of our funding in place. I knew we couldn’t make an offer on it right then, but hey, the market had cooled off, right? Though there were lots of folks at the open house, I thought maybe that the place might hang on for a few weeks and still be available by the time we were ready. I was hopeful. And so about a week later, I e-mailed the realtor who was listing that house… and I got a rude awakening. She told me that they started taking offers 2 days after the open house, and that day they had 6 offers and sold the place for just under the list price.

Oh my… Over the next several days, I did some more research, and I discovered that while sales had indeed cooled for the $3 million houses on the west side of Vancouver, the action had just moved further east in the greater Vancouver area, where prices had always been a bit lower. It turned out that the municipalities clustered just east of Vancouver proper were now the sites of the hottest real estate sales. Naturally, because that’s precisely where we wanted to buy! Honestly, we were starting to feel seriously sick.

Moving right along, I then looked at another open house for a place which, while not as good as the first place, could have been made to work well for us. It had the big plus of being walking distance to the high school where our son Owen was attending and where Miranda will attend in just over a year. I went to the open house on a Sunday, and on the subsequent Tuesday, we made an offer. Though we didn’t have our total funding quite in place, we made the offer for the amount of money we had at the time and accompanied it with a “tug-on-the-heartstrings” letter to the sellers. In the letter, I explained our situation and the need for a wheelchair accessible house. I asked if the sellers could be so kind as to just give us 2 weeks to get our final funding in place, and then give us the opportunity to match their best offer on the place. 2 weeks wasn’t too much to ask for, right? And we are such a nice, local family, with such important needs… Right? Who WOULDN’T be moved by our plight? It turns out that these sellers were not, indeed, sufficiently sympathetic to our situation. With breathtaking speed, they accepted the best of the 6 (again, 6 offers – I’m starting to notice a pattern) offers that day and got higher than the list price. Oy, oy, oy, oy, oy. I then went to a bunch more open houses, and at each one, the realtor had tales of places they had sold in the local area at lightning speed, and for at or over list price. This was all getting extremely worrisome.

I didn’t like most of the houses I looked at, but one looked promising. It was a rancher with all the basics, and would need just a bit of outdoor work to make it wheelchair accessible. The price was even reasonable-ish (for the area, of course). And, it had one important difference to the other places I had looked at – the seller was the estate of a deceased person, and the estate would need to wait some time for will probate to come through before it could complete the deal. Hmm… Pete and I discussed the situation, and we decided that if we got the place, it could work well for us. We could continue to live in our townhouse for a few months, and could save some money since our existing mortgage was paid off. I asked our realtor to look into it, and lo and behold, the place was still on the market (in fairness, this was just 4 days after the open house, but still). We made an offer, and guess what? To our shock, we had an agreement by the end of that day! While I’m sure I will never know the full reasons for our success, I strongly suspect that the probate situation was enough to deter some buyers. I guess folks wanted the certainty of a specific completion date and didn’t want to wait.

Anyway, long story short, we can now stop our search for a new house. PHEW… Part 1 of this saga is now under our belt, and once we complete the sale, we’ll be moving on to Part 2, selling our own place. Based on the, ha ha, continuing strong market, this part will hopefully be pretty quick. *Fingers crossed* that the sellers’ market will at that point work FOR us.

Quite the story, hey? Exhausting.

While all this house stuff was going on, we had an appointment for Miranda to test drive a power wheelchair. Miranda can still walk, but we need to get her set for the future.

While all this house stuff was going on, we had an appointment for Miranda to test drive a power wheelchair. Miranda can still walk, but we need to get her set for the future.

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