One year in our 'tall house'
Updated: Jul 25, 2020
Today marks one year since we took possession of our own house. We’re planning a small celebration this afternoon with pizza cooked in the barbecue and a backyard firepit 'campfire' complete with marshmallows. First, before all the memories fade, I want to capture the story of buying our own house (and moving) with a baby and a toddler.
I recognise buying a house may not be something on the radar, or of any interest, for many readers. I acknowledge that we are very privileged to be able to purchase a house in a city of our choosing, knowing we can afford to buy a house with all the space and features we feel we want, in a convenient location, with only a small amount of concern for our own future employment prospects and associated financial security. Nevertheless, I feel there is so much mystery and mental effort associated with working your way through the whole process of buying a house, that I see value in sharing my story with any readers who may be looking to buy in the future (or need acknowledgment that, yes, it really is hard).
I am glad we waited until our family was complete to buy our own house. We could choose something with all of us in mind from the outset, rather than continuing to feel a sense of loss as pre-existing adult spaces were sacrificed to make room for children. Whilst our children’s needs will change and we’ll use our spaces differently as they grow, our home is set up with all of us in mind*.
I’ll start by saying that neither of us had ever bought a house before. At the time, we were living in a house provided by my employer, and we also hadn’t had the desire to stay in any one place for a significant length of time. We weren’t even set on buying when we first discussed moving. All around us, people kept suggesting we rent for 6 months and then buy. In the end, I knew that, if I had the choice, I couldn’t be bothered moving twice in a short period with two young children, a dog, and a cat.
After months of trawling real estate websites, researching mortgages, and taking trips through the suburbs using Google Street View, we planned a long weekend house hunting trip to coincide with a visit from Joël’s sister. We viewed around a dozen houses, exploring the suburbs as we went. Having an extra person to tag along helped with this intensive period of viewing. If either child fell asleep in the car (or was fed up with houses and wanted to explore the playground across the road) we could leave them with their aunty. This might not be an issue if you’re buying in a place close to where you already live, so you can spread out the viewings, but, when the choice is a 2000km return roadtrip or $1000 in flights, we tried to fit in as much as possible. We ended up narrowing our shortlist down to 4 houses, with our favourite house being auctioned later that month.
At 5am on the day we were due to fly home, we received a call from the police saying our (existing) house had been broken into. We scrambled to find someone who could wait at our house until we got back later that morning, and contacted our housing agent to start the process of getting the property secured (which is why the police had called in the first place). As it turned out, a neighbour had called the police, who had apprehended the individuals before they could actually take anything. So, our house was a mess, but we luckily didn’t have anything missing.
This incident wasn’t entirely unexpected. In the month beforehand, we’d had our cars broken into twice and I’d had to chase people away from our front windows a couple of times in the middle of the night. I had still been hesitant to call the police on these occasions, as the crimes were carried out by groups of very young teenagers and I’m not convinced the justice system is equipped to respond to the underlying causes of youth crime, but, when you are actively getting broken into, what else can you do? Whilst this turn of events kept us awake at night and hesitant to leave for another house-hunting trip, it confirmed that moving was the right decision for us (a thought reconfirmed when our solar panel was smashed and our bin set on fire a week later). We were very grateful we had already made the decision to move, rather than feeling forced out, although it still felt like we were escaping the underlying social issues of the town, rather than staying to work towards solutions.
In between trying to secure our house and expedite repairs with our housing agent (this took a number of weeks), I researched the intricacies of auction contracts and how to participate by phone. All spare time was spent reading through (and trying to understand) property condition reports, and putting together all the paperwork for mortgage pre-approval (it turns out most Australian banks view being on paid maternity leave, as I was at the time, as the same as being unemployed). Finally, paperwork together, proxy documents signed, I phoned in to participate in the auction.
It turned out that I was the only bidder in the auction, so I got to name a starting price (not something I had anticipated or prepared for). After a few offers and counter offers, it was clear that the sellers had unrealistic expectations, and we ended the call. The next day, I tried to submit offers on the other houses we had shortlisted, but they were all already under contract. This was disappointing, but we were so much further along in our house-buying journey, having had the deadline of the auction to wade through all the paperwork of contracts and mortgages and associated processes. Everything was together, we were ready to buy a house, we just needed to find one.
Reluctant to leave our home unattended, we enlisted a house sitter. The day before we were due to leave, she pulled out, as she didn’t feel comfortable staying by herself and potentially having to respond to a break-in. It was unfortunate she had only come to that realisation at the last minute, as it was the Easter holidays and all other house sitters were booked up. In desperation, I posted on a local Facebook buy and sell group and found a couple of teenagers who wanted their own space for the holidays. I didn’t know either of them, but recognised members of their family from around town so figured they were safer than the inevitable break-in if the house was left vacant. We handed over the keys. We were ready to go and buy a house.
Being Easter, there weren’t many ‘home opens’ and most houses weren’t available for private viewing, but we were hoping to fit some in around the public holidays. We only managed to see six houses. Our final viewing was on the Tuesday late in the morning, by which time both children were asleep in the car. Joël and I decided to each go in to have a look by ourselves, rather than dragging in children who would rather be asleep.
I went first and was immediately struck by the natural light and airflow as I entered straight into the upstairs living area. The large windows and banks of louvres were ideal for the tropical climate. We’d seen a number of similar houses (in fact, all of the houses we’d shortlisted were of this style), but this one had been ‘under offer’ on our previous trip so we hadn’t pursued it (we later found out it was the second offer to have fallen through due to finance). Lush tropical garden, big shed, large outdoor living space, natural light and airflow throughout the house, established suburb with trees and footpaths, playgrounds and bus stops, walking distance to the shops. It was an older house, in need of some basic maintenance but in a liveable state. It was just what we wanted.
After much deliberation over a price during lunch at a local café, we excitedly drafted an email offer and sent it off to the real estate agent. As it turned out, the house was ‘deceased estate’ so the offer needed to be submitted as a contract. Early the next morning, we were in the real estate agent’s office signing a contract. A few hours later, we received notice that our offer had been accepted, transferred our deposit, and were on the way to becoming home-owners. We tried driving back past the house to show our children, but they fell asleep in the car again.
Our celebratory dinner and the long drive home were filled with excited discussions about what we could do with our new house, as well as more mundane questions of the logistics required to move interstate with two young children, plus pets. We had asked for a 60 day settlement period (30 is standard here), so as to give us a bit more time to get ourselves organised (and to adjust for the delays associated with posting essential paperwork back and forth from a remote area).
There is a steep learning curve associated with buying a house. It’s not something most people are interested in until they actually do it. Whilst all the individual elements felt really boring (like property condition reports and mortgage documents and insurance options and contracts and conveyancing), they’re not something you want to mess up, so you just have to trawl through it, learning (via Google) as you go. We were lucky to be living in a different time zone from where we were buying, so I could make key phone calls in the morning before Joël left for work (it was already ‘office hours’ for the people I was calling). It was tricky enough juggling all the smaller bits and pieces whilst also running around with a baby and a toddler.
On speaking to other friends, they have also felt this huge lack of knowledge when buying a house. They all agreed that it’s a lot of work, even if you do it before you have children. Some chose to skip some parts, like conveyancing and inspections/condition reports (some later regretted this). Others didn’t even realise that it was part of the process (and were lucky they didn’t receive any major surprises, but a few did mention that for the first year or so they kept on finding things ‘wrong’ with their property).
We recognised early on that packing up a house and relocating all our stuff interstate, with an active toddler and an ‘almost-crawling’ baby who contact-napped, was going to be a challenge. I tried to get quotes from a number of removalists, but even that took a few hours of my time for each company, by the time I worked my way through their individual processes (maybe they hope you can’t be bothered going through that again with a competitor to compare pricing). We weren’t taking a huge amount of stuff with us, as most of our furniture and large appliances came with the house and we were selling most of our other large items, but the cheapest quote came back at $6000, with a month-long wait between pick up and delivery. In the end, we hired a trailer and a moving trolley, packed everything ourselves (with significant assistance from my parents), and delivered it to a local trucking company to be loaded onto pallets. At the other end, there were a number of delivery companies and couriers who could collect our stuff, drive it to the new house, and even carry it upstairs to the right room for a competitive price.
It’s easy enough to suggest that we ‘should have started packing earlier’. In reality, there is only so much packing you can do whilst also looking after small children, especially when much of your spare time is taken up reading through contracts and mortgage documents and insurance statements and all the other paperwork associated with learning ‘how to buy a house’. Not knowing when we would actually find a house, we didn’t know which of our things we would want access to in that interim period. We had, in fact, started packing books, CDs, other ‘non-essential’ items months before, over the Christmas break, but we also discovered we had limited storage space for packed boxes. This is why we had hoped to get someone to pack most of our ‘everyday items’ for us.
In the end, by doing it ourselves (with my dad helping us pack and my mum taking X and A out to playgroup, the park, and anywhere else that wasn’t our house), we did end up culling a lot of stuff that we didn’t really want, which we then sold, donated, gifted or disposed of. This meant, when we did eventually get to our new house and started unpacking, we only had things we really wanted. Packing up the house was a massive project. I think, regardless of how early you start, you will still have a huge rush at the end. Nevertheless, we were grateful we’d chosen to double the length of the settlement period.
Finally, we’d taken our last load of boxes to the trucking depot, handed the keys to the cleaners (and apologised for the pile of rubbish in the lounge room – we hadn’t made it to the tip before it closed), and went off for farewell drinks and dinner with a few friends. We were disappointed we didn’t get to say goodbye to a lot of our friends, as my mum had taken the kids to all of their ‘last playgroup’ sessions and we’d been so busy with all the other things that we hadn’t organised anything ourselves. At least most of our friends travelled through the city we were moving to at least once a year (as it has the closest major airport and large shopping centre, despite being interstate), so we figured we would be catching up with people often enough anyway (one year on, Covid-19 travel restrictions are in place and interstate borders are presently closed, but, soon enough, they’ll be able to get here).
We spent our final night in a hotel, with our dog and cat staying with friends, before the long drive. We were leaving on a Thursday, so as to get to our new house by 11am on the Friday for the ‘final inspection’ before settlement the following week. We had booked a cabin at a caravan park en route that would allow us to stay with pets, with only a couple of hours further to drive the next morning. After packing all of our remaining stuff into the car (all those games of Tetris on the graphing calculator during high school maths really paid off), collecting our pets, and some last goodbyes, we were off.
We felt a wave of relief as we drove out of town. Whilst we hadn’t tied up all the loose ends we’d wanted to (and had left the cleaners with a bigger job than planned), it was good to finally be going. After more than 8 years in town, and both our children born there, there was a tinge of sadness, but, overall, we knew we were ready to live somewhere bigger. We could always come back and visit. We were exhausted, but we were on our way.
One year on, we have no regrets. For a long time, we felt more ‘relief’ than excitement, even at traditional ‘celebratory moments’ like when the real estate agent dropped around a bottle of champagne at settlement. It also took quite a few months before we stopped waking at the slightest noise outside at night. It just feels ‘right’ to be starting the new decade in our new house. A new part of our family’s journey. Despite the difficulties associated with coordinating a move with young children, it has been great to set up our home for the whole family from the outset, involving the children and their needs in the process as opposed to sacrificing existing spaces to make room for children (as we had done in our old house). Our ‘library’ still consists of a wall of boxes, and we have an ever-increasing list of jobs to tackle (and new project ideas) around the house and garden, but we are settled here, and are enjoying being able to create our own spaces in our own time. The house is ours, we’re not going anywhere, there’s no need to rush.
*I am planning a couple of posts on our children’s spaces within our home, and how we have made room for everyone, and will link back to them here once they’re up.