Never in my life could I imagine the overwhelming change that would enter my life when moving from a rented apartment into an own (almost a century old) townhouse. It also brought various deeper level reflections on the modern-day reality that would accompany this move. My experience is revealing and very enriching, so please keep on reading! 😊
Summertime, and the renting is easy
When you live in a rented apartment, you rely on your landlord to take care of all the inconveniences in the house: from the leaking tap to restoring the façade of the building. You don’t even think of the little universe of different responsibilities, qualifications, and obligations that a landlord must have in order to maintain the building in the right condition.
As a tenant, all you need to do is pay: the one and only requirement you have is just being regular with your monthly instalments. And in case you want to move out, simply inform the landlord early enough for them to be able to find a replacement for you. How easy!
And indeed, tenants come in all shapes and forms. There are people who move 6 times within a year, and those, who, once moved in, never changed (15 years and counting).
I am somewhere in between. Over the past 20 years of rent life, I moved 7 times, which averages to around 3 years in each place. It was never smooth sailing because there was always something that bothered me in the rented place. Of course, how could it be otherwise? [sarcastic smile] It is either super-noisy restaurant just underneath my flat, or a very hot duplex at the top of the poorly isolated house, or a landlord who suddenly decided to raise the rent, the list goes on.
Buying a house in Belgium is exciting and… life-changing!
Finally, at some (late!) point in my life, I become a mom of two loveliest children. My husband and I started thinking that we should get serious about buying a house, and by all means with a garden. After all, children need some space to go out and play, and even we, the grownups, want to have a backyard to enjoy the sunshine, ice-cream, barbeque, inflatable swimming pool, and whatnot.
So, we found this nice, but very old and poorly maintained house, which we decided to buy. We knew that a lot of renovations would need to be done, but being first time buyers, we really underestimated the gravity of the “vices cachées” (a French term which means “hidden defects”). The vices cachées are really a big thing in Belgium and France (and maybe elsewhere, but I am not aware of the house selling practices in other countries). The budget we initially thought would be needed to repair everything in the house to a desirable condition, had eventually to be multiplied by 5 or 6. With enormous support from my parents, great practical help from many friends, and an invaluable investment of effort and time of my husband, one and a half years later we are still not there yet… And here I am talking just about the house.
“Having a house is like having another member of the family”
As to the garden, it is a whole another story. We “discovered” that having a garden means almost as much work as having a house to clean and tend to. So, in addition to the two of us and our two little children, we now had a house as another member of the family, and a garden, as yet another one. So, our family has grown really big with just a house purchase! 😉
As far as garden is concerned, the more trees and plants you have, the more work you have. Compare moaning the loan every week in summer with:
- moaning the loan every week in summer
- plus cutting the overgrown branches of trees and bushes in spring, summer and autumn
- plus (at least weekly) gathering and disposing of the tree leaves in autumn
- plus gathering and consume/process fruit and berries in case you happen to own the garden which had fruit trees and berry bushes.
If you decide to grow your own tomatoes, cucumbers, salad, potatoes, etc – add also regular watering thereof, fighting snails and bugs which eat your yield, hopefully in non-toxic manner.
These are just a few big issues I have listed – trust me, it goes much further than that in real life!!
Another issue that really hit me like a train is the maintenance of the pavement the length of your house. I don’t know how it is organised in other countries, but in Belgium, the owner is responsible for the cleanliness of the street the length of your house. So, each house owner must take care of their respective bit. In winter, it means shoving the snow. The rest of the year, it means fighting weeds growing in the cracks of the pavement, fallen leaves, and trash of other people.
Talking of which… apparently, if someone passes by and drops their trash in front of your house, it is YOUR responsibility to clean your respective public space. It is even subject to prosecution in case of negligence! And we have observed all kinds of trash thrown in front of our (otherwise very tidy) house multiple times a week. This is very annoying, and I start thinking of buying a surveillance camera to catch the mischievous wrongdoer.
At this specific point in life, I realised another depth to the reality of our “individualistic consumer society”. In a sense, I am so glad we bought a house, because it showed to me how I behaved before, and how I needed to adjust myself for the better of everyone around me. Before, I used to think “well, I am paying the money, so – ultimately – everybody else must pull their weight to do the right thing”. I was so uninvolved, so carelessly disconnected.
Now, when I own a house, I am so attentive and grateful to people who throw their trash in the trash bins (thank you, local authorities, for making them available!). I admire other house owners for keeping the streets clean, free of trash, of weeds (which really grab every possible square millimetre of cracks in the ground). I respect people who put money aside for keeping their house facades beautifully proper and intact.
And when I visit other homeowners, I appreciate their taste in decorating the interior, their efforts in making the space full of light, warmth, good smells, clean corners. All this is a non-negligible effort, a conscious choice to invest into your own house for the benefit of the family, friends, neighbours and even just passers-by. A move towards a respectful and mindful community life.
Living in your own house has some really serious positive perks. First off, you don’t worry about putting another nail in the wall for that new painting you received as a present. You just do what you please. You paint the walls the colour you like, and you don’t need to worry about re-painting it in case you decide to move (anyway, you bought a house – why move?). You have a sense of peace and safety that no one will ask you to move out just because they changed their mind about how they will manage the rented space. Your kids have a careless happy life because their room is THEIRS and they can do what they want. They can make as much noise as they want because there are no neighbours downstairs to call the police because of too much noise your kids make when pouring their toys on the floor. Yeah, even that happens 😉
Five points to retain for first time house buyers
So, if you are considering buying a house, I would offer you the following points for reflection. This is not at all to dissuade you from buying – NOT AT ALL – just to prepare you, so you can attack the issues head on.
1. Sort out the money issue
Before you even start seeing houses, go to your bank (or better: several banks) and check what size of house mortgage you can afford, and on which conditions (interest rate, duration of the mortgage repayment, how much money you need to invest directly, what administrative and legal fees involved in buying a house, etc). This will give you an idea of the house price you should start aiming at.
From my personal experience, house sellers are not very flexible in negotiating the price of the house, so don’t count on a 5-10% discount (unless you are an excellent marketer, that is 😉)
2. Hire an expert when house hunting (ESPECIALLY if you are the first-time house buyer)
This is probably the most important issue in the entire list. I cannot stress enough how important it is to invest a few hundreds of euros into visits of the houses you have identified as your potential home bases. It may seem like a huge amount which could be used differently, but I promise, the expert’s advice can save you tens of thousands of euros further down the line.
3. Try to not get rushed by the sales agent into the purchase
This is so typical in Belgium! Before you even step into the house, they will tell you how successful they are at selling houses during the first 15 minutes of the house visit. They will put pressure on you to make a decision right now, because there are ten other potential buyers waiting for their turn to see the house and sign the contract. They will explain to you that the seller cannot wait, so you have no time to waste and need to transfer the deposit already tomorrow on their account.
All these things can put pressure on you and make you feel rushed. And that is their whole purpose! So, RESIST! Do your due diligence to make a full circle of the entire property from A to Z, take as many pictures as possible, ask all kinds of questions about all elements of the house, such as:
- Date of construction
- Construction permits
- Is the area in the flood danger zone or not?
- Neighbours (friendly, clean (including their façade and garden), respectful?)
- How many previous owners of the house there were?
- When were the last renovations and what was renovated (walls, ceilings, floors, electricity (in conformity or not?), heating (central to the entire house or local?), windows, roof, sewage (modern big plastic pipes everywhere or old terracotta narrow ones?), garage, gutters, etc)
- Why the house is on sale?
- Did animals live in the house?
- Was there a greenhouse in the garden before?
- Is there a cellar? If yes, is it dry?
- If the house is old: is it coated with the extra layer of bricks?
- Anything else that catches your eye.
Furthermore, feel the house. Check how it feels to stand in the middle of the house with your eyes closed. Does it feel good, or do you feel anxious, or disturbed, or uneasy? Does the house invite you in or push you out? Everything matters. Listen to your inner voice.
If at all possible, go home and think about all you have seen with a cool head. Consider your expert’s advice, your means, and your situation with the current rent. You can always call the sales agent first thing the morning after and tell them you are interested. If the house is meant to be yours, you will have it either way.
4. Factor in enough time for renovations before moving in
Renovations can cost you a fortune if you hire professionals to do it. On the upside, they can work quickly and professionally, so your little fortune will allow you to move swiftly in.
In case you are a handy (wo)man, or you are married to a handy man, you play the game of more time spent in renovations for less cash. This way, you would still need to allocate enough time for you to live in the apartment while the works are ongoing in the house. Invest in this time, even if that means paying both the rent and the mortgage. Moving into the house which is in full renovation mode is unadvisable, and even less so if you already have kids.
5. Accept that the life of a house owner is not as careless as that of a renter. Allocate time for house & garden maintenance weekly, if not daily
As banal as it sounds, taking care of a house is incomparable with just regular cleaning of your rented flat. A lot more time, effort, creative thinking will be required. Your house will become your family member and your friend if you show some love. And it will become your enemy if you ignore it.
As a final remark, I sincerely n wish you to arrive at a point in time, where you will be able to have your piece of land to live on, grow your own veggies in the back yard, and become more autonomous and self-sustainable. It has always been relevant, but even more so in this new COVID-19 era! Enjoy the wonderful feeling of living exactly as you wish in the place you have chosen and arranged just the way you want. Is that not a blessing? 😊