Solar panels five years later

It’s been five years since we turned on our solar panels. Each spring, I look at our numbers to compare how we’ve done each year and see how much money we’ve made overall.

Solar panel array

Here are previous year’s updates:

If you want to get caught up on how this all started, my Going Solar series covered all of the details of our install and our array:

And now to the latest update.

If you’ve been following along, you know that the power we generate goes back to the provincial grid, rather than to our own use. We paid to install the panels, but the province pays us for the power they produce.

Last year we made $4,595.18, bringing our total income over the past 5 years to $22,777.75.

Annual solar income over 5 years

As of this year we’ve made 56% of what we invested in installing the panels ($40,727.46). Solar panels are obviously a long term investment for us (our contract with the provincial government pays us $0.396 per kWh and runs for 20 years).

This year’s profit was the third highest since we powered up the solar panels. As always, the weather determines how much power we generate, and it varies every month and every year.

Monthly solar income over 5 years

But like always, what we made far exceeded what we spent on power.

We paid $2,595.02 for electricity last year, meaning we came out $2,000.16 ahead.

Solar programs vary a lot depending on where you live and what your goals are. As well, solar technology has come a long way since we installed our panels 5 years ago. For us, our system has been working really well for us–both environmentally and financially–and we’re really happy we made this decision.

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How to renew your mortgage

The saga of renewing our mortgage is over. Thank goodness. This is one of the less fun parts of farm ownership.

But, it’s important.

It’s because of careful financial planning that Matt and I were able to buy the farm in the first place. We stay on top of our finances and prioritize our mortgage to ensure we’re able to maintain the lifestyle that’s so important to us.

Farmhouse

Today I wanted to share a bit of our experience renewing our mortgage. Hopefully, there are a few lessons in here that might help others as well.

Start early

We were eligible to renew as of six months before the end of our mortgage term. It’s important to take advantage of this long lead time and not wait until the last minute.

Matt was watching the interest rate forecasts and suspected that the rates were going to go up, so he wanted to lock in as soon as possible. We also knew we would likely need time to negotiate the best deal.

Give yourself as much time as you can so that you’re not scrambling–and potentially paying more than you need to–at the end. I’ve also learned that rates are often lowest in the summer, so if you can work that into your timing you could have an advantage.

Organize your records

To renew, our lender needed up-to-date paperwork for our property taxes and insurance.

The credit union that holds our mortgage had gone through a merger in the last five years and changed its name as a result. We had to update our insurance to reflect their new name, which took time (much more time than it should have, but that’s just the one of the joys of home ownership).

Most cities will issue a tax certificate which shows the status of your property tax payments. Our city does this for a fee of about $60. For our credit union, our most recent tax bill showing it had been paid was sufficient.

If you’re going to transfer your mortgage to a different lender, you’ll likely need additional paperwork regarding your house, employment and income tax.

Negotiate for yourself

At our first renewal meeting at the credit union, they had little cards all around the office promoting a 2.69% interest rate. And then sitting in the meeting they offered us 2.99%. Ummm… what?

Even Baxter agreed that didn’t sound right.

Baxter at the bank

It turned out that the 2.69% was for new customers only. Matt, who knew I was about to lose my mind, was very careful not to look at me. Why do you not reward loyal, reliable customers?

After a conversation, our agent offered to put in a request to “head office” for 2.79%. I still wasn’t happy, but it was better than nothing.

Guess what rate was approved. 2.89%.

Matt’s reaction was, “Well, it’s better than what we’re paying now. And what if rates go up?”

I said, “Give me a week.”

I booked appointments at two other banks, gathered all of our paperwork (including extra paperwork about our personal financial situation) and went to work. In the end, I managed to secure two offers at 2.64%.

Because these companies weren’t familiar with the farm, we would have to go through an appraisal again. But both banks waived the fee.

Matt shared the emails with the new offers with the credit union—the written evidence was important. And… they matched the rate. Thank goodness.

Biggest lesson from this renewal process. Do not accept the first offer you receive. Work with your current lender. Engage a mortgage broker. Shop around to other lenders. Do everything you can to get the best deal for yourself.

While a quarter of a percent may not seem like a huge decrease, on hundreds of thousands of dollars over five years (or longer) every percent makes a difference.

Read your mortgage policy

Before you sign anything, read the paperwork—even the dense, legalese, policy parts. Understand what is expected of you and what flexibility exists for payments.

For Matt and me, being able to adjust our payments if needed and being able to make lump sum payments against the principle are important.

There have been some changes to our credit union’s policies, so it was important to understand how that would impact how we usually manage our mortgage.

Pay attention to your payments

Thanks to our lower interest rate, our new payments are much lower than they were before–or they could be. Matt and I have chosen to keep our payments at the same level, which means we’re putting more towards the principle than before–$63.80 every single week. That’s more than $3,300 extra that we’re taking off the principle every year, which means the farm will be completely ours that much sooner.

Consider your situation

Five years is a long time. Things may have changed since you first signed your mortgage. When renewing your mortgage think about where you’re at now in your life as well as what’s ahead and what you need.

Maybe interest rate isn’t most important to you. Maybe you want to change your payment amounts or timing. Maybe you’re ready to renovate and want to set aside money for that. Over the last five years, Matt and I have changed jobs, renovated, bought a new car. And who knows what’s ahead.

We’re confident that we’ve done our best to set up the new mortgage in the way that works the best for us and that we have the flexibility to adjust if we need to.

Anyone else have a mortgage story to share? What are your tips for negotiating with a financial institution? How do you balance lifestyle and finances?

Advice wanted: Mortgage renewal

Consumer mortgage application

Anyone have any tips for renewing a mortgage?

Most of the time, I feel like Matt and I have always lived here at the farm. However, we’re actually just coming up on five years–a fact that has been brought home to us ’cause our mortgage is almost at the end of its term, and it’s time to renew.

We’ve never gone through a mortgage renewal before (you may recall we were able to pay our first house off in 4 and a half years), so we’re a little uncertain about the process.

You also might remember that getting the mortgage the first time around was complicated because a farm is outside of the norm when it comes to financing.

I’m looking for any and all tips you have for getting the best deal during a mortgage renewal.

Interest rate is our most important consideration. We are working hard to pay off the farm quickly, so we want to pay as little interest as possible.

We’ve met with the credit union that currently holds our mortgage and with a bank. I have one more meeting lined up next week with a different bank. All of the rates we’ve been offered so far are lower than we’re currently paying, which is great, but I don’t feel like I’ve found the best deal yet.

Any advice to help us through our mortgage renewal?

 

 

Odds and sods

 

Preserves and homegrown apples

It’s been a busy week–really a busy month (or months)–so I’m taking it easy today with a quick list of the odds and sods that have been happening recently:

  • One of my very best friends left a whole package of homemade preserves, muffins and fresh apples on our driveway gate this week. We’ve been friends for more than 30 years and still live less than 10 minutes from each other. Life gets busy and we don’t see each other as often as we’d like, but we’re still connected. Little moments like this are what friendship is all about for me.
  • The 30th anniversary issue of House and Home was full of great rooms. A lot of the old favourites were some of my memorable spaces too. Kim Cattrall’s ocean front home (seriously, she stood in the ocean and then sat on driftwood for two pictures) is pretty special.
  • Our warm fall lulled me into a false sense of security. We’ve had windchills, negative temperatures and even snow over the past week. I need to get cracking on the annual seasonal shutdown. This weekend’s to-dos are remove the tractor mower deck and turn off the outside water.
  • Speaking of cold weather, I’ve started knitting again–and am teaching a whole bunch of people at my day job how to knit too. Yet another pair of my favourite slippers from French Press Knits are on my needles right now.

Is anyone else feeling like there aren’t enough hours in the day right now? Or the things I want to/need to do are too many for the time I have available? Obviously, my friend (who is also mom to two little boys) has found some deeper level of productivity than I have yet uncovered.

The cost of country living

You’ll have to excuse me today. I have a bit of a rant.

I said last week that I am most looking forward to getting to the payback stage of our solar panels. Friday night, we came home to an envelope from the hydro company. Inside was not a payment, but a bill.

The panels use a little bit of power to operate. Once our account is fully set up, this amount will be deducted from the total we generate. The payment side, though, isn’t set up yet. The billing side is. Funny how that works, eh?

Delays in getting our payments are not my complaint.

Country living is not simple, and it’s not cheap. One of my biggest surprises in moving to the farm was how much electricity costs.

Well, it’s not so much electricity. The rates are the rates. What changes depending on where you live is the delivery rate. In the country, where the population is less dense and there are fewer houses, delivery (the cost to get electricity from the generating station, through the lines and up to my house) is more than half my regular bill. Ouch.

I’m willing to suck it up and pay for the privilege of living where I do. However, this latest bill for our solar is completely out of whack. Look at the numbers.

Hydro bill

We used 1 kWh of electricity. One. Delivery was $5.40. Five freaking dollars and 40 freaking cents. Oh, and let’s throw 70 cents of tax on there just for fun. The total bill of $6.10 does not include a charge for using any actual electricity. It’s all just delivery and tax. Ridiculous.

Ask Matt and he’ll tell you that I’m a little bit bitter about the delivery charge. I’ve hated it for pretty much every hydro bill during the last two and a half years. I cannot wait until the hydro company finally starts paying us for the electricity we’re generating.

Going solar – Show me the money

It’s time for the final post in our solar panel saga. As we all know, going green costs green. Today, I’m going into the numbers (in a slightly artistic fashion).

Read on to find out how much our solar panels cost, how many kilowatts they produce and all of the other details for our solar system.

Solar panels cost and output

Obviously, our solar array and its associated dollars and cents are specific to the Ontario microFIT program. I expect some of our numbers will translate, though, for others who are setting up their own systems.

The last outstanding part of our solar project is to receive our first payment from the hydro company. I have to say I’m looking forward to moving on to the payback stage of this project.

Where to buy inexpensive cloth napkins

Last year for our Christmas party, I really wanted green napkins. I went to all of the usual stores, and even though it was just a month before Christmas, I had absolutely no luck. Then in July at Value Village, I found a dozen dark green napkins.

Dark green table napkin

Christmas was honestly not the first thing on my mind in July, but I knew I’d use the napkins and the price was much more reasonable than at any of the usual stores, so I bought them.

We use cloth napkins all the time at our house, and I’ve had the most success finding napkins at a decidedly unusual source: the dry cleaner.

You know the rack of abandoned clothing? One day at the cleaners, hanging from the rod alongside the shirts and trousers and outdated suits were dozens of napkins clothespinned to wire hangers.

I picked out a set of gold and a set of chocolate.

Where to buy inexpensive cloth napkins

They must have been from a nursing home or restaurant because there were so many of them. It’s been a few years since I bought them, but I’m sure I paid less than a dollar each. They’re all large and nice thick fabric.

The one issue with formerly institutional napkins is that some of them are stamped on the back side.

Stamp on a cloth napkin

For me, that’s a small price to pay to get 12 napkins for less than $10.

Do you use cloth napkins or paper? Where do you usually buy your napkins? Have you ever bought anything at the dry cleaner?

Not so fab freebie

See my full review of the Ikea Strandmon.

 

People, I am uncomfortable.

It’s affecting me physically, financially and emotionally.

It all began at the start of the summer.

A colleague at work was downsizing. She had furniture–extremely well-made furniture–and she wanted it gone.

I said, “What I’m really looking for is a wing chair.”

She said, “I have a wing chair.”

I said, “I’ll pick it up on Thursday.”

Of course what I really meant was I’d convince Matt to go with me to pick it up on Thursday, as there was no way a wing chair would fit in my car. If you’ve read any of Victoria’s hilarious blog, Matt’s reaction is a lot like Paul’s (although the wing chair is not in any way the same as the kingdom mirror).

So with only slight jeopardy to my marriage, Matt was on board. After he carried the chair out of the house, loaded it, drove it home, carried it into our house and down the stairs to the basement, he stood there, looked at it, and said, “Do you like that fabric?”

I said, “Of course not. I’m going to recover it!” And then I sat down.

And he said, “What’s wrong?”

And very quietly I said, “It’s not the most comfortable.”

Matt was silent.

Since then, the chair has sat in the reading nook in the basement. Occasionally, I sit in it, hoping it’s gotten more comfortable. It hasn’t. I had a friend come over and test it for me. She agreed. It’s just not a comfortable chair.

Flowered wing chair

The seat is too shallow. The back is too straight and too short. The wings are too narrow. This is a sit up straight and balance your teacup on your knee type of chair (which I should have guessed from the fabric). This is not a slouch down, lay back, snuggle in and relax type of chair.

However, I found a chair that is exactly what I’m looking for.

Ikea Strandmon wing chair

Most of you are probably familiar with Strandmon from Ikea. This chair is extremely comfortable. The first time we met (before the uptight flowered one came into our lives), both Matt and I agreed that it is a great chair. You can sit sideways with your legs thrown over the arm and your head is still wonderfully supported by the wings–yes, I absolutely sat like this in the store. The back is the perfect angle to slouch a little bit but still be supported.

I want this chair.

But it’s Ikea. The chair that I have is probably full of hand-tied springs, high density foam and solid wood. There’s no way that Strandmon can match that. Plus, the chair that I have was just $25. Strandmon is $300. Twelve times more expensive!

Sure I’ve spent money on furniture before (hello most comfortable couch ever), but it’s always been a carefully researched decision into an “investment” or “adult” piece of furniture that will last us for years. You may say that $300 isn’t a lot to spend, but the rest of my furniture either came from garage sales or was made by me, so my threshold for sticker shock is pretty low.

The only way I can think of to make this work is to put Strandmon on my birthday list. September happens to be my birthday month. My family doesn’t typically do big extravagant expensive gifts for each other (and yes, in my world $300 is a lot to spend), but I think if all of my family members and Matt went in together, I would feel okay with them buying me Strandmon.

What do you think, family? Happy birthday to me?

Update: Check out if my birthday wish came true… and some more thoughts on the Standmon… in this post.

Update #2: See the finished reading nook here.

My pot problem

Hello. My name is Julia. And I have a pot problem.

It’s not what you think. In fact, it’s more like a problem with a pot.

You see, there’s this great window in the basement. It’s large, lets in lots of sunlight and has a great wide windowsill. I wanted to do a little display there. A vignette if you will. One of the features I wanted to include was a potted plant.

All of this was a rather vague idea until at a meeting at work everyone was given a plant. I selected a bright green ivy thinking to myself, “This would be perfect in a bright yellow pot on the windowsill in the basement.”

Never mind that I’m not good with plants, particularly houseplants, and my ability to keep this ivy alive was very much in doubt. I had a vision in my mind. I had to see it come to reality.

Unfortunately, my perfect pot was hard to find. Well, not really. I found it last fall. It was in the garden clearance section at Rona. And it was $12.99. Now I don’t know about you, but that seemed like a high price to pay for a ceramic pot, especially in the clearance section at the end of the season.

I walked away.

I came back every so often to check on it and see if the price had been reduced. I looked at other stores. I examined numerous yellow pots. I considered spray paint. Nothing matched up to the picture in my head.

Finally, this spring, I snapped. I pulled into Rona on my way home from work one evening, strode into the store, picked up my pot and bought it. With tax, it was close to $15. For a ceramic pot. Granted, it was a ceramic pot in the perfect style, of the perfect size, of the perfect shade of yellow.

I stuck my ivy in it and plopped the whole thing onto the windowsill. And it’s perfect. It matches my mental image.

Yellow pot with ivy in it on a windowsill

I still begrudge paying $15 for a pot, but I do admit that seeing the ivy–which somehow is still surviving–makes me happy.

I’ve never consciously “decorated” a house before, so I’m finding it tough to spend money on decorative elements, which seem somewhat frivolous to me. I have no hesitation about pulling out my wallet when it comes to big ticket items like construction supplies or, ahem, pets.

Is it weird that I spent nearly 6 months thinking about a ceramic pot? Do I have a problem? What’s your usual spending threshold for decorative items? How do you justify buying pretty things for your house?

All about farm property taxes

The first installment for our 2013 property taxes are due this week. I realize this topic will not apply to some readers, but I decided to write this post anyways, as our experience may be helpful to some of you.

Property taxes on a rural property can be a bit complicated. However, it’s worth it to seek out rebate programs, as the savings can be significant.

For us, the farm is divided into three parcels: residential, agricultural and conservation.

Large hayfields

The residential section is exactly the same as most people’s property taxes. It includes the house and one acre of land immediately around it. These are taxed at the regular residential rate.

The agricultural section of the property is the fields. These are classified under the farm property class and are taxed at 25% of the residential rate.

The conservation section of the property is the woods and marshland. For us, this adds up to 42 acres that is classified as “provincially significant wetland.” Under the Conservation Land Tax Incentive Program, these acres are tax exempt as incentive to maintain them as natural areas.

None of these tax rebate programs are automatic, as we discovered last year. Previous owners had let the rebates lapse, and between 2010 and 2011, the property taxes nearly doubled. The whole 129 acres was being taxed at the residential rate–ouch.

The residential classification was still in place when we took possession of the farm last March. We went to work right away to apply for the rebates that were available to us. What we learned is there is no single point of contact for farm property taxes.

Farm property tax paperwork

The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) handles applications for the Farm Property Class Tax Rate. Operations such as tree farms, animal farms, greenhouse operations or crop farms like ours count under this class of property. The farm must simply generate at least $7,000 of income a year. The most important part of the application is the Farm Business Registration Number. Since we do not farm the property ourselves, the farmer who rents our fields has to complete this portion of our application and supply his registration number.

The Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) manages the Conservation Land Tax Incentive Program. Most of our property is restricted under the local conservation authority. However, this does not automatically qualify us for the CLTIP. The Ministry has to deem a property—or a section of it—as provincially significant. Fortunately, our property was already in the MNR’s system, so we just had to apply for the rebate.

Marsh in the winter

We also went through our local municipality for a few other adjustments specific to the house itself: their records showed a mobile home on the property and a working indoor pool, both of which did not exist and which impacted the value of our house. After the “demolition” of the mobile home and the pool, our taxes decreased by a whopping $257.56–hey, I’ll take whatever I can get.

The Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC) is the overarching organization in Ontario that manages everyone’s property taxes. Approvals from the city, OMAFRA and MNR flowed through to MPAC, which pulled all of the information together, determined our tax rate and notified the city of what we should be billed.

The flow of applications, approvals and adjustments is very, very slow. Our applications went to the various organizations last spring. I followed up monthly by phone to make sure all of our applications were wending their way through the system and no information was missing.

Some of the approvals came through in the summer. However, none of the adjustments were applied at the city level until the fall. We paid three installments at the full residential rate—ouch again. However, by the end of the year when the reclassifications finally came through, we had a huge surplus on our account—so much so that we didn’t have to pay our last installment and the city still sent us a cheque at the end of the year.

Now heading into the 2013 tax year, all of the rebates are in place, and the quarterly tax bills are very manageable. In fact, the amount of property tax that we’re going to pay this year is equivalent to what we paid when we were living in our little house in the city.