Bright moments in dark times

Last week was Matt’s birthday. We pulled together as a family–by phone, Facetime and a few of us in person–to remember him, talk about him and celebrate him.

We had a particularly special celebration to take care of as well.

Matt and I had been given a bottle of champagne when we moved to the farm. We had been saving it for when we paid off the mortgage, and that is what I did a couple months ago. So Matt’s Dad opened the bottle, and we had a toast.

Glass of champagne on the patio

This is obviously not at all how we wanted to pay off the farm. While this milestone is usually a great accomplishment, for us it felt tragic. Today, I’m sharing something I wrote when I got home from making that last payment.

I hope you’ll read it because while there is great tragedy, there was also great beauty, and I think there are some lessons we can all take in these challenging days of COVID19.

The music was driving me crazy.

I was sitting at the credit union feeling like I was holding it together by the finest of threads. I was there to pay off the mortgage.

I had been anxious about this appointment for weeks.

Paying off the mortgage was super important to Matt and me. Especially Matt. We’d worked really hard and paid about half of it down in the 7 1/2 years we’d owned the farm.

Before he died, Matt and I talked about his life insurance. I said, “Well, I was thinking of paying off the mortgage.”

For Matt there was no question. “You’d better pay off the mortgage!”

Now I was here, and I was paying off the mortgage. We were achieving something we’d worked so hard for and dreamed about for so long. But I was alone. Matt was paying it off, but in the worst way possible.

I was trying not to cry, not to scream, not to lose my mind. And the music was about to send me off a cliff.

A speaker in the ceiling of the office was playing a local radio station.

I haven’t been able to listen to music for a long time, and this felt so noisy.

Then the words started to make it through.

I’ll be there for the highs and lows… By your side, when you’re all alone. I will be there. (Walk Off The Earth)

 

Then the next song.

I’ll carry the weight. I’ll do anything for you. My bones may break. But I’ll never be untrue. (Serena Ryder)

 

Tears were rolling down my face. I looked up at the ceiling at that terrible speaker and said, “Thank you for being here. I love you.”

That afternoon, I came home to the farm. I let Baxter out and we walked out over the fields. I talked to Matt. “We finally did it. You did it. You worked so hard for this. Thank you. It’s ours.”

I know a lot of people are facing really hard situations right now and there is a lot of fear about COVID-19. Reach out to family and friends. Look around you for those moments of love and joy–like a song on the radio that you don’t hear at first. Know that you are not alone. Even in the hardest hard there is good. You will get through this.

How to find your dream farm – Farm-iversary 8

Today is marks eight years since farm became ours. This year, our farm-iversary obviously feels different because Matt is not here in person. It’s really because of him that we are here in this place that means so much to us both.

Finding our perfect farm took a lot of work, persistence, patience and guts–most of which I credit to Matt.

How to find your dream farm

I know a lot of people share our dream of country living, so today I thought I’d share my advice for how to find your dream country property. Fittingly, there are eight.

1. Make this a shared dream

Fortunately, Matt and I were on the same page right from the start about moving to the country. We perhaps had different reasons for wanting a farm, but we were working towards the same goal. This teamwork is very important. The search for your dream country property and then the actual living there are both hard. Fun and wonderful, but hard. If you’re a couple or a family, this decision needs to be made jointly.

I am more aware than ever that not everyone is a couple. You may be single and want the country lifestyle–and you absolutely can achieve it. Find a friend, family member (children count), someone who can encourage you and believes in your dream.

Matt and Ellie on the tractor

Even though Matt and I don’t get to do this together anymore, I’m so happy that I get to do it with Ellie. She loves the animals, the barns, the tractor, the outdoors, and her joy makes me happy.

2. Know what you’re looking for

It’s great to talk about moving to the country, but to actually make it happen and find the perfect property, you need to know what matters most to you. Farms come in all different shapes and sizes.

Think carefully about what you want and be as specific as possible.

Things like property size, style of house and any features on the property like woods or water all influence how you live on a farm. If you’re planning to work the land or raise animals, those are also important factors to consider.

Maple sapling alongside the driveway

For us, I was happy with anything over 10 acres. Matt wanted at least 50. I wanted water, and initially thought either a creek or pond would work. As our search progressed, I realized the pond was really important to me, so our criteria became more specific.

We wanted a fixer-upper house, and we certainly go that. While major renovations are not everyone’s choice, I will say that you can change a lot about a house, but the property is harder to change.

As you develop your wish list, balance being narrow and broad. You want to be specific about what you want, but open-minded enough that you can actually find a farm that works for you. For both our house and property, we had 17 items on our wish list. Here are our lists for the property and the house.

3. Pick your area

Search area is part of knowing what you want. This will determine the type of land you buy–whether it’s rolling hills, flat fields, woods, marshy. It will also determine the price you pay. Prices vary greatly depending on where you look. If you’re willing to move, you might find a more affordable property.

Big field

For us, we wanted to stay close to our families, so we decided that our search area would be within 45 minutes of our hometowns.

4. Get pre-approved for your mortgage

While moving to the country and buying a farm usually begin as emotional decisions, there are a lot of practical considerations, like your finances. You likely will need a mortgage to buy a farm (and if you don’t, good for you). Visit a few banks or credit unions or other lenders before you begin your search to get pre-approved for a mortgage.

This process will help to guide your search as it may set the budget for you. As well, it can make things easier and quicker once you find your dream farm to have financing already set up… though be prepared that financing a farm will still be more complicated than a regular house. Here are my tips for financing a farm.

The house on June 1, 2017

5. Run your numbers

While the bank is a good start, it shouldn’t be the only step in your financial planning process. Try to project your monthly expenses on a farm. Consider mortgage payments, utilities (which may be higher in the country), property taxes (which may be lower because you pay a rural rate) and other costs of living. Also consider vehicle costs, as you will likely be driving more once you move to the country.

Figuring out how much you are comfortable spending will help to determine the budget for your dream country property. It might also help you to avoid sticker shock once you get your first country electricity bill.

Fieldstone fireplace with barn beam mantel

 

 

6. Be prepared to stretch your budget

I completely agree with the strategy of buying less house than you can afford in most circumstances. But for the farm of your dreams, I’ve learned that it can work out if you stretch your budget.

I’m not saying spend beyond your means. All of the work you went through in #4 and #5 still apply. But you may end up going to the max of what you can afford.

For Matt and me, once we saw this farm, our budget jumped by nearly $100,000. That’s a huge leap (even though we were still within what we could afford), and one that caused me a sleepless night before we put in our offer.

If you’ve run your numbers, understand your finances, know what you can comfortably spend and have your mortgage approval, there isn’t a huge risk to upping your budget. It may make you uncomfortable, but you can do it.

7. DIY property search

We worked with a realtor throughout our search for the perfect farm. I think realtors are a helpful resource for finding, evaluating and buying properties. However, we–mainly Matt–also looked. All. The. Time.

We developed a technique of find a property on MLS (or one our realtor sent to us), look it up on Google Earth and Google Street View, look up the municipal or tax record to see the actual property boundaries. Then, if it was still ticking our boxes, we would do a drive-by. Only then would we book a viewing with our realtor.

This is obviously a lot of work, but it saved us from seeing farms that didn’t meet our criteria.

Matt and I in front of the farm

For this farm, Matt found it online on Jan. 1. It had just been listed and we were able to jump on it quickly because we were looking when a lot of other people–including our realtor–weren’t.

8. Persist

Our search for the perfect farm took a year and a half. Over that time, we saw a lot of farms. We even put in a few offers, which were outbid. We got frustrated. We argued. We debated settling for something less than what we wanted. We despaired that we would never find the right farm.

If you know what you want, don’t settle (too much). Keep searching. Keep working. Keep thinking and talking about your dream to encourage yourself to keep going. Eventually, you will find what works for you and hopefully it will be everything you dream and more.

Country living is not for everyone. But when it’s a dream you’ve held for a long time, as with Matt and me, it can be the absolute perfect fit for you.

When Matt and I moved to the farm, I immediately saw a huge change in him. He seemed more relaxed and comfortable. He loved it here. I am so, so glad that we made this move and that he got the time here that he did.

Matt mans the wheel of the Kioti CS2410

Matt is still a huge presence at the farm, and I feel him here every day.

I am grateful for all of the work that he did to get us here and set us up so well, and that Ellie and I get to continue to live this dream.

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.

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.