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  • Writer's pictureDana Webster

Country Home: Buyer Beware

In my younger years, I wanted a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Fantasies of the open road, vibrations of a powerful engine pulsating through my body, not a care in the world, free as a bird were potently enticing. But then I was introduced to this truism: Harleys are expensive because you also have to buy the pick up truck that will take the cycle to the shop every time it breaks down which, apparently, happened frequently. My dream of bad-ass two-wheeling crashed to the ground.

Same goes for buying a country house. No one told us how expensive it would be - not the house itself necessarily but all the repairs and do-overs and maintenance that come with a 40-year-old mostly DIY house.

(The real estate photos that sucked us in)

In our case, this little beauty on 4th Line in Mono was originally designed by a Toronto (by way of Lithuania) architect, Alfred P Kulpa, the shell of which he built though the interior was never completed. The next owner lived here for 30-some years and is primarily responsible for the DIY aspect of the house. The third owners added to the mess and then we, like innocent babes in the woods, lay our money down. This was after paying a home inspector a considerable sum of money to tell us that we were good to go, no concerning issues. He and the stunning photography lied. The phrase lipstick on a pig comes to mind only in reverse.

Kitchen remodel. Can you find the ladder on the wall?

From almost day one, Paul and I have been playing whack-a-mole with the myriad things that are poorly constructed, cheaply supplied or just plain ugly. I cannot tell you the number of times we and various contractors have stood in front of a leaking window that wasn't properly installed or a gap in the exterior wall through which the wind and snow flew inside or a stove vent that blew fumes to ... nowhere at all except the wall behind it and asked, "Why?" Did I mention the live wires we discovered under the dishwasher and the ladder that went to nowhere behind the kitchen wall? How about the utter lack of insulation, venting of the attic or even an access to the attic at all? To protect our sanity, we've given up asking why. We just shake our weary heads and chalk it up to yet another carelessly built or installed item.

Which brings me to contractors and service people who are a whole other kettle of fish. I'm going to say that the common thread throughout our journey of trying to bring our uniquely designed and constructed house into the 21st century is that almost no one is up to the challenge. I don't know if that is because they don't have the know-how or they just want an easy get in and get out job. Let's just say that thinking outside the box is anathema to the contractor (present company excepted. After 5 years of on-again off-again renovations, we have finally found the company of our dreams. Unfortunately, they are mostly fixing the shoddy and unfinished work of previous contractors).

Heating our house has turned into a complicated matter: we inherited two wood stoves, a fireplace, hydronic radiators and an $11,000 annual propane bill (nope, that is not a typo). Apparently, for a properly heated house of our size, that bill should be around $2,000. So, we battened down the hatches by replacing the windows and patio doors, sealing the roof, caulking airways, insulating where and when we have an open wall/ceiling and god knows what else. We've had numerous HVAC experts in to tell us why our rads don't work and why our house is still so cold but to no avail. Finally, we had a heat pump installed but that requires the cooperation of the boiler (which we had to replace/upgrade). Turns out the installers of the rads neglected to connect the piping to anything effective - rendering our MacGyvered heating system mute.

Did there used to be a time when tradespeople were properly trained and apprenticed? When people showed up your house competent, interested, honest and with a level of integrity that one could trust? I don't know. One hears the phrase pride of work but is it now an anachronistic ideal? Gone the way of that illusory thing we used to know as customer service?

Walker Ave in Toronto

I grew up in a 3-storey brick Victorian built in 1892 in the Summerhill neighbourhood of Toronto. My parents purchased it in 1970 so it had a history of ownership, not to mention rooming house status, for almost 80 years. It had good bones, as they say. Sure, you might have to update decor and replace the furnace (and, to be fair, the knob and tube wiring that was such a fire hazard) but, otherwise, it was a perfectly sound structure. And, then, I look to Europe where they have buildings centuries old that are still serviceable if not a little chilly.

All in all, Paul and I love our Mono house but, like any new relationship, it's had its ups and downs, its phases of frustration and knee-jerk reactions to break up and start over with a better model. We covet other people's newly constructed, fully finished modern homes where not a thing has to be fixed. The irony is that before purchasing the 4th Line house, we had looked at dozens of other country homes and this was the first one that was move-in ready meaning we could live in it whilst making it our own. Which means that many of the other houses we saw were such a disaster that you'd have to renovate from afar.

The saving grace for us is this:

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