When Homeownership Isn’t all It’s Cracked Up to Be

These days, many millennials feel a tremendous pressure, especially in urban areas like Toronto and Vancouver, to get on the so-called property ladder before prices rise even higher out of reach—that is, when they’re not worrying about the inflated real estate market and the odds for price corrections.

 Accordingly, so many articles in the media focus on the unprecedented challenges facing young adults who want to buy homes—houses in particular, although condo prices are rising, too, in some markets—in Canada these days: record-breaking prices, rising interest rates, and ever-changing governmental regulations and restrictions. These are certainly important topics, and it’s helpful to learn about how rising bond yields might affect interest rates, for example, or how the government’s new mortgage regulations might mean buying a smaller property with your current down payment amount.

But the hot-button issues around affordability, especially in many urban centres, have dominated the conversation around homeownership to the point where we rarely consider whether or not owning a home even makes sense for your individual lifestyle needs and financial circumstances, even if you could afford one. And how, once you’ve accomplished the seemingly Herculean task of saving up for and buying your first home, it can be a shock to realize that the much-coveted role of homeowner also comes with a number of decidedly unglamourous tasks and burdensome obligations. Indeed, being responsible for the continued maintenance and enhancement of a house can mean braving some lifestyle shifts and monetary strain, especially after years of renting or condo-dwelling.

To give you a glimpse of the small challenges you might encounter after closing, we talked to three thirty-somethings about the things that surprised them the most about homeownership, and the tasks they now love, or hate, dealing with around the house.

You might have to compromise on location

“In order to afford a place, we had to move out of the downtown core, which was a change,” says Abby*, a lab manager in Toronto. This might seem like an obvious concession when you’re buying a first home, but if you really love your convenient downtown neighbourhood, and its attendant restaurants and shops, it might take some time to adjust to a farther commute or less lively community.

Set up costs, even with new-builds, are inevitable

“Our house was new so the big expenses of moving in were painting and getting every single light fixture and curtains for all the windows,” says Marian, a media analyst in Montreal. These seemingly minor purchases can add up to thousands of dollars, especially if you’re investing in well-made fixtures and designer paint shades. Plus, there’s a good chance that your apartment-sized furnishings might not work in the new, bigger proportions of your home.

Every house comes with its own quirks

“We bought a house in the countryside recently, so I had to learn how to deal with typical country things like taking care of a septic tank and spider infestations,” says Jed, who owns @LyttletonPEC in Prince Edward County. There can be many differences between living in a century-home downtown and taking care of a suburban new build or maintaining a cottage-country hideaway, and your best assets while adjusting to a new home will be a patient mindset and the ability to shift through all those DIY videos on YouTube!  

There are many more payments to make

“A big adjustment for me was the extra bills that come with home ownership that are just taken care of in rentals, like property tax and hot water tank rentals,” says Abby. No matter how your individual renting-versus-owning calculations might look, the reality is that there are more separate monthly and annual bills to manage when you’re the property owner. Everything from waste collection to home insurance becomes your responsibility to budget for and pay.

Expect unexpected repairs

“A few years ago, we had to add insulation to the wall behind the toilet—when the temperature dipped under –20°C for a few days during a February cold snap, the pipe feeding the toilet fresh water froze!” Marian recalls. “We ended having to open the wall and fix the insulation.” While issues like old roofs and rotting decks are easy to spot when you’re buying a house, you’ll probably want to plan and budget for a myriad of smaller, seemingly random repairs like frozen pipes and leaking chimneys.

We looked at newer builds, because we didn’t want to end up with an old house that we’d have to be constantly maintaining,” says Abby. “You see so many shows on HGTV that are, like, ‘We bought a 100-year-old house and now we have to replace the plumbing and walls because there’s lead and asbestos everywhere’.” Still, buying new can come with its own challenges, such as delayed completion schedules or finishes that aren’t properly applied.  

The trades will become your best friends

“It’s very difficult to find companies and workers that you trust, and are both available to do the [repair or building] work and won’t either gouge your budget or phone the work in…or both!” says Marian. “So far, when we’ve needed some work done we’ve had to call at least 5 different companies to find 3 that will call you back and 2 that will come by to write up a proposal and only one who will actually follow-up on it; it can be stressful and frustrating.” Apps such as Jiffy and contractor-review websites like Homestars can help you find reliable tradespeople, but the reality is that getting someone to actually come and fix a leaky toilet or wonky dryer will take up hours of your valuable free time, not to mention cost hundreds of dollars.

You’ll learn new, handy skills and interests

“We hired a contractor for the bigger stuff, but we’ve also done a few DIY projects ourselves,” says Jed. “I think we were surprised at how handy we can be if we put our mind to it—I also realized how much I enjoy stacking firewood!” Don’t be shocked if you find yourself meandering through the aisles at Home Depot for fun, or talking to friends about compatible perennial plantings at your next dinner party.

Becoming a first-time homeowner can be both exciting and overwhelming, and it’s certainly not a change to tackle on a whim, or because you feel obligated to follow friends onto, or up, the proverbial property ladder. The rewards of additional space and equity-building also come with a host of new responsibilities and a steep learning curve. After all, you wouldn’t have a landlord to call on the next time there’s a plumbing leak or appliance repair to deal with.

*Some names in this story have been changed.