So I Guess We Might Be Buying A House?

Life can throw you for some unexpected loops. Originally, this blog was started to track my law degree progress. After I’d started and gotten some grades, Tracy and I had a big talk about potentially not staying in the Netherlands, and it seemed fairly certain we were seriously exploring emigration. So, the law degree got put far back on the backburner (a degree in Dutch law makes no sense outside of the Netherlands). Then, as we were exploring options to travel to Canada, discovering that the threshhold would be quite high, COVID-19 hit, pretty much eradicating any possibility to move at that time. Fast forward a year as we move to a new apartment, settle in more, I change positions at work, and we improve our financial situation, and suddenly life looks vastly different.

We’d been exploring our options to buy a house for a few months now, trying to understand what was possible. Based on my income, we could get quite a reasonable mortgage for the type of house that we’d enjoy. However, I also have a substantial student debt, which greatly limits the height of the mortgage you can get (essentially, double your original student debt gets deducted from what you might afford based on your salary). As I posted before, despite having a rent that’s higher than whatever we’d pay for the highest mortgage based on my income, we wouldn’t be able to get that. One mortgage lender quite nicely said that we’d “be able to buy a nice garage” from what they’d be able to offer us. We were downtrodden but nevertheless Tracy put her dealfinder skills to work to find us new options (seriously, she’s really good at finding high-quality yet cheap things).

What came next was a cavalcade of terrible housing. We viewed a house that was incredibly cheap, had a large garden, was located in the middle of the city, and was really spacious. Oh yes, and also the garden was on loan from the municipality, most of the house was rotting, and three rooms had to be torn down with an estimated cost of 100.000 Euro for the rebuild. There was an affordable house in a tiny village (it had about three streets to its name), that was half an hour away by a bus that came once an hour. There were tiny houses, bizarrely designed houses, run-down houses, and so on. We’d gotten to a place where we’d given up hope.

Earlier in the week, we’d viewed a house that Tracy really liked but I wasn’t too excited about (once again, small village with only a bus connection, which would limit Tracy’s mobility). Our next viewing was a house I thought would be pretty decent (it was fifteen minutes away from work on a train line), but Tracy didn’t really like the look of. However, we’d agreed to look at anything and everything that was remotely decent – the worst that could happen was that we’d waste some time while we more clearly realize what we can and cannot accept. So, we go to this small town, and we are blown away by the neighbourhood. We’ve joked that it looks like Hobbiton. There’s medieval buildings here and there, and town centre has open and wide streets. There’s stretches of greenery where you can hear the chirping of birds (I hadn’t realized I’ve not heard any for over a year) and many people walk their dogs. The neighbourhood of the house is well-kept, quiet, and decent. We instantly realize that this is the type of town that is our perfect compromise: rural enough for Tracy to love and close enough to work for my convenience. We know that this town is worth our attention.

As we come to the house, it’s actually better than the photos had led us to believe. The rooms are decently sized, the kitchen is larger than it looks, and the back garden is much larger than it looks. The shed has plugs, so we can turn it into a workshop, and the back alley is large enough for Tracy’s scootmobiel to go through. It’s really close to town center, close to a supermarket, and pretty close to the train station. It seems great! The previous owner was an old lady that passed away, and apparently the house is the inheritance for a set of nieces and nephews who just want it sold so they can divide the money. The big downsides, really, are that the previous owner was a heavy (and I mean heavy) smoker, so all the walls are yellow and the stench of nicotine assaults you as you enter. Given the rotted houses we’d seen, the prospect of just doing some deep cleaning doesn’t scare us in the slightest. She also kept some cats, who’d terribly scratched up some of the wallpaper upstairs. Taking down wallpaper and repainting? Big whoop, we would do that anywhere we move in anyway.

Sure, there’s some things that need improving. For instance, the bathroom downstairs doesn’t have a sink. For some reason, that’s quite common in Dutch house of a certain period – don’t ask why. In fact, in this one, it isn’t just that they never built a sink in the downstairs bathroom – they actually had it removed! God knows why. The kitchen is pretty decent, but could use some improving; restructuring some cabinets, improving the use of vertical space, that type of thing. Also, the bathroom was poorly constructured: the cover they added to the ceiling wasn’t made of water-tight material, so there’s some warping there that needs to be fixed. The biggest downside there, though, is that there’s no toilet upstairs (relatively common in houses in this price range in the Netherlands). However, these are all things we can deal with. Seven years down the line, when my student debt is gone, we either sell the place, or get a second mortgage to do some major upgrades.

So, based on what we’d seen, we figured to put in a bid. This is the best house we’d seen in the price range, and the town itself was love at first sight. It fit all our criteria that we’d been building for the last months. Suddenly, everything goes at warp speed. Thursday evening we viewed the house, and later that evening we mention we’re interested in bidding. Friday morning the realtor calls us to explore options; a few hours later we’re talking with our mortgage broker, after which we call in a formal bid to the realtor; a few hours after that, we get a call that our bid is accepted, and we’ve reached a deal in principle. I can tell you it was a tense, emotional day. We were both equally excited and freaked out: we’re actually getting the house! Oh god, did we just buy a house? Wow, we’ll be saving so much money! Wait, are we sure we can afford this? This is the best house we’d seen so far! What’s the catch here? When do we discover what the major problem is?

Any day now, we can expect the bill of sale, which is the starting point of us talking to our mortgage advisor. Now, there’s still plenty that can go wrong at this point. The height of the mortgage is determined by the valuation of the house. If the bank values the house at a lower price than we bid, then we don’t have the money to cover the difference. If the bank, for some bizarre reason, doesn’t want to give us the full mortgage (unlikely, since the mortgage broker worked through everything in our first talk), then we can’t afford it. And who knows what else can go wrong.

However, if nothing goes wrong, then we may have just bought our first house. Our house. A house in a quiet town that’s conventiently close to work. A house with a garden that we can grow crops in. A house that we can build furniture in. A house that we can make really cool. Every day the idea is becoming a little less scary and a lot more awesome.

The More You Make, the More You End Up Making

Creativity has always been interesting to me, because I don’t see myself as a creative person at all. In building games, I always tended towards making the most efficient rather than the most beautiful structures. Professionally, my greatest strength is reducing the complexity of problems to more solveable issues and helping to guide others to move towards solving them. Artistically, I’ve never been able to do much at all, though I’ve tried calligraphy, playing the violin, drawing, and so on. Language seems to be my best creative skill, though not for fiction but rather for communicating clearly. All in all, I’d describe myself as quite uncreative.

One of my main issues would always be the difficulty of thinking of new ideas out of nowhere. It’s so impressive to me how somebody could look at a blank canvas and just decide what to do there. However, now with electronics, it took me just the one big project to learn the basics of electronics, and I’m starting to get more ideas. I’d run into tiny inconveniences and thought: surely, I can spend way more time solving this miniscule issue than I’d gain by just working through it? And so projects were born. Currently, I have the following ideas clunking around, with no specific timeline for when I’ll actually be working on them:

Hamstercage Lights

My current main project is to install RGB lights in all three levels of our hamstercage build. It’d both simulate a circadian rhythm for whenever we get our new hamster, and would have a manual override for when we need light. My main posts on electronics are all about this, so there’s not much new to report there.

Countdown Timer

This was inspired by the Pomodoro timer, as it’s somewhat related but for a completely different purpose. The Pomodoro timer just counts down in small half-hourish increments, to organize working time and to help remind me to take regular breaks. The Countdown Timer was born because there’d be several moments where Tracy and I are working towards a larger goal with a set deadline, such as when we originally moved over here; conversely, there’s also smaller deadlines, like deciding how much time we have until our groceries get delivered. Again, why use just a mobile phone timer when you can massively overengineer a large LED display or 7-Seg display and program it to display days, hours, minutes, and seconds?

Binary, Hexadecimal, Decimal Converter

While I was programming the Pomodoro Timer in C rather than Arduino, I started using binary and hexadecimal numbers more often to directly address memory. In particular, I’d want to set a whole register to specific bits in one go, and using hexadecimal just seems cleaner to me for some reason. What I’d end up doing is going through a datasheet, checking all the right pins for an 8-bit register, and then using a converter online to figure out what the hexademical is for that binary number. Why accept anybody else’s very convenient solution to a self-created problem when I can make it entirely more complex by spending more time? I could just make a small device that shows the same number in decimal, binary, and hexadecimal, and have several knobs or buttons so that I could change each number and the others would automatically change with it.

Bonus: Taglines For the Blog

As I was writing this, I just kept coming up with additional taglines for the blog (huh, additional task: figure out if I can have rotating taglines). Here’s a selection of my favorites:

  • Answering questions nobody asked;
  • Solving problems I created myself;
  • Solving problems nobody has;
  • Creating problems, then solving them by creating two new problems;
  • Breaking things by fixing them;
  • Fixing things by breaking them;
  • Finding out things nobody cares about;
  • Championing pointless causes;
  • Finding a problem to every solution;
  • Putting the “me” in “meaningless”.

Links on the Blog

WordPress can be somewhat obtuse at times. Or, at the least, its interface is opaque, to me. All I’m trying to do is to add a link to the right-hand menu to my GitHub page, so I can store project files on there without having to do that directly on the blog. If I were to do it on the blog, I’d have to edit some files to allow multiple types of uploads to the blog, including C-code. Considering I don’t fully know what kind of weaknesses that opens up, I’d much rather have GitHub be a place where I make these things public rather than on this server. However, despite clicking back and forth through the settings, I haven’t yet found a place to just easily add a link to the sidebar. Well, more searching online it is!

Learning About Flux

I’ve read that flux is a useful thing to use when soldering, but I never really knew what it does or what the real uses were. I was aware that it helps solder stick, and that the usual soldering tin I used contained flux, but I just wasn’t sure exactly what it was or when to use additional Flux. The advice I read most often was when you try to solder an SMD chip, flux is really handy to drag solder pins. However, that just tells me when to use it, but not what it does. However, I saw a simple video that really drove the point home to me. It simply shows examples of soldering with and without flux, and changes some variables around so you can directly see the effect. Now that’s some educational material!

Fraud Convention

Yesterday, I attended a convention on fraud in higher education (digitally, of course, thanks to COVID-19), and it was a fascinating experience. Two of the four speakers approach fraud from a legal perspective, discussing jurisprudence, recent developments and, of course, fraud in online digital assessment. They were very well-versed in the topics, and fielded a lot of questions with skill and ease. It’s always a joy to see somebody who knows what they’re talking about do their job well.

On top of that, we got so much information on multiple types of challenges that we’re facing at work. Particularly the past year of online assessment has proven to complicate matters quite rapidly. Digital assessment was never applied this widely, let alone digital assessment at a distance. As a result, we quite suddenly faced a host of new challenges, such as faulty internet connections invalidating an assessment (what do you do about that? What measures can you take?) or strong suspicions of fraud without evidence (Is that sound in the background somebody else reading a book, or the student checking a textbook during an assessment?).

I do think that the digital format allowed me to get out of my shell a little easier than normal. In the conventions I’ve been to so far, you’d of course have to speak up in a room of strangers to ask a question, whereas here it was just as simple as typing a comment in a chatbox. I could have even adopted some semi-anonymity, as I could fill in my own username to ask questions (though I just used my own name in any case). Certainly an encouraging experience that should remind me to participate more actively in future face-to-face conventions.

Housing Challenges

Tracy and I have been looking into buying a house, and boy is it a tricky proposition. On the one hand, it shouldn’t be that hard of a deal: I have a permanent contract, a good salary, and a solid record of paying rent for over a decade. However, there’s also a huge snag: I also have a massive student debt. When I started studying, the rules were that student debt would not be factored into considerations regarding buying a house. These days, however, those rules have changed, and they’re crippling us.

Without going too much into detail, what we did was figure out how high a mortgage we could cover if we payed the same amount we currently do into rent into a mortage instead. As it turns out, that was a decent chunk of money that could get us into quite an acceptable home. In fact, we’d found some homes that we’d like to explore (and one that we absolutely fell in love with) and for those, we’d even be paying less in mortgage than we would do in rent. On top of that, buying a first house comes with all sorts of advantages, such as municipal subsidies to make it more sustainable, and tax breaks based on your mortage interest rates, to name two. So, we figured, all of this is great – we can totally afford buying a house.

The banks, however, have a different idea. Despite us already paying the effective mortage (in fact, our net rent is higher than the gross mortgage!), the banks, in short, argue that we can’t carry that payment. The problem is, as I mentioned, my massive student debt. Banks are required to factor that into the mortgage, and to deduct a percentage of the student debt from the maximum mortgage. So, despite us demonstrably carrying this financial load, as well as the fact that we’d in fact be living cheaper with the mortgage than without, according to the rules, this is irrelevant. We’ve spoken to a mortgage advisor, and he as well basically said it’s a case of it making no sense but they have to follow those rules.

Now, to me, this already seems somewhat off. It gets even more absurd, however. You see, if I had decided to buy a house right after I graduated, this wouldn’t have been a problem. In the Netherlands, you only start paying off your student debt a year after graduation. Since I wouldn’t have been paying off my student debt that first year, they wouldn’t have to factor it. So, despite the situation being functionally and practically the same, it wouldn’t have mattered. However, who on earth would buy a house right after graduation? At that point, no company here will have given you a permanent contract (the standard usually is two fixed-term contracts before issuing a permanent contract for first jobs).

Moreover, the rules were changed during my time as a student, and again after my graduation. So, again, had I bought a house earlier, I wouldn’t have had any of these issues. However, at that time, I was still being bounced between fixed-term contracts and payroll constructions. I didn’t actually get a permanent contract until 2018, despite working in the same program since 2012. Still, the fun doesn’t end there!

The Netherlands actually had a pretty lenient student debt program at my time, still. Not as lenient as the generation before me, but better than what came after. The interest rate on my student debt is incredibly low (and I think at the moment it’s actually 0%). On top of that, after fifteen years of paying as much as I can each month, the entire debt is forgiven. I have six years and eight months left on that, with a debt that’s so high that I almost couldn’t pay it off. I mean, sure, if Tracy and I moved into a shoebox, ate rice and beans daily, I got a second job, and so on, I could chip away at it and have it paid off it, say, a little over six years. See what I’m getting at? At this point, the system is encouraging me, rather, to save up my money so I could buy a house when my student debt is done. Surely, that’s completely wrong? Surely, the system should be set up to encourage me to buy a house? That would mean that a highly-educated citizen settles down in the country that paid for his education, and contributes more to the economy by owning a house. Let alone that owning a house will benefit the economy by the time I retire, because my costs will be far lower, leaving me more financially stable and less dependent on government money.

What is most likely for us right now is to see if we can wrangle a semi-decent place to live with what mortgage we could get. However, the large problem we have is that most places in the Netherlands are multi-story, which is difficult for Tracy. With the mortgage we can get, it’ll also be a small house, with most of the ones we’ve seen in our range having tight, narrow stairwells. So, again, we’re almost encouraged to not buy through this emergent property of the system.

I’d be lying if I said it hadn’t gotten us down. Particularly given the amazing house that we’d found for the full mortgage that we can’t get. It was all ground floor. Close to my work yet in a smaller town to suit Tracy’s needs. It had a large garden, allowing us to save on money by growing crops. It pretty much suited us exactly. But unless the owners decide to sell the house for about 75% of its current asking price, or some mysterious distant relative leaves us enough to pay off a huge student debt, the boat’s sailed on that one.

So, for now, we’re scouring housing sites for that diamond in the rough. That tiny little house that’s just at the right distance away from work to be affordable. That little place that has enough promise to have us survive there for at least 7 years, at which point we can sell it for a good house. Or, perhaps that one mystery house, that magic little spot that’s good enough to be this cheap, yet offers enough to make us want to live there.

Either way, tear down capitalism and stomp on its ashes.