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.

Markets in Leeuwarden

Having lived in Leeuwarden for a few months now, it’s interesting to compare the availability of shops and markets in Leeuwarden to what we’ve been used to in Groningen. It’s a sharp contrast, I can tell you. I already knew that Groningen had more variety in shops available, and more specific shops for certain things than Leeuwarden, so we were prepared for that lack when we moved over here. A thing we absolutely weren’t prepared for, however, was the lack of quality in the market.

Let me start off by saying that the market in the Vismarkt in Groningen on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays is absolutely wonderful. We did so much of our shopping there, and it was a source of high-quality, low-cost groceries. The potato stall is great, the chicken stall offers cheap chicken that are almost always pan-ready, and the various vegetable stalls always have good deals ready. In fact, the fish stalls were the only stalls we were a little hesitant about.

So, to us, that set the standard for market shopping, and it’s what we expected from the market in Leeuwarden. Now, we knew that it would be a smaller market for a smaller region, but given how much focus on agrarian business Friesland has, we did have some expectations. Oddly enough, despite the pride the locals have in Frisia, the quality is not what we expected at all. There’s a lot of marketing of local and organic products, with Frisian flags proudly displayed as a mark of quality, but oddly enough we end up paying much more for much less quality than we received in Groningen. Even the organic, local chicken stall (the only one in the market!) sells small fillets that need a lot of trimming for almost 1.5–2 times the price of the regular chicken stall in Groningen.

Now, we haven’t checked all the vegetable stalls in the market yet, but again many market themselves as local and organic, which mostly seems like a way to just up the price. The large stall we go to has decent prices, but the quality of their vegetables often doesn’t compare to what we had in Groningen. As an example, pretty much every single time, the bell peppers have rot in them, and we have to spend some time fishing out bell peppers without it. Now, to be fair, their pricing is good, and they do have good deals every week. One of our favorite things in that stall is that they sell red chillis by the bag for hardly anything.

A bizarre lack in the market is a butcher’s—there is just no meat stall at all. Now, there’s sausage stalls, and there’s a lunch meat stall, but no full-on butchers. Most people will refer you to a butcher shop down the street, which again fits the theme: high-priced meats marketed as local and organic, yet the quality isn’t outstanding (i.e. doesn’t seem the match the pricing). As a small side-note, we do also miss the potato stall from the Groningen market, but that did seem like a bit of a luxury.

To be fair, one thing that the Leeuwarden market does excel at is the cheeses. I’m not big on cheese, but my wife is; so we do end up buying a lot of cheese. And to be fair, the quality of cheese here is high, the price is quite nice, and the variety of cheeses is good too.

Now, having said this about the market offers, I do have to mention that the service for each of these is very friendly. We’ve always been welcomed, and the stall workers try their best to establish rapport and to build relationships. We suspect that the reason for the pricing is that there’s just less competition here. In Groningen, there were multiple stalls for every single product, so if they wanted to draw you in as a customer, they just had to offer to good service. Over here, what other choice do you have? Buy at stall X, or go to the supermarket. So, there’s no incentive to improve the wares.

To leave you with a good recommendation, though: look for Hassan’s Feinkost at the corner of the market. It’s run by a German fellow who offers good Turkish foods for decent prices, and his service is top-notch.

Frisian People Don’t Like Recycling

Well, it’s been a few months since moving here, and I think I can safely conclude that Frisian people just don’t like to recycle. It’s bizarre to me. I’ve spent quite some time cycling around my cargo bike filled with paper and glass recycling, trying desparately to find some manner of recycling bin near me. Keep in mind: we live on the main shopping street. Not near city center. Not around the corner, or in an alley next to it. No, we live on the main street. I have, so far, found one paper recycling bin, near the station. Glass bottles? Same recycling bin. In all fairness, there’s one or two smaller glass trashbins if I cycle a bit. There is no recycling of organics, nor plastics to be found here though. You’d think for as much as people love “organic” and “local” foods here (i.e. they seem to desire overpriced and poor-quality produce), there’d be more interest in recycling! At least living on the main shopping street has the advantage that we can now just dump our paper trash in with the shopping trash that gets picked up on Mondays.

Crimping Cable

Today was another step in the process of making this apartment ours: networking. We have fibre optic internet, so a theoretical 1Gbit network for our ISP; in reality, of course, we get somewhere between 7-800Gbit, but that’s still pretty great. However, up to this point, we had a ratty WiFi connection that only got us about 5-60Mbit—quite unsatisfactory. The harrowing tale of getting the Internet hooked up is for another day (possibly October 31st, given the tale), but for now I’m just happy that the first set is done.

In total, there’s a couple of stages to this project: drawing a cable from the router in the living room to the switch in the living room; installing an ethernet wall outlet there; drawing it through the bedroom, installing outlets on the other side; installing the office switch and hooking up the PCs; and, finally, drawing a cable from the living room switch to the media player switch, and connecting all the Internet media to that switch.

Now, to be clear: I’ve never done something like this before in my life. That is to say, I’ve built a network out of switches and cables, but all the cables were pre-cut, and I never put in a wall outlet before. So, today was a fun experience learning a new skill. I crimped a single cat6 cable, quite nervous about making mistakes (as the videos on it always emphasize how you need to push the cables through, and if you have a slight issue here or there, you’ll lose out on performance!). Fortunately, cutting it down to size was a breeze with the kit I bought, and crimping a new connector on it turned out to be the simplest thing ever. In fact, tacking the cable to the plinth in the living room turned out to be more of a challenge than crimping that cable was!

It’s the first of many cables, so I’m looking forward to continuing the process over the next week.

Moving Apartments

About a month ago, Tracy and I moved from our apartment in Groningen to Leeuwarden. I’ve lived in Groningen for about fifteen years, and have been working in Leeuwarden for about eight of those. That’s involved three to four hours of commute every workday for so long. Working from home for a few months due to COVID-19 had really shown me how much time I’d been spending in buses and trains, and how much time of the day I was losing. So, after a while of browsing apartments, we made the jump.

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Ever since Tracy came back from the US in late-March, she and I have been just mildly sick. Not significantly sick, not even like a flu, but we’ve felt like you sometimes feel after a flu, if you know what I mean: languid, listless, drained, and achy. A sore throat coupled with low energy has us mostly binge-watch shows or playing games. This, of course, is coupled with the obvious question: is this COVID-19? We don’t know. Is it worth testing? Well, we don’t feel sick enough to be worried, so maybe not? That seems to be so much of our lives today: a big old questionmark.

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Two-Tiered System

While I’ve been reading about the immigration process, I’ve come to understand that Express Entry is not a single process, but actually the first post of the system. Express Entry might essentially qualify you for getting into the country, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can get in. For that, there’s a separate process.

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Well. That’s a big hurdle.

Back in November, we got the news that Tracy’s father was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. Already in January 2019 he was diagnosed and beat asophageal cancer, but in November, he had a new tumor in his liver. Thanks to the help of a friend, we managed to visit Tracy’s family in December, to make sure we got to see him. A few weeks ago, we were told it wouldn’t be too long. A few days ago, he passed away.

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Express Entry Seems the Best Canditate

Exploring our Visa options, it does seem as though Express Entry is the best option for us to emigrate to Canada. From the slew of temporary work programs (which run the risk of us being sent back), or the options available to Tracy (being American, she has different treaty options), Express Entry offers us hope.

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