The Process Of Buying A House Continues

We’ve now received the bill of sale (the koopovereenkomst in Dutch), that further solidifies the process. Before this process, I was vaguely aware of how buying a house worked but going through it now really drives home how ritualistic it all is. We first made the offer, which had to be accepted. Afterwards, we are communicated a formal message that an agreement has been reached. Next, the bill of sale is forwarded, which forms the basis of talks with a mortgage broker. The following steps are to acquire a mortgage, set up a meeting with a notary, and finally a final tour of the house with the broker before signing with the notary.

It’s a highly risk-avoidant procedure, where every step has multiple escape hatches to stop the process in case any little thing is wrong. However, every step we complete of this arcane incantation brings us closer to finalizing the ritual of consecrating the grounds. The next step will be the most precarious: securing the mortgage. From our talk with the mortgage broker, it shouldn’t be an issue at all. Still, though, there’s a bit of doubt for me; what if – just what if? – some time thing that I wasn’t aware of becomes a bigger problem? I’m sture it’ll all be okay, but it’ll be nicer once we have the key in our hands, you know?

Nevertheless, we’ve started packing. Almost exactly a year after we packed to move to this apartment, we’re now packing up to move to our very own house. We’d never actually even fully settled into this apartment. We’d never gotten around to painting it yet and because of the COVID-19 restrictions, we hadn’t been able to buy a new couch yet, to name but two examples. Last year, we were in quite the rush to pack, as we were moving while I was still working, giving us very little time to pack together. This year, however, I have far more free time, as we should be moving right in the middle of my summer holiday. so, we’ve also decided to take things much easier and pack little by little.

It’ll be a tough move, and money will be extremely tight for a month or so, but it’s an exciting journey so far.

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.

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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COVID-19

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.

Continue reading “Well. That’s a big hurdle.”