Alternative Living, Energy, Green Building, Resilience

I Just Made the Biggest Investment of My Life, and I have No Idea How it Works

Humans are a hilariously irrational bunch, we hum and haw over $0.30 between the name brand pickles and the discount variety, but we’ll fork out thousands of $$ to kick-start a mortgage on a home that we’ve seen for maybe 10 minutes. I feel like it goes something like this: “Ooh, it has granite counter tops. Oh I like the paint color in the bathroom. And it comes with a TV mount already installed! Here’s my $80,000 down payment.

But look at the caution we take with other purchases: we take cars for test drives before buying, and my new blender has a money-back guarantee if I’m not satisfied. I know many people (myself included) can spend hours comparing point-and-shoot cameras ad nauseam, determined to avoid the wrong choice that costs $20 more for a useless feature. But we don’t hesitate throwing down our life savings on a place to call our own, even if we don’t even know what it’s built out of.

My wife and I just purchased a little condo. It’s wonderful, but also terrifying. We first toured the unit on a cold night, and after 5 minutes of looking around and opening cupboards, we decided to make an offer. It’s really competitive here in Vancouver so it’s what you need to do, but isn’t that insane?? I spent more time last week debating over what color of rain jacket to buy.

But what if down the road it’s scorching hot in the summer? What if, our first night sleeping there the neighbor blasts African drum music at 1am every night? Wouldn’t it be reasonable to at least get a few days to ‘test-drive’ a house?

On a deeper level, there are some bigger issues here.

Many homeowners are not at all instructed on how to operate and maintain their house (we just got left a big pile of manuals left on the counter). I would think that if I spent my life savings, I don’t think it’d be crazy to expect that someone from the building company could at least give me a 10 minute tour on what filters to change, or what that box in the closet with ducts coming out of it actually does.

It’s an even bigger issue in the age of ‘smart-homes.’ I’ve seen new houses with at least 4 touch screen panels on the walls. One for humidity, one for heating and cooling, one for ventilation, one that controls the lights….and the list can go on.

The owner of course can hack their way through online instruction videos, and the various manuals in 8 languages, but how about methods of saving energy? How to optimize the systems to keep you as comfortable as possible? How to avoid condensation on the windows, or mold growth?

The fact is, most homeowners know very little about their purchased product, as the most important components like fresh air systems and insulation are hidden behind the painted walls and thus easily forgotten about. This is a shame, because even though we look for stainless steel appliances and a fireplace, our true long term enjoyment of a space comes from how well the behind-the-scenes stuff is working.

This all goes beyond just houses; we’re entering an age where we generally understand less and less of how the stuff around us works. In a 1950’s Chevy truck, you can see all the engine parts, and you can identify what they are with some basic knowledge. In a 2016 Tesla Model X, it’s now wires, sensors and microchips. If I get a hole in my sock I can sew it shut, but if my phone dies, I feel helpless. Despite gadgets offering simplicity and user-friendliness, that goes out the door when there’s any sort of malfunction.

It really does affect our collective resilience and causes more frustration as we become more reliant on external repairs and replacements. There is something to be said for needing simplicity in life now more than ever.

But back to home-buying. My advice:

1. Understand what it truly means to purchase a house, and take this in to consideration. There’s a lot going on in the background that needs repair, replacement and a critical eye, are you up for that?

2. At the time of purchase ask your realtor to find someone to explain the house and all its inner workings to you. They are getting paid well by you, so take advantage and get what you can out of them.

3. Understand that newer homes are no longer simply just framing, walls, roof, and a furnace. They have electronic motors, sensors, heat recovery ventilators, and other technology that can save you money and keep your home healthier, but only if you know how to use it. I would avoid those crappy manuals and find some Youtube videos on how it all works.

Reading over this, it has a bit of a downer feel. I don’t intend it to be, buying a house has been amazingly rewarding and fulfilling. And the challenge of making it work and taking ownership when stuff breaks is fantastic (though frustrating at times). It just seems to me like the whole home-buying process is in need of a serious educational component.

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