Everybody seems to be writing about their housing past and present and it is something I had planned to write about as well. Mainly because our situation is 180 degrees opposed to what most people aiming for early retirement would do. Where most talk about future downsizing and living small we went big! Really big!
But first a little bit of history.
Up until we bought this house (now 8 years ago) I have always rented. The girlfriend however bought a small house in Ghent about twenty years ago. Total purchasing price after renovating the roof: 57.000 euro. That gave a mortgage of a grand total of 350 euro a month. So when we got together I moved in with here. I started paying rent with a little twist. We agreed on a rent of 200 euro a month (far cheaper than my previous place!) but since her house still needed some renovations I paid it in lump sums. One year of rent gave her 2.400 euro which she then used to make some improvements to the place (often executed by me and my dad). Up until this point we were following the FIRE rules: living small and cheap.
After a few years we wanted to move, the neighborhood we lived in was not improving (actually getting worse, a clear sign being when our Turkish neighbors starting moving out due to the rising number of East-European Roma moving in). The girlfriend had always wanted a big garden with room for animals. So we started looking. I had one iron rule: I would not sell any of my investments to fund the purchase or the renovations. in practice this meant our budget was limited to what we could borrow from the bank and even there we were conservative: we wanted to be sure we could pay our mortgage even if one of us lost his job. This limited our purchase price even more. So we had a self imposed limited budget but wanted lots of land. To reconcile these two facts we had to resort to geographic arbitrage.
Moving to the countryside
We first looked around Ghent but property price had really skyrocketed. We then looked closer to my parents but there too it was more land = more money. We finally ended near Tienen (it has the same time commuting to Brussels than Ghent) where land is/was still affordable. We landed on an old farm sitting on 2 800 m² of land. In all honesty, we bought it for the garden because even back then we knew the house was too big for just the two of us.
How big? Around 350 m² for the house alone. Not counting a 25 m² utility room (still needs to be renovated) and not counting the numerous outbuildings we have no idea what to do with (the cat does seem to like them, so there is that). We have the barn (there are parts of the barn attic the girlfriend has not been, ever), the stable, the garage, the work shed and then, because we ran out of names, something we call the green gate because the door is green and ‘the shed next to the work shed’ is just too damn long. Hell, ‘the shed with the green gate’ was too long so it just became ‘the green gate’. It is not uncommon for us to have the following conversation:
Do you know where item X is, I cannot find it in the utility room?
I probably put it in the barn with the garden equipment or the work shed.
*going outside, checking it, coming back inside*
Nope, I probably put it in the green gate.
*takes the key, goes back outside*
5 minutes later: damn it is not there either, where the hell is it?
No idea, it will turn up eventually
2 months later: hey I found item X!!
You did! Where was it?
In the green house!
We have 4 bedrooms for just the two of us. And that is not counting the 100 m² attic (still needs to be renovated) which I will probably convert into a home fitness/cinema room eventually because well, more bedrooms would be futile and what else should we do with it?
We might, might, try Airbnb in the future but at the moment neither us is big on having strangers in the house (we have done workaway in the past).
So while it certainly did add some years to our early retirement date (had we stayed in Ghent i would probably be done about now) we were pretty smart how we went about it.
Being stupid, the smart way
Even though buying a way too big house that needed extensive renovation derailled our retirement date with several years we did do it a pretty smart way.
First off: we sticked to our budget. Purchasing prize was 185.000 euro. Or as one bank office manager said: you got the garden for free (we saw it the other way around: we paid for the garden and got the house for free).
We borrowed at a low rate: 3,6% and then refinanced it down to 2,6%. And I am currently looking to go even lower than that.
The girlfriend made a very, very nice profit on the sale of her house in Ghent. About half of that was invested (GBL for those curious), jump starting her stash. The other half was used for renovating the house.
We renovated while already living in the house (the three months our kitchen and bathroom got renovated were no fun). Hell we are still renovating! We have got about 5 years and another 50.000 euro to go.
We will probably end up putting 350.000 euro into the house (purchasing price + all renovations). A sum we did not want to borrow. By spreading the renovations over 10+ years we limited our borrowing costs. And can actually afford the house!
We both like watching house shows and honestly, I have seen a lot of properties being sold for 350.000 or more where the house is so, so uninspiring average. And I don’t do average very well. This house is many things but average it is not.
For our quality of living it has been a big change. Even with all the renovations being done.
We are both people who need space to be alone. We got that in spades.
It is also a lot nicer where we live now. One year we drove to Croatia to go on holiday. Two weeks later we drove back home. The holiday feeling persisted right up to the moment we drove into our neighborhood. This drop in holiday joy, just by driving into our street really reaffirmed we needed to move.
Our current place is the complete opposite: this summer I went to our local bakery to get some bread. The sun was shining, I was driving my Vespa down some nice country road and I actually felt like I was on holiday! In Ghent we were probably the richest people in the street. Now I doubt we make it into the top half. And it may not be politically correct in these times to say but wealthier neighborhoods in general means nicer neighborhoods.
It all comes down to happiness. Although Ghent is a great town we were not happy living where we lived then and we are pretty happy living where we live now. Yes, this means working some extra years but in this case it is a sacrifice we are both more than willing to make.