Have you ever had a dream come true? And have it all owed to one little thoughtful gesture from a complete stranger? Someone you’ve never even met or talked to?
I have. Let me tell you the story.
I always knew our current home, 1819 Lorraine Ave. would not be our last house. We bought the grey brick high ranch bungalow in Alta Vista under duress back in 2005 (another story). And although my husband Douglas was happy with it, I really wasn’t. It didn’t help that In the middle of our buying and selling adventure, Doug was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and I got the news that my two-year government term might not be renewed. I felt a distinct pall in the atmosphere.
The house was okay—good location, close to work, private back yard, and downstairs rec room for the expected avalanche of pubescent boys. It improved over the years with investment, upgrades and hard work. I grew to like it, but I never loved it.
Doug’s Parkinson’s turned out to be the kind that progresses slowly. And in the end, my term did get rolled over into a permanent position. Whew! We were safe! For now. And we carried on.
Fionn, who was nine when we moved in, continued to grow. The rec room was constantly occupied by a tribe of boys. Laughing. Yelling. Screaming. Life was good.
We chipped away at improvements. We built a small deck in the back. We lock-stoned the side yard to respectability. Finally we renovated the original 1959 bathroom. We replaced the roof, installed a new air conditioner and generally continued with upgrades.
Along the way, we continued to age. And slowly, ever so slowly, a new reality started seeping in with the stealth of a snake. We can’t stay in this house, I realized, a number of years back now. The yard work, the constant house maintenance, upgrades and expenses were already wearing me down. Doug’s Parkinson’s was progressing and he couldn’t do as much as before. He was going to need a walk-in shower. I was going to need fewer things to look after.
My income will drop by more than half when I retire (hopefully in three years). We could keep the house, with the mortgage almost paid and Fionn finishing university. But did I want to spend all our retirement dollars and my time trying to keep the house and yard in decent shape? A house I didn’t even love? No, I did not.
Looking at options
We started talking about options. Townhouses? Yes for size of yard, but ruled out. They have stairs. Bungalows? We didn’t need another single family dwelling (we were in one). Rent? The only thing that ever save our financial asses was owning property. At 62, I was not prepared to give that up. Condo? Ouch. The prices! The sizes! The tiny balconies looking into someone else’s, or into a brick wall! The condo fees! Living off the ground! Not what either of us wanted.
The ideal situation: a bungalow townhouse, with a nice little paved back patio and a laneway with little to no snow to remove. But most of those are found in the suburbs…Stittsville, Kanata, Orleans…We’ve both lived centrally for most of our lives. Back to a condo, then. Ouch again!
Those were the choices.
My head burned with thoughts, ideas, arguments, possible scenarios. “I don’t want to leave this neighbourhood,” I said to Doug. “I like it here. It’s our ‘hood.” The idea of having to start over in a new neighbourhood gnawed at me like a dog with a bone.
I started trolling real estate sites. A duplex? Did we want to be landlords? Very funny. No. I even looked at a few condos (and the answer was still nooooooooo). But then I turned my head to a little enclave of bungalow townhouses at the end of Kilborn Ave., about two kilometres from where we were. My lovely friend Linda had pointed them out years ago. I had forgotten about them, and I knew they didn’t come up for sale often.
One of those would be good, perfect actually, I thought. But could we get one? Would it be affordable? Isn’t every boomer looking to downsize? I continued to troll real estates sites. And then, in the spring of 2018, one came on the market! My God! It’s perfect, I thought. But we couldn’t even consider it. Our house was far from ready to put up. Lots of work and decluttering were required, and it was impossible to do in time.
“Well, that’s not going to happen again,” I told myself with a harrumph. Full speed ahead. Damn the torpedoes.
I jumped on my broom. Things starting flying out of the house. “We’re not keeping that and that or that. Haven’t used them in 20 years, ain’t going to use them now. That goes, as do those. Out!
Why do we collect so much? We had stuff from before we were married, while we married and from the houses of both our parents. Did I mention Doug’s book and model train habits?
House repairs and touch ups began in earnest. I rejuvenated, with hope.
Meanwhile, I decided to write a letter about our interest and drop it around to each of the bungalow townhomes. What the hell, it can’t hurt, right? Ever the optimist, I drew up a letter explaining our interest and asked if anyone ever knew or heard of one of the bungalows coming up for sale, would they let us know? We would, I assured everyone, make wonderful neighbours.
We continued our assault on the house. We made progress. And then one night over a year after my letter drop, an email popped up. Sept. 15, 2019. “Hi Erin & Doug, I just came across your letter from last year,” it said. “Are you still interested in buying one of the houses in Kilborn Place?”
I was thunder stuck. My heart started racing; my stomach turning. I wrote back, “Yes…yes….yes…how very kind of you. Thank you…thank you…thank you.”
Our house was getting there, thanks to our friend Will who had been working steadily on it. (It’s hard to find good and honest contractors!). I told Doug about the email and quickly called Will. “Right,” he said. “I’ll continue to work and remain on standby to move even quicker.”
I exchanged a few more emails with the kind stranger, making sure she understood exactly how interested I was, and picked up the pace of getting the house ready. I watched my emails diligently.
On Thanksgiving Sunday, after months of saying I needed to go for a walk (and failing to do so), I decided that was the day I would walk to Old Ottawa South for a coffee, a path that took me right by Kilborn Place. As I approached, I smiled at the thought of a house coming up and wondered how much longer until we received word. What would our chances be? The market was hot. I wasn’t sure we could afford it but was mentally prepared to work for at least an extra year. Whatever it took!
But as I glanced over at the coveted enclave, I stopped in mid-step. My brain went into overdrive. “Was that a For Sale by Owner sign up? WHAT? Oh. My. God. The kind stranger hadn’t let me know! What was going on?”
I sprinted to the sign and called the number. “I just put the sign up last night,” a voice with an Irish lilt said. “And you’re the first caller.”
“Thank God,” I replied. “I want it,” I said immediately and launched into the story about the watching, the waiting and the letter. “When can I see it?” I’m not sure I even asked about the price.
We arranged for the next day. I called Doug next. “We bought a house in Kilborn Place,” I babbled. Silence at the other end.
“A house! At Kilborn Place. It’s for sale. We’re going to buy it! We’re the first callers!”
“Okay. Well, can I see it first? Before we buy it?”
“Of course!” I replied. “We’re seeing it tomorrow. But you know I’ve already bought it in my head, right?” If he was scared, he didn’t show it. But of course he never does.
We saw the house the next day. It was perfect. I loved it as soon as we opened the door and Doug was happy with it too. It even had a small apartment in the basement for Fionn, who is now 22. It was a bit rough and needed considerable cleaning and some renos but that was reflected in the price, which was doable. Our offer went in, conditional on inspection, and now we get the keys Jan. 30!
Our house went on the market a mere two weeks later and thanks to our ace real estate agent, Peggy Blair, and gold star contractor Will Kooyman, it sold in four days.
Oh, and the kind and thoughtful stranger who had alerted me in the first place? About a week later, I got another email from her. Subject line: An apology. “Hi Erin, I’m so very sorry. I’ve been away for the past 10 days and just found out this morning the house sold while I was gone. Very sorry. I feel terrible. I’ll keep you posted of others.”
“Guess what?” I chirped back. “It sold to us! It’s ours! And you still get the credit,” I continued. “I wouldn’t have gone for a walk that day if you hadn’t told me one was coming up. I know it. It was divine intervention,” I gushed. “I was pulled to go for coffee that day and see that sign and call and get the house. I’m over the moon!”
The moral of the story? Don’t ever hesitate over doing something small, just a little act of kindness, for anyone. Even if seems way after the fact. You never know the effect it can have on someone’s life.
As for the kind and thoughtful stranger who kept my letter for over a year? Patti McCabe, I can’t wait to be your neighbour, and I will love you forever!