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Brianna and Daniel Bell pose for a photograph in the living room of their former townhouse in Guelph, Ont., on Dec., 9, 2019.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Six months before coronavirus reached our small city of Guelph, Ont. my husband Daniel and I purchased our first home. We had no idea that, just six months later, it would no longer suit our needs.

When you buy a home, you don’t walk through it picturing you, your husband and three kids under lockdown 24/7 – working, learning, playing and living inside a postage stamp space all day.

In January of this year I wrote in The Globe & Mail about buying our first home, spurred on by our landlord dropping off an eviction notice that would put us on the street right before Christmas. We had no choice but to move quickly, and within one stressful week we’d purchased a fixer-upper condominium townhouse for $330,000 – all we could afford.

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Within a few short months we have painted almost every surface in our new home, installed new carpets, new kitchen countertops and made some minor aesthetic renovations. We felt settled and happy – and then we went into lockdown.

Brianna Bell started looking at freehold houses for sale after they felt restricted by the rules of a condominium corporation.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Any large family would likely feel the walls closing in on them, even in a larger home than our 1,280-square-feet space. But what we didn’t account for was the lack of backyard space and how irritating it would be to live under the rules of a condominium corporation. When we bought a plastic slide for the kids to use we received a curt letter asking us to take it off the grass. That’s when I started looking at freehold houses for sale.

A realtor friend said that he’d list our home at $388,000, a jaw-dropping increase after such a short period of time, particularly for the mansard-roofed 1970′s complex. It was July, and the lockdown was slowly easing, but we were still in the middle of a pandemic. I couldn’t believe the number of people like us, eager to move in such precarious times. Within one week we’d put in an offer on three houses. The first two we lost in a multiple offer bidding wars.

Brianna and Daniel Bell wanted a semi-detached bungalow with a finished basement and a really spacious backyard.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

The third house, we had almost passed on. It was in a less desirable neighbourhood, a short walk to a school that I’d heard had a poor reputation. But, a semi-detached bungalow that had been recently renovated, with a finished basement and a really spacious backyard, it was hard to resist. I talked to a few friends who had children that attended the school, and it turned out that the administration was excellent and the school was a close knit community. The people who had pooh-poohed the school had never stepped foot inside it.

The home was listed at $469,000, and we decided to put in what we considered a competitive offer – $507,000 – with no conditions. Shortly before offers were due our agent called to say that five other offers had also come in. I felt deflated, and was sure that we would lose out again. Then our agent called again: We got the house – and we weren’t even the highest offer. The seller loved the letter I had included with our offer and the fact that we had no conditions.

Brianna and Daniel Bell with their children at their new home.

Brianna Bell

Gone are the days of purchasing a home conditional on the sale of your own home. We decided we wouldn’t hold offers, with three kids and a new house closing in 60 days, I just wanted to sell the house. Our first offer came in less than 48 hours after we’d listed, and was $100 over asking. In just a few short days the market had started to cool off, hitting the summer slowdown as people retreated to cottages and went into vacation mode. It wasn’t the offer I had hoped for, but when no other potential buyers came through I knew the best thing was to accept it.

The condition list was a mile long, and I waited anxiously while we checked off each item. We agreed to fix some electrical issues at our own cost, accounting for a $2,500 bill. We also dropped the price $1,000 to get the buyer to move the closing date a bit closer to our new home’s closing date. It felt like our cash was slowly draining, but we stayed focused on the end goal of our new home.

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One of Brianna and Daniel Bell's daughters plays in the back yard of their new home.

Brianna Bell/Brianna Bell

When it was time to close on the former home we received another shock: our lender was increasing the fee to break our mortgage contract. We had been originally quoted $3,300, but as a naive home buyer I hadn’t paid attention to the pesky “subject to change” clause in the e-mail I received. By the time the cancelation was processed our fee was $5,700 – we were also told we were lucky, because the cost went up to $7,000 the next day. With record low interest rates, the company was attempting to discourage customers from breaking their mortgage and going elsewhere, but having already closed, the option to port our mortgage was gone. We were stuck paying the extra fee, another gut punch that many other pandemic home buyers have also experienced.

All in all, we saved some and we lost some. I’m trying my best to focus on the wins: We paid less in real estate fees than most, we weren’t the highest bid on our new home, and we ended up with a fantastic fixed interest rate of 1.99 per cent with our new lender. But the biggest win is that we have a home that suits our family’s needs better. Our kids spend their days outside in the play house or their new ninja obstacle course, and we’re getting warm welcome to the neighbourhood and meeting lots of friends. We even bought a pandemic puppy – lucky him, he now has a fenced in yard to run free.

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