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First-time home buyer stories: Emma & Evan

Sponsored by: CIBC

When Emma McCormick and Evan Cullimore decided to buy their first home, they did something more and more first-time home buyers have been doing–they struck a deal with his parents.

For Evan, a 28-year-old financial services employee, and Emma, a 27-year-old behaviour specialist, buying a house was something they were prepared to do on their own, but the opportunity was too good to pass up. “We had wanted to buy a house for a couple of years, and my parents were also looking to get a new place,” Evan said. “So it was perfect timing.”

For the young Toronto couple, teaming up with his parents was a convenient solution to the problem of rapidly rising house prices. Emma and Evan needed to come up with a down payment, and Evan’s parents needed to reduce their monthly expenses.

But it wasn’t a free ride for the first-timers. They still had to come up with cash ahead of their purchase. Emma and Evan put off trips and purchases to help get closer to their goals. With a house always in the back of their minds, they even decided to delay getting married so they could afford a place.

Evan put their priorities in order: “Dog, then house, then wedding.”

“I wish I had known just how competitive it is right now.”

Because the objective was to buy with Evan’s parents, not just any house would work. They needed a home with two separate units. For their border collies, Charlie and Carter, green space was a must. Also on the wish list: Parking, proximity to public transit, and a relatively central location. Finding a house that met all the criteria was a challenge, and they found themselves up against fierce competition for the ones that did.

“Before we got this place there were three places we bid on. And all three times we got outbid by a lot,” Evan said. As with many young people in Toronto setting out to buy their first home, he was surprised by the market. “I wish I had known just how competitive it is right now.”

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After losing out on a few bidding wars, Emma and Evan were getting ready to put an offer on another home when they got a call from their realtor. Having learned how quickly houses can sell in the Toronto market, Emma said she felt the sense of urgency to get in on the property.

“Evan’s parents saw it first and they called us and they said get over here as fast as you can,” she said. “So we dropped everything and came over.”

It was love at first sight.

“We walked the neighbourhood before we even saw the house and it looked amazing. And then we walked into the house, and we knew that this was exactly what we wanted,” Emma explained. “We could configure it the way we needed to, and there was green space and everything on our wish list was here.”

She also didn’t want to get her hopes up.

“We were really excited and hopeful and also kind of terrified because the market is so hot and we had lost houses that we had felt really excited about,” Emma said. “So it’s kind of a weird in-between feeling where you can’t help but feel like you’re becoming attached to the place but at the same time you’re trying not to, because you never know.”

“It’s kind of a nice big family story.”

Knowing they found the right house, Emma and Evan moved quickly to make an offer. They credit their success to a privilege not many homebuyers get to enjoy–getting the chance to talk to the sellers.

“We were lucky that we were able to talk to the homeowners and tell them our story: We want to grow a family here. We’re living with the in-laws. It’s kind of a nice big family story.”

It might have helped them that the sellers were also a large family that shared the house for a long time. Emma and Evan also changed their offer strategy, and made a strong offer well above the asking price right away. After one sign back, the sale was made.

“We were able to make a personal connection with the people that were selling the house,” Evan explained. “I think that, along with our offer, helped us get the place.”

“We learned that we needed to change our expectations.”

We asked Emma and Evan what advice they would give to first-time homebuyers. For Emma, the key to success is flexibility.

“You have to say these are the things I want, but know that you might not get all of it,” she explained. “And I think as you start to look at houses, your wish list is going to change.”

In their case, Emma and Evan wound up looking at houses in all corners of the city when their original plan had been to stay centrally located. But when they learned that they could get everything they needed for a lot less money by looking a few minutes further from downtown, they were willing to change their game plan. “We learned that we needed to change our expectations,” Emma adds.

Evan’s advice is all about making your strongest offer, and being ready to move on if it doesn’t work out. That’s something he knows is easier said than done.

“There’s a really good chance you’re going to offer on a place you really like and then not get it. So try your best, put your offer in, but if you don’t get it you have to be able to move on and get ready for the next place,” he said.

But he knows that it’s not always easy to be that callous when you’re making decisions about a house that’s not only a massive investment, but also the place you want to call your home.

“The house was basically a construction zone for about five months.”

“When we first moved in, there was about an inch of water in the basement,” Evan explained.

Emma and Evan weren’t necessarily surprised when they found an inch of water in their basement. They knew the house needed a lot of work, and doing renovations to divide the house into two units was part of the plan. But without the luxury of being able to afford rent and a mortgage at the same time, the new homeowners lived in the house while work was being done on it.

“We moved in right away actually,” Evan said. “We renovated the bedroom first so we could stay there while the entire rest of the house was basically a construction zone for about five months.”

On the to-do list was to dry out the flooded basement, add a full bathroom in the upstairs, and bring everything up to date in a house that hadn’t been renovated since the 1980s. When we asked about the first-time home buyers’ tax credit, Evan joked that they’ll probably spend it all on the house.

The majority of the renovations are now finished, but that doesn’t mean the work is done.

“There’s always work to be done and if there is something to be done you’re the one responsible for it,” Evan explained. “It’s not like when you’re renting a place if something breaks or needs to be fixed that you can just call someone and they come fix it. Here you either fix it yourself or you call someone, but then you’re paying for it.”

Even though the house was a mess when they got their keys, Emma remembers their moving day fondly.
“We set up the living room to look sort of like a living space and had beer and tea and settled into our new home,” she said. “It still didn’t really feel like we owned a place, but we were moving into something pretty great.”

For Evan, there was a sense of pride. “It’s a great feeling to live in a city like Toronto and be able to own a piece of property.”

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