I think landscape forms character. The people I write about are formed by a particular landscape. Maybe it’s harsh, maybe it’s dangerous, it affects what they are and who they are. I like to go and place myself in those landscapes.
Katherine Govier in Matsumoto, Japan
A practical guide for new Canadians - Step Six, by Felicia Mihali
A few years have passed since you settled in Canada. You have your diploma, you can speak well enough, both you and your partner have jobs, and your children are doing well in private schools.
You imagine that the time has finally come for you to start being a good Canadian, which means spending money and getting into serious debt. Members of your family, who have supported you through thick and thin, have had enough of crossing the desert by this time, and they’re forever singing the praises of fellow immigrants who already have a two-garage house and as many cars as there are family members. So, surely it’s time to offer your loved ones what others have offered theirs, and with less of a sacrifice than they had to make.
Hold on your horses, buddy.
First of all, you shouldn't take on any other expense while you’re still paying off the debt you incurred educating yourselves. If both of you, husband and wife, went to school for at least three years, you now owe the bank some $20,000. Your immediate goal should be to pay this off. Assuming you both have well-paid jobs, you should be able to clear the debt in one year or at most two years. Don’t sign up for any long-term repayment plan your bank offers you; that’s a way of making sure you will pay far more. Good for the lender and not good at all for you. Not to mention, interest rates for education loans are about double those for a mortgage. Pay it off pronto.
From now on, your goal is to buy only what you can pay for. This is what rich people do. It is only the poor who buy on credit, and that’s why they always pay far more than they should.
If you have spent the first three years of your life in Canada without owning a car – for which I warmly congratulate you – now is the time to buy one. But don’t even think of getting an expensive new model.
Never buy a new car. A four-wheeled box is not an investment unless you’re a deliveryman. The insurance on a new model is sky high, and you’ll face ruination if you have an accident, not only because of the amount you will pay for your beloved Mercedes, but because your insurance company will double or triple the premium you pay afterwards. Don’t fuck with insurance companies. They are not your friends. Their purpose is to make money on your back, and they’re very good at this. For the luxury car they give you to drive while your wreck is being fixed, they will steal triple the real value, and you won’t even notice. The insurance guy will be very persuasive when he tells you are his number one priority. If you believe him, you are one dumb dude.
What you need a car that’s less than two and no more than four years old. It will cost you about $6,000 dollars, and you’ll get a serviceable car with reasonable mileage, good brakes, fine suspension, and a powerful engine. You’ll get a modest insurance policy, as well. And as your car is not the automobile industry’s latest showpiece, you will not need the super-duper fire-flood-theft policy, which costs twice the amount you need to pay. I’m sure you are not stupid enough to leave your car in a flood zone or to park it in front of the Bell Centre for the duration of a hockey game. Thieves will find other people’s cars much more appealing than yours.
Once you have your car, you’re going to want a nice house, too. I suggest an apartment, instead.
A condo may well be a better investment to start off with. You won’t have to spend money on renovations, and your property will have a higher resale value. In spite of the condo fees – which will ensure you won’t have to vacuum the hall, throw out the circulars, shovel the snow, and take out the garbage – a condo costs less. And it’s an ever better deal if it’s in a building with more then thirty units, for then all the owners share in the building’s municipal and school taxes instead of paying separately. Not to mention that a flat will be easier to sell, if you decide to move once your children are out of school.
The first consideration in buying a home is the distance to your workplace and your children’s school. Someone will end up having a longer distance to travel, and you have to decide who that will be. One shortcut to the good life is to avoid sitting in traffic on your way to and from work – and ferrying your children to and from school. There’s the gas, first of all, which is no longer cheap, in spite of all the wars we’ve waged in the Near East. Even Americans understand that now. And spending three hours a day on the is such a poor life that it will make feel you deserve a reward such as some of the crap you’ve seen advertised on TV. You poor baby. You will then be working in order to be able to buy stuff, which will lead you to work overtime in your cubicle, which will prompt you to reward yourself with yet more purchases. Regardless of the good intentions you started off with, you’ll soon be well on your way to bankruptcy.
So do try to buy a place that’s either close to your job or – my recommendation – to your kid’s school. Your children should stay in the same school for more than ten years, so it is very important that they avoid the stress of a long commute. When they are twelve, you can let them take the metro, bus or train on their own. Be careful, though, not to offer them a car once they get to driving age. That’s a big waste of money, for a start, and your teenager will not use the time saved to do extra homework, but will just waste that time playing videogames and writing nasty messages on her iPod.
Your kids have to do their share, too, if you’re going to get rich. They must understand you are not their private taxi driver and that they don’t just get to wait for you at the school gate, listening to music through their earbuds. They are young and they have to move. Instead of bringing them to sport centres to lose weight and keep in shape, just get them to walk to school. This is the best way for them to make friends with their classmates, chat about their upcoming exams, exchange ideas, correct their homework, review their lessons, and start courting. They will learn to talk to their peers and to make eyes at people they like. It isn’t always fun, but most of the time it is. The ride you give them in the car, on the other hand, just makes them tired and gloomy.
The car is there to get you to work, do your shopping, and accommodate your spouse. You cannot afford two cars, which is why you need to find a place to live close to both your workplaces. It may be the case that people in Canada can change jobs every year, but you have to base yourself on where you’re working now. If one of you changes companies, some adjustment to your driving habits may become necessary, as the one who works farther away will then become the main user of the car and can pick the other up en route.
I know you don’t want to believe what I say. I just know you’re going to want to buy a big house first thing after you find a job.
Well, what can I do except pray for your poor soul?
If however you want to know what you’re getting into – and minimize the damage – here are some tips on buying a house.
Once you are the owner of a house, you can kiss goodbye to your fun, carefree existence. Your nightmare has just started. Have your new friends succeeded in convincing you that a house is a good investment for your future? They are not your friends. Do you fancy that you came here with a few clothes and your ancestors’ pictures in your suitcases and that you should now finally start living the American dream? You are doomed.
This dream can become a reality under only one condition: you have to pay cash for the house, all at once – and this is never possible, not for an immigrant, not even for Canadians born here. If you make the same mistake others make, and purchase a house with a down payment of just five percent, you are no wiser than they and you will deserve what happens to you. When you finally finish paying off the mortgage, you will have paid three times the amount you had to borrow in the first place. And that doesn’t include a whole raft of expenses you have don’t even bother to take into account. In no time you will be like the average Canadian household that owes the bank more than $40,000. But it takes a Canadian his whole life to get into that kind of debt. Why rush to catch up?
If you still insist on buying a house, then at least be smart enough to wait until at least 7-10 years after your arrival. Do the math. You need to spend the first three years on your education, one year getting out of debt, and three years earning enough to put aside a big down payment.
What most people don’t realize is that a house means not only mortgage but also a whole range of other expenses, starting with notaries, the welcome tax, school and municipal taxes, and big hydro bills. Then there’s the bottomless pit into which you throw money for new furniture, appliances, and decorative items, not to mention the roof that needs fixing, faucets and sewage that need to be replaced, kitchen and bathroom renovations, painting everything that can be painted, mending the fence, repaying the driveway, and cleaning and maintaining the pool. And just when you think you’re finally finished, you’ll find it’s time to start all over again.
Houses here are made of wood and cardboard, and the electrical wiring is badly insulated, so that a fire can start any time, despite your precautions. This kind of dwelling lasts about fifty years, on average. If you had thinking you might leave it to your grandchildren, think again. What are they going to do with your old shack other than tearing it down and building anew?
Still. A house can be a good investment if you put forty percent down when you buy. Fifty percent would be better. So you’d better start saving your pennies.
I know your American dream has been fed by all those Hollywood movies with an evergreen backyard, year-round blossom on the trees, and a kidney-shaped pool. I know you’ve pictured yourself in a silk robe, an orange juice or Scotch on the rocks in hand, while you lounge on a La-z-boy. I even know you’ve re-imagined your chubby wife as a bikini-siren with bunny-ears on top of her head. Well, it’s time to wake up.
In Canada, the pleasant backyard and the pool can be used just three months a year at best. When the summer is cold, you will double your electricity bill heating those thousand gallons of frigid water.
Your Canadian life may include drinking beer with your friends around a barbecue while your kids splash around in the pool. This will happen ten times a year, max. The rest of the time you will be out, somewhere else, obsessed with outdoor activities, traveling somewhere else in the world, and visiting family and old friends you want to impress with your Canadian success story.
The other nine months are spent indoors, where you have to pay a good amount of money to heat your house. During the harshest winter months, maybe six or seven months altogether, you had better take care of shovelling and de-icing the driveway if you don’t want to get sued by the mailman for putting his life in danger. Which means paying another good amount for bags of salt and gravel that will ruin the surface of the driveway and the flower beds at the front of the house. In spring, you will be kept busy reseeding your lawn, fixing the driveway, and repainting the patio. Looking after the house will be soon your second full-time, unpaid, job.
You may think that with a house your kids will be able to play outside and make friends in the neighbourhood. Wrong. In the suburbs, people are confined to their houses like prisoners, scared to death of letting their children out alone because of the scary stories of kidnapping and rape they’ve seen on TV. It’s also quite likely that your neighbours will never talk to one another or to you. They just spy on one another from behind their curtains, trying to get a glimpse into the other’s hyper-decorated dwellings. My God, all those Buddha statues, all that Ganesh and Khali stuff, the red paper-cuts! You’ll probably get angry with your ethnic neighbours because of their loud, exotic music, their awful smells, and their noisy parties. Moreover – and this really drives you crazy – they like to park their car right in front of your house. On weekends, you may wish to watch your neighbours in the pool from the discrete remove of your patio, but it just so happens that this is also the best time for you to mow your lawn.
Life in the suburbs will sharpen your sense of your property rights, which unfortunately come with a big helping of racism. In no time flat, you’ll find you have embraced the philosophy of not being disturbed while you take a nap – even if you come from a country where there are ten people living in the same room. In the Fall, you will find yourself complaining about your neighbour’s maple leaves falling in your backyard, but you want no damn foreign foot on your lawn. And what to say about their loquaciousness in that impossible language of theirs? You may be pleased to remind them that here people are supposed to speak English or French, s’il vous plait. You would just love to send them back straight to their undeveloped country.
When you think you’re rich, your tolerance level drops way below zero. You have rights in this country, for God’s sake, and your neighbours’ exoticism makes you sick.
Damn it, now you really are ready for the next bloody step.
© Felicia Mihali, 2013
Born in Romania, Felicia Mihali has lived in Montreal since 2000. After completing studies in French, Mandarin, and Dutch, she specialized in postcolonial literature at the Université de Montréal, where she has also studied art history and English literature. She has published seven novels in French with XYZ Éditeur since 2002 and recently published her first novel in English, The Darling of Kandahar (Linda Leith Publishing, 2012), which was nominated for Canada Reads 2013.