Friday, 29 April 2011

Calling home

Our home, photo by Mandy Merzaban

This is our family home in Richmond, British Columbia, a suburb of Vancouver, captured in a photo my younger sister shared with me yesterday upon arriving home with our mom. My sisters and I have not been home for almost two years, the 24-hour travel time and 12-hour time difference discouraging frequent visits. This was among the first images I saw of the fresh coat of paint, new front door and outdoor lamps my mother picked out last year. Celebrating the fact that we had paid off the mortgage for this house a year prior, she decided to renovate the exterior, which had become rundown after more than two decades with limited repair.

How we came to own this house was a something of a miracle, one of those events in life that enhances one's faith in God-granted destiny.

It was, initially, the home of a close high school friend of my older sister. Her family had rented the house for years. I remember visiting it the day of my sister’s high school graduation party. Before heading downtown for the banquet, my sister, dressed in an elegant fuchsia-coloured party dress, and her girlfriends had assembled in the backyard of this friend’s home decked in their gowns to take some photographs on a sunny afternoon in June 1996, two years after we moved to Richmond.

At the time, we were renting a small bungalow about a 15-minute drive away and I recall that day my mom admiring the two-storey house with its well-groomed backyard and rose bushes, quaint wooden kitchen, modest-yet-charming family room, and pleasing separate living and dining rooms. She wished to God she could own such a home someday.

Renting properties was a nuisance we had gotten all too used to. The houses were typically over-priced and poorly maintained. Leasing a house often places you at the whim of a landlord who could decide at any time he wanted to sell the unit for a profit, leaving a parent scrambling to find a new abode in the middle of the school year. Yet buying a property in the mid-1990s in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia was a bit like seeking a castle in Spain for the average middle-class family. Property prices were soaring and supply was sparse.

My mom, tenacious as she is, must have gone through five or six real estate agents trying to find the perfect home to buy: the right place for the right price was her motto. I recall once we made an offer on a recently renovated 30-year-old traditional house with a flat roof on “Mortfield Road” in Richmond. The home’s new decor was impressive and the price was reasonable enough to warrant consideration. In the end, we backed out because of the roof – the rationale being that in a city that rains for what feels like two-thirds of the year, it's probably better to live in a house with a slanted roof so water does not accumulate on top. I have no clue if any architectural justification supports that assumption. Personally, I was more uneasy about the French word for “death” (Mort) embedded in the name of the street.

The neighbourhood at a distance
We had several other near hits in the following years, but circumstances were consistently not in our favour, and transactions would not go through sometimes for the oddest reasons. One house we quite liked until we learned there was an easement on the property, giving the municipality right of use over part of the land. Another time we found a lovely, almost-brand-new and spacious house in a neighbourhood a ways out of the city centre. On the verge of sealing the deal, we decided against it after a property assessor said the house suffered from a design flaw and was erected at a slant, not flat as it should be.

We even looked at several new town-homes and condominiums that were built in the early- to mid-1990s. My mom was never convinced: they were too pricey for the size and quality of finishing, she would say. Her hesitation proved to be a colossal blessing because in the following years, many of these units came to suffer from what became known as “leaky condo syndrome”: a catastrophic failure of the building envelope that enables rainwater to penetrate in and cause rot and mould. Many people lost their savings and their health endeavouring to repair the damage.

Welcome in, photo by Mandy Merzaban
So, amid all of these mishaps, when my mom saw this charming home of her daughter’s friend in 1996 she was enamoured. Across the street was a gigantic grass field with an elementary and high school just a few minutes walk apart. The neighbourhood was well-manicured, each house was unique yet complementary in its design, and area was quiet, albeit for the ringing of the school bells to indicate the start of the school day, recess, lunch and the end of the day. The street was called “Sapphire Place” in a neighbourhood full of culdesacs named after jewels. It was a 10-minute walk to the river. The home of my mom’s dreams so to speak, and the place that became her benchmark for what to look for in her house hunt.

In the following year, the bungalow we were renting was showing signs of mould on and around the ceiling, leading us to start passively searching for something new to lease, having all but given up on the prospect of buying as property prices continued to mount.

Then it happened as these things often do, quite out of the blue.

My sister learned that the family of her friend with the charming house on Sapphire Place was moving to another nearby suburb. Their landlord was about to start looking for a new tenant. Needless to say, my mom jumped at the chance to move into the place she had fallen in love with about two years prior. The landlord did not even raise the rent.

It was, however, still a rental – and leasing was far from owning. The carpets were in dire need of changing, as were the bathrooms, tiles, roof, etc. But we were pleased. It became the place that drew us closer together. My younger sister went to the schools across the street, my father worked nearby, and myself and my elder sister went to and fro to university each day.

Migratory rest spot, photo by Mandy Merzaban, Nov. 2007
A couple of years later we came to the moment that every tenant dreads. Our landlord was liquidating some of his real estate holdings in the Vancouver area and decided to sell the house on Sapphire Place. His asking price was $50,000 more than the top price we could afford. Money was tight at the time as my father was between jobs. So, yet again, we found ourselves in a quandary. We were finally in the perfect home for us, yet unable to stay.

Or so we thought.

Photo by Mandy Merzaban
Several potential buyers came and went in early 2001, not too impressed with the lack of renovations on the 22-year-old home. As the months went by, property prices declined, fast approaching their lowest level in years. The landlord kept reducing the asking price, first by $10,000, then $20,000. Meanwhile, the municipality’s valuation of the home was spot on with what we were able to pay -- $50,000 below the landlord’s initial asking price.

In the end, he caved and sold it to us for exactly that. When I look back, all I can say is subhan’Allah (glorious is God). Property prices in the Vancouver area have risen by leaps and bounds since that trough of 2001. Shortly after, we changed the carpets and tiles, painted the walls, replaced the roof, renovated the bathrooms and it became exactly as my mom had pictured it several years before.

When something is destined for you, you'll walk down alternate routes and passages only to find yourself circling right back to that road, standing before a home you had only dreamt of a few years before. And this time, after all the patience and waiting, the “sold” sign on the front lawn is for you and not someone else.

Photo by Mandy Merzaban
We still had a substantial mortgage to worry about. But that’s the thing with destiny, God facilitates a way to make it work out. With God’s blessings and a good deal of hard work, we were able to pool together enough money in the following eight years to pay off the mortgage two summers ago, a year before my father passed away (God bless his soul). He treasured our home immensely. I know when I next visit, God willing this summer, I will feel remnants of his presence in every room, despite the redecorations.

We laboured, searched and waited patiently for our house, and now all of us work literally on the other side of the world, packaging a bit of home with us everywhere we go. Very little ties us to Canada’s West Coast except for this property. We have on occasion entertained thoughts of selling our house. But something always stops us. I guess it’s that feeling of security, that feeling that this house was a gift placed in our possession so that in the years to come we always have a base where we truly feel, well, at home.

Look forward to your comments!


  1. Richmond would be fabulous place to grow up with so many diverse cultures that all show respect to each other. Richmond is also famous throughout North America for having what is probably the most innovative public library systems on our continent.

  2. I didn't know that, but the libraries are really awesome! Yes, we are very blessed to have a home here, it is lovely and peaceful:)