December 17, 2014

Retro rambling

DECEMBER 17, 2014

As a kid, I never thought about the design, much less the cost of the space where I dug through my grandmother’s photo boxes and hidden treasures. My childhood basement was an embarrassment of mid-century riches that you now find being sold for a Mint in trendy shops on Queen St. East. Christmas decorations stored in blue Birks boxes, a jazzy Mad-Men bar station, and walnut, sliding doors revealing my grandparent’s modern style and “keeping up with the Draper’s” interior design tastes.

Long after selling that house in 1994, I would acquire the boxes of photos, and documents that tend to hang around in a family long after they’re needed. My favourite find was this little gem: The Estimate for George and Betty’s 1960 Basement Renovation in the stylish metropolis of Winnipeg, Manitoba.

I never met my Grandfather George but, what I do know if him, he was a classy, well-dressed officer turned businessman who donned a Burberry coat and monogrammed everything. Judging by the 10 page, handwritten estimate for this reno, he was also very detailed and willing to spare no expense.

This pencil sketch of the basement doesn’t look like much but the room was larger than the entire first floor of my current home in Toronto.
  • The flooring would be linoleum (so modern)
  • There would be a bar with a working sink
  • a pink powder room
  • an electric fireplace
  • a few sliding doors with hidden storage
  • and asbestos in the acoustic tiles

My Grandmother, Betty, would custom upholster the furniture in an embossed velvet and I seem to recall that there would be some coloured glass accents around the amber...definitely a smokey mirror.

The initial estimate for this space was a whopping $1384.00

final total for this 1960 rec-room, after my grandparents started to choose expensive finishes, custom this, and custom that: $3,660.00

When I showed it to my contractor husband today, he just shook his head, discouraged. In 2014 dollars, the plumbing alone would have cost that much. We have done a few basements over the years and, depending on the design choices (and the disasters that we find behind the walls) the minimum cost for George & Betty’s stylin’ space would have been around $30,000.00, but we’ve seen basements (so far) reach up to the $60,000.00 mark, not including the custom furniture, and the fee for the “designer.” Let’s be real, it can go higher, we just haven’t met that client yet.

Whatever the project may be, George and Betty did what most people do...
  • they changed their minds
  • added things
  • chose expensive finishes
  • customised other things
  • and their bill more than doubled.

I would imagine that, like our clients today, they were advised on what would make the costs go up but, contrary to today’s renovation mindset theirs was a day and age where you renovated ONCE, and FOREVER, amen.

This basement was meant to last. It was meant to match, tickety-boo, and was to host groovy parties with retro Christmas lights, matching sweater sets and, undoubtedly, a few cheezy fondue pots. Whatever the motivation, today’s blog is simply a belated apology to the new owners who would have to drop $30K to do it all over again.

Thank you for indulging in my walk down memory lane with my (apparently) very cool grandparents.


November 07, 2014

Stop believing your lies

NOVEMBER 7, 2014

Though I have only been in the mortgage business for a short period of time, I feel I’ve been a self-employed artist pretty much since the earth cooled.

My circle of friends and clients fall into the same category, a category that constantly gets a bad rap as something to be avoided at all costs, like.... touching anything on a subway car during flu season. Ok, that part is true...

Once, after singing with the symphony, I had a drink with “friends of friends” and was asked,

“Do you actually make money doing that? I mean really, it would be my worst nightmare if my child pursued a career in the arts.”

I won’t say that he was wrong to think that way but, I can confirm that his smug rudeness (dude!) was rooted in the way artists continue to present themselves and are perceived as starving bohemians.

I know that’s not true, and if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know it’s not true, too. The problem, however, is that even if you know in your heart that you are an intelligent, responsible artist, who works your butt off, learning impossibly difficult repertoire, in a foreign language, memorized, performed in front of 3000 people, cool as a cucumber, that often means squat when you walk into your bank, no matter what your income: They don’t always see your value.

The bigger problem: you start to believe them.

Yes, you are definitely complicated: your income is sometimes taxed at the source, sometimes not. Automatic RRSP withdrawals happen when (at least for singers) your gig is under a union which, often, it is NOT. Don’t get me started on cash gigs, or literally singing for your supper. You have tons of write-offs and your net income looks like you live on fairy dust. I get it. I was you...quite frankly...I still am.

To further complicate things, if you live in Toronto, you reside in the 2nd most expensive / intimidating housing market in Canada. The average house price has soared to the mid $500,000 range
(TRANSLATION: 1/2 of a MILLION dollars!!! WHAT?!!!) and the amazing down payment you saved that equates to 10% on a house in Toronto, would be closer to 30% down in Winnipeg.

Life here is not a Dixie Chicks song. You don’t “move into houses in the same 'zip-code' where your parents lived.” You sit in your real estate agent’s car during in a bidding war, hoping you WIN a house that’s smaller than your apartment.

I hear the same story all the time, “my bank didn’t even bother with my application before they said no.” which is ASTONISHING to me and only indicates that the employee had no clue how to interpret their file, and was not going to take the time to do so. If they had, they’d find out that the self-employed artist is (in my experience) a saver & debt free.

I get it, I’ve been there,
and happily explain / defend that situation all the time. There are more lenders than just the 5 big banks and, contrary to awesome
branding messages, they are not your friends, they are a business.

What they don’t always realize is that 

Be smart with your “business.”

Find out about ALL of your options.

And above all, don’t give up!

: )

Thanks for reading!

note: all opinions expressed in this blog
are mine in their entirety

October 06, 2014

It's what's on the inside that counts

OCTOBER 10, 2014

Living in apartments for the majority of my life, my exposure to renovations, or any kind of house maintenance, was limited. Even at my grandmother’s house (where I lived for the first 7 years of my life) I rarely saw anything other than cosmetic improvements, and couldn’t tell you when the “breezeway” was ripped down, or if the shower wall (maintained with surgical tape) was ever fully repaired. I know that things were “done” but as far as I was concerned, they happened by magic and that was just fine with me.

When we finally began our house hunt in 2008, I did it, initially, on my own. As a rule, I don’t hum or haw about things and finding a home was no different. There was nothing romantic about it. We had a budget, my deal breaker list and I was going to stick to it:

• must be detached

• must have a driveway
• must be walking distance to the subway
• must have green space of some description
• must have good bones (beauty be damned)

I saw many houses that had been “improved” by paint, do-it yourself back splashes (horrible!!) and Home Depot Specials that, on the surface successfully pushed the prices up, exceeding the home’s actual value by at least $20,000.00. 

I knew that my husband was capable of building a house on his own, so why would I pay $20,000 EXTRA dollars to buy a house where the “improvements” would be ripped out the day we got the key!?


It would be the first house that I saw that I would come back to again and again. No improvements had been done since 1965 but it met all of the deal breakers on the list, including the price. When Mich saw it he warned me (in his cute, French Canadian accent)

HIM: “Baby, this needs a LOT of work. I don’t think you understand how much.” 
ME: “But is it possible?” 
HIM: “Anything is possible, for a price.” 

6 years later, good house bones intact, and still many improvements to be made (Oh God, the roof!!!) we know we made the right choice. As long as we were warm and cozy, we didn’t care what it looked like. We bought what we could with what we had; no apologies. Anything was possible as long as we were patient, and, so far, we have been... 

OK, I have not been patient about buying a NEW, GROWNUP, #Iam40yearsoldGODdamnit COUCH!!!


But other than that, as long as everything else is dry and maintained, I’m good to go. I can live with constant projects. I’m a wizard with a micro-fiber dust cloth and shop vac, and my guests could care less what the joint looks like as long as there’s food and wine.

Aside from storytelling, I do have a point to today’s blog, reminding you that it was written from the point of view of a:

• Self-employed artist (who saved and saved)
• married to another self-employed artist / contractor (who saved and saved)
• and now mortgage agent 

The things that should matter on your house hunt are not the shiny tiles, but the bones behind them, and what you can afford to do in the first 5 years to keep it:

• dry
• updated to code via initial discoveries in your home inspection
• warm
• cool
• standing

The colours of the tiles don’t matter (initially) but these things DO:

• roof
• driveway
• basement foundation
• plumbing
• insulation
• furnace
• wiring 

(Wiring is a BIG deal if your inspection finds knob and tube and lists it for your home insurer to see - it will need to be updated within 60 days of closing to get fire insurance. Have it negotiated off the price of the house, if you can. Depending on how much needs to be done it can be anywhere from $3,000-$10,000.)

Paying an inflated price for someone else’s weekend warrior improvements is a difficult challenge in Toronto. Especially if you know that you are going to pay someone else to rip them out once you move in. 

If you look at a house that has been improved, make sure that it has been done PROPERLY (not to be confused with BEAUTIFULLY) by a home inspector. There is a difference. And if you need to improve sooner than later, what does your financial timeline look like in comparison with the expiration date of potential problems?

I write the invoices for ALL of Michel’s RENO clients. I know how much EVERY reno has cost, and have seen, first-hand, the nightmares behind deceptively pretty walls and fancy fixtures. I assure you, there is nothing fancy (or inexpensive) about falling in love with the beauty on the outside instead of discovering the reno beast beneath.




Thanks for reading!!

note: all opinions expressed 
in this blog are mine in their entirety

If you like this blog, please share! 

September 08, 2014

School Daze

Back in June I received this facebook message:

“Absolutely!” was my reply. My second reaction was, “Uh, oh...a cottage.” 

I knew that this was going to be Christine and Mike’s first home and there are no shortage of articles warning potential buyers of the pitfalls of buying waterfront property. I did my research, looked at which lenders might consider 2 self-employed actors/writer, and then actually fund a rural property....the list was short. I won’t go into all of what I had learned from my colleagues and research but this ARTICLE gives a good idea of why lenders are not keen on cottages.

A few weeks later in a coffee shop on the Danforth, however, I would very quickly change my tune. With big grins on their faces, Mike and Christine slid their iPad across the table and said, “We’re thinking of buying THIS...”

on 1.5 acres of land an hour and a half outside of the city... 


Scrolling through the photos it became very clear that this was a solid, 4 season home, not a cottage, not a risk, and bloody GORGEOUS!

3 bedrooms, 2 baths, an office, full kitchen, and a lot of the original features of the old wood school house, renovated into a cozy home.

I mean, COME - ONAHHH! It looks like a magazine, but it wasn’t, it was Coburg. FULL DISCLOSURE, there was a moment there in that coffee shop where I thought, 

”HOWWWWW can I buy this TOO?” 

All of us now officially in LOVE with the property, it was time to get to work. 

This blog is not going to be about their numbers (and trust me, there was a LOT of number talk, trying to make them look awesome on paper - tricky for the self-employed, no matter HOW successful). I want to focus on their initial property journey, in their own words, and how they went from Downtown Toronto #Leslieville to the #coolestschoolhousepropertyever out in Coburg.


We rent an apartment in Leslieville, love the neighbourhood, and started looking for houses in and around that area in January. 

We were encouraged by some list prices that seemed within our budget, but we quickly realized that we weren’t going to be getting much more space than what we have now and we’d have to move further east or further north than we necessarily wanted. We were also not in a position to go much above asking in most cases, and bidding wars knocked us out of the running pretty quickly.

When we looked at the math, we realized that for what we thought we could carry per month, we could keep renting the apartment we love, in the neighbourhood we love, and buy a cottage – which is something that we’d been dreaming of having at some point down the road anyway. Getting out of the city with some regularity is important to us, but our jobs and family life make it necessary for us to live at least half of the time in Toronto. Picking up and moving for good is not really a practical option.

We started looking at cottages within about 90 minutes of the city. Lakefront properties we could afford were lovely but small, and often quite close to the neighbours. They were also mostly seasonal which wasn’t the scenario we were looking for.  

We decided to look for properties on an acreage instead of a waterfront, and a whole new world opened up. We discovered a gorgeous 3-bedroom home converted from an old one-room schoolhouse on 1.5 acres in the middle of farmland and forest, just northeast of Cobourg. Dream home. We contacted Marcia and were on our way.


We are self-employed artists. (Mike is a writer for TV and Christine is an actress - premiering a  film @ #TIFF14 today, no biggie) Our income is variable at best and, frankly, looks pretty terrible on paper.  

Mike is incorporated, which is fantastic for expenses and income tax and our daily lives, but awful when applying for a mortgage. (The reason self-employed people incorporate is to reduce personal income, but if your personal income is very low…… It’s hard to convince anyone you can carry a mortgage. Nightmare.)  

Our only saving grace, we’ve been told, is that we have good credit. Without it, there’s no way we could be purchasing a house – even one as comparatively affordable as this one is.  

Buying a property OUT of the city meant we were paying about a 1/3rd of what we would for a city home. 

We had been saving for a down-payment based on CITY prices $$$ (and knowing we’d need a stated income mortgage due to our financial circumstances, and that a sizeable down-payment would be required), so that meant we had a lot of money to put towards this down-payment (on a much cheaper home).

It was a stressful process, especially at the beginning when we were trying to meet our financing condition. We have never tracked down, scanned, printed, or signed so many documents in our lives. 

We needed forms and files and letters that the average employed person would likely never need. Old tax returns, letters of incorporation, proof that we have as much money in our bank accounts as we say we do, proof that that money has been there for at least 90 days, proof that the money in our RRSPs has been there for at least 90 days. 

And, because we were buying a rural property, proof that the water is potable, proof that the septic tank is up to code….. It felt never-ending. But, thankfully, it ended! And now the good part starts.


Buying something out of the city and keeping our Toronto apartment means we really do have the best of both worlds. We like the city, and we like the country, but we were never interested in anything in between. Now we can have a busy, bustling city life and a calm, quiet country life at the same time. Our kids can grow up as city mice and country mice, with museums and streetcars and farm animals and collecting firewood. And we have a small mortgage that we are likely to pay off far sooner than we would a Toronto home. 

The first year is going to be a huge learning curve (How does a septic system work? How long does a cord of wood last? What do you mean there’s no landlord to call when the stove breaks?), but it really feels like the right decision for us. We are very excited to begin the journey.

Christine + Mike 

I couldn’t be more excited if I tried for these city mice to claim their new identities out in the country. It was an absolute pleasure to help two more artists fulfill their property goal. 


August 03, 2014

Are you talking to me? Are YOU talking to ME?

No, ‘money dude’ is not talking to me, or you, if you’re a self-employed actor, singer, dancer, artist working in Canada.

Since I (self-employed artist/mortgage agent) bought my house with my husband (self-employed artist/contractor guy) the conversation of, 


...comes up often. 

I have a very strong opinion on this topic. It may not be a popular one with economists or finance bloggers but, until the articles feature the ebb and flow of a self-employed artist’s income, more specifically me and my singer friends, I’m going to stand my ground.

I say, if you can, BUY.


Well, yes, for a salaried employee with benefits, sick leave, an income that increases by 2-3% every year, and provides you with a juicy, built in pension, sure, go ahead, rent til’ the cows come home; very often, it is cheaper. 

BUT! For the self-employed artist whose income changes every year with the fickleness, health, and demand of:

• the artistic industry
• your age
• your look (let's be real)
• your talent (with singers - the evolution of the voice is unpredictable)

...buying (in my opinion) might be the smartest thing you do. 

Paying off a mortgage has its downfall - all that pesky interest and property taxes - but so does working in an industry where, as you age, the demand fluctuates, along with your income. 

Paying off a mortgage while in your earning prime, to me, is a no-brainer. 

I am aiming to be mortgage free by the time I am 54ish... a 54ish female, classical singer, working in Canada....think about that... do you think I will regret NOT having to pay rent (because salaried economists said it would be cheaper) at age 54-ish? I’m no psychic but I’m betting the answer will be no.

I’ve had more than one conversation with working artists (GIGGING. ALL. THE. TIME. cha’ching!) who are now in panic mode because they will be closer to 70 by the time they are done paying down a mortgage and, unless you’re Betty White (God bless her gigging til’ age 91 year old self) or marry a salaried employee with benefits (hallelujah!) they will be paying their $1200 Toronto rent until the day they die on an artist’s income....


Let me be clear: I am NOT saying that you should buy if you really don’t want to, or go into massive debt on a property that you can’t afford; you have to be realistic.

• pay off your debt
• pay off your taxes
• save for retirement
• save for a downpayment
• take your time, be smart

I AM saying: if you have cleverly saved and put yourself into a positive position to start paying off a mortgage sooner than later, buying, even if it’s a teeny tiny condo, will get you on the road to being rent free faster than, well, RENTING. 

Too pushy? Probably. I’m not known for treading lightly into a conversation that I am passionate about and, aside from the stage, helping artists is at the top of my passion list. But don’t believe me, hear what other stage artists have to say about losing their property virginity:

• We bought our home 2 years ago with a basement suite. Having that income has been a bit of a life saver. It has allowed me to not work (actress) while I raise our daughter. It’s a lot of work though: we’ve recently spent a lot of cash to do minor renos in the basement, but it is certainly worth the investment. 

• We (singer + director) own two properties now. Somehow. It’s our retirement. Best decision ever.

• Best choice I made (stage management). I had no intention of a moving home base...gave me a solid, established address and ‘roots’.

I’d love to hear your (constructive) thoughts on this particular topic and, for those who are new to the blog and wonder why I started this conversation in the first place, see here.

Thanks for reading!

*note: all opinions expressed 
on this blog 
are my own in their entirety.

Like what you see? Please SHARE.

May 03, 2014

LEAP! (the blog with a plot twist)

MAY 3, 2014

I once bought a pair of earrings with a saying etched on them:

“Leap and the net will appear.”

A few hours later, I would meet my (now) husband. That year, in particular, was full of significant opportunities, and people appearing in my life. At the time, I was pretty sure that those earrings had something to do with it... #kidding #sortof

What I
now know was that I didn’t necessarily leap willy-nilly and hope that someone else would catch me, I took an active role in making sure that the net was going to be strong enough for what I hoped to achieve.

As time went on, however, I changed more than I had anticipated, and so did the music biz. I soon realized that I needed a much stronger net to support all of my expectations and (let’s be honest) my financial reality living in the 2nd most ridiculously expensive city in Canada.

What does that have to do with the fact that I haven’t posted a blog in over a year?
Well, everything, really

I don’t have an excuse,
per se, but I do have a reason for my lengthy absence. I don’t think it was a secret that I was itching to do more with the blog. The goal was to be helpful and to make a positive impact on my self-employed, artistic community. I waxed poetic about what I thought people might like to hear but, that has its limits, even for me.

Not to be
too dramatic about it but, it was time to finally do what I said I would do in my tagline, “building an empire one branch at a time.”

So, without further adieu, introducing the newest part of the
Artist Empire:

After countless blogs that hi-lighted
my growing obsession with real estate, as well as working on, and writing for my husband’s RENO BLOG, my discussion about “best before” dates & 2nd careers with Lake Diva, Wendy Nielsen was the tipping point toward making the leap to move forward and branch out.

• I went to school.
• Found a mentor (that’s a blog unto itself)
• Got a license

And have FINALLY set up shop to be YOUR official mortgage agent @

What does that mean, exactly? In a nutshell: 

•You (self-employed artist) come to me with you numbers and we create a financial profile.

•I find you the best mortgage rate + conditions to partner with your numbers

•We put a pre-approved mortgage in place

•You house hunt with a Real Estate Agent (who loves you because you are prepared and pre-approved)

•You begin the journey of owning your first home.


Ok, ok, so there’s (
way) more to it than that but, you get the gist of what I’m saying. I’m here to help, finally, in an official capacity.That, my friends, feels pretty darned good.

Inspired by
so many of you who have set up shop in a variety of industries, combined with pursuing singing or playing, I hope to be just as influential....and, let’s face it, when your income revolves around texts from students saying, “My phone was confiscated in class so I couldn’t remember to come to my lesson” you know that something has got to give!

Thanks for returning to the Cardinal’s Nest!