Friday, August 22, 2008

Buying a house in Victoria

I have been feeling guilty lately due to my lack of blog postings, but my excuse is that we have been heavily involved in the business of getting settled in Victoria. The kids and I have been house-hunting, Mark is adjusting to his new job (and the idea of actually having to go to work each day after having almost a year off!), we have registered the kids for school, and I have also been trying to locate temporary rental accommodation for us for September.

Our biggest chore, of course, has been to find a house to buy. Although we had researched housing over the internet while still in Strasbourg and knew in theory how much houses cost in Victoria, it still makes me a little dizzy to think that we will be spending about a half million dollars -- yes, that's right -- on a house. That is the price of a slightly nicer than average -- not spectacular -- house with four bedrooms and two bathrooms in a decent area of the city.

The houses in Victoria that we've seen come in three flavours: character, 1970s and modern. (Disclaimer: I'm not an expert on houses, so the commentary here is based simply on our very limited exposure to the housing market in the last few weeks.) The character houses were built anywhere from 1900 to the 1950s. Many of the earlier ones do have a lot of character, with bedrooms built into attics, coved ceilings, fireplaces and hardwood floors. A tip-off that you will be walking into a 1970s special lies in the real estate agent's listing advertisement: "House has been lovingly maintained by original owner". Translated into real terms, this means that the house was repainted last month in the original colours in preparation for selling, but no thought has been given in the previous 35 years to any other updating. These houses feature dark imitation wood paneling on the walls, and lots of carpet -- some shag, some with different colours in each room. The few "modern" houses that we have seen have been very ordinary: three-bedroom, two-bathroom ranchers (all on one level) with carpet throughout. One house that we viewed was so uniformly beige that everything blended together. By the end of the viewing, it was hard to tell where the floors ended and the walls began!

When hunting for a house, one's priorities soon become very clear. We had a very short list by the time we had seen our first few houses: a nice yard (for Meghan and the cats); two bathrooms and at least three bedrooms (after sharing a bedroom in France, the kids each want their own); and some separation of private areas in the house between the adults and the children (very important when you have teens or pre-teens!)

Perhaps other people have been luckier in finding their "dream home", but many of the houses that we have seen have some limitations. One house was beautiful but situated on a busy street; the road noise bothered us, and we thought it might be dangerous for the cats, who don't have any "street smarts". Another house had a beautiful yard that backed onto a park, but all of the bedrooms, including a very odd-shaped 6' x 13' room, were upstairs, and one large room downstairs was used as a formal living room; the layout resulted in wasted space and a lack of privacy for us. We got as far as thinking about making an offer on another house, but it would have required extensive renovations to put in a proper bathroom and two bedrooms downstairs.

It seemed like it was going to take some time to find just the right house, but we only have a few days left at the suite that we're currently renting, which turns into a women's residence during the university school year. And so, after seriously misjudging our timing and our ability to find a house, I booked a furnished downtown condo for the months of September and October. Two days later we made an offer to purchase a house, only to find out that the owners want to leave by the end of September! Now we are scrambling to remove the conditions on the offer -- arranging for a house inspection and the mortgage -- and we are crossing our fingers that the nice woman at the condo rental agency will be able to find another renter for October!

If all goes well with our offer to purchase the house, I will be able to share more details about it in the next few days. I'll keep you posted!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Stolen Identity!

Last week while on my daily grocery shopping trip to the mall just across Tillicum Road, I had my credit card refused -- not just once, but twice. Curious, but not really bothered by it, I pulled out my only other credit card and paid for the groceries. (Isn't our society wonderful? We have multiple ways to rack up consumer debt almost instantaneously!)

When I phoned the credit card company the next morning, I was in for a shock. After identifying myself through the answers to several personal questions, I was asked if I had been in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, or India on Thursday. Having traveled a lot in France and Germany as late as the end of June (those might have been harder questions), I could readily and emphatically answer, "No!"

I then had a very interesting chat with the customer service agent who told me that someone had tried to charge $1300 worth of clothing on my credit card in a store in Saudi Arabia. That transaction had been blocked, but then the person tried to charge $800 at the same store (probably thinking that the credit limit had been exceeded). That transaction was blocked, too. Then the next day, someone else tried to use the card somewhere in India for electronic goods.

When I asked how this could have been done, he said the most common way is for thieves to install their own card reader at a store, and then come back later and pick it up -- now with all the digital information about people's credit cards recorded on them. They then produce phony cards and use the internet to sell the cards to willing buyers. I don't know how much a person would pay for a stolen credit card, but in my case, the buyers -- more than one, because I'm assuming that very few people are in Saudi Arabia one day and India the next -- got a really bad deal -- not even a flash pair of new jeans!

Wondering whether this had been done while we were still in Europe or after we had returned to Canada, I asked about the timing. Do these thieves wait for weeks or months before creating the phony cards, or do they do it right away? Unfortunately, my customer service guy was no help with that. Sometimes it happens quickly, but he told me that one thief had waited more than 10 months. So while it could have happened during our stay in Europe, I suspect that it occurred back here in Canada. While in Europe we used our Canadian credit card very rarely, preferring instead to pay out of our French bank account. These French cards are not credit cards; they're more like debit cards, and you need to have a PIN number for them, which makes it more complicated for thieves.

This all leaves me wondering just who these people are who can so brazenly use what they know is a stolen credit card. I might have a bit of sympathy if they tried to use it for groceries or health care, but expensive clothing and electronics -- give me a break!

The upside to this story is that it leaves me with more confidence in the credit card company's ability to recognize when a credit card number has been stolen. Before we left for France last year, I phoned the company to let them know that we would be living there and traveling throughout Europe, and they made a note in our file. In all that time, we never had a transaction refused. The other thing that the customer service guy reminded me is to always verify the transactions that have been posted to your account. That usually isn't an issue for me, because I check my account online at least every few days. He also reminded me that you have 30 days to report a suspicious transaction, or you may be liable for it. Luckily, it didn't even get that far.

In the end, that account was closed, and in four business days I was able to pick up a new card from the bank down the street. My whole identity wasn't stolen -- just a little piece of it, and for a very brief time -- but it feels good to get the whole me back.