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Home Sweet Home?
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Home Sweet Home?Buying a home for the first time is an emotional roller coaster. At times, it can even make you wonder if you're meant to be a homeowner. Here's one property virgin's story.

Photograph of a very small house adjacent to an alley.

In 2003, my then girlfriend (now wife) and I bought our first house. We decided we wanted one. We searched till we found the right place. We signed paperwork until our wrists seized up. Simple as that.

But behind our fairy-tale storyline--a plot replayed by thousands of Canadian couples every year--hides a deeper, darker drama, one filled with as much delirium and angst as an entire season of The Sopranos. In fact, if we had hired a shrink, Jenny and I might have been warned about the emotional roller coaster we were about to board, maybe even been prescribed some blue pills to mellow the bumps.

But we couldn't have avoided the ride. The Five Stages of Homebuying are as inevitable as death and land transfer taxes. And once you start, you can't get off till they're done.

Stage 1: Denial
Maybe it was because all our friends were doing it. Maybe we had reached a moment of calm in our nomadic relationship and careers. Or maybe one person too many had asked, "Why are you flushing your money away on rent?" (The answer: Because it beats having it squeezed out of you by the bank as interest.)

Whatever the reason, one morning we just woke up "in the market" for a house. It felt coy and unintentional, like how certain friends happen to be "in the neighbour­hood" whenever they drop by to borrow some cash or drink your beer. We might buy one. We might not. It was entirely up to us.

In real estate terms, this is known as "denial." And for a few short weeks, it was a wonderful place to be.

At first, we wandered through whatever open houses we happened across. Then we took weekend scouting sorties through promising neighbourhoods. Finally, we combed the classifieds, raced around the city and knocked on more doors than a pair of Jehovah's Witnesses.

It was a sunny period in our relationship. We bonded over an activity that always brings couples together: making fun of other people's stuff. "Somebody sure likes Celine Dion," I would smirk, as I thumbed through a rack of CDs. "Who painted this place?" Jenny would gasp in mock horror. "Blind children?" We often forgot why we were even there in the first place, rooting through strangers' medicine cabinets, snickering at their Boogie Nights wallpaper and prints of frolicking unicorns.

And then it happened. We saw a house we liked. Not the perfect house, but close enough that we could imagine spilling our lives into it. In our heads, we were already rearranging our furniture and fixing pictures to the wall. It was our house. But be­fore we could ask about financing or even get an agent, it was sold.

We swore not to let that happen again.

Photography of a very small house sandwiched between two much larger homes.

Stage 2: Obsession
If the open house is the after-dinner spliff on the real estate industry's slippery slope, then mls.ca is the uncut rock cocaine. Log on once, you're hooked for good. More than a few solid marriages have foundered when one or both spouses became addicted to the Multi­ple Listing Service's online real estate catalogue. Nearly every property for sale in Canada can be searched through its index. You can examine thousands of houses and never once pull on a pair of pants.

A just society would require its citizens to take a psychological assessment before setting them loose on mls.ca. Jenny became the most obsessed, racking up a small fortune in internet charges, compulsively rechecking the site in case a listing had been added in the last 30 seconds. I was still mired in Stage 1 and went cross-eyed joyriding the zoom function on the site's "virtual home tours." "Is that a black velvet Starship Enterprise on the wall?" I wondered, as Jenny shouted over my shoulder, "How many bedrooms? Is there an en suite bath? Are the light fixtures included?"

Mls.ca's most devious twist is that it lets you believe you can find a home on your own and then submarines that delusion when it's too late to back out. There's one site for Joe and Jane Public, and an entirely different one for realtors. You never get to see the complete picture. The online photos appear to be taken by monkeys. New listings are slow to go up, sold houses even slower to be removed.

We begged Mike, our agent, to show us the good stuff, the latest listings, the ones we couldn't score ourselves. "We know you're holding out on us!" we hollered, googly-eyed like the MLS junkies we had become. He patiently toured us around possible properties. Once we had been snide intruders. Now we wandered through other people's homes with a chaperone and the silent burden of worrying if this was a place we really could afford, and always wishing we could.

Before entering the twilight zone of house-hunting, know this: You and your sweetheart might be card-carrying Marxists who swear all property is theft, but as soon as you even begin contemplating home owner­ship you will become possessed by the ghost of Donald Trump. You will suddenly want bigger, better, and more, more, more!

Buoyed by visions of monster homes and country estates, we drove deep into the suburbs and beyond to track ones we might afford. But there we only found middle-aged zombies from Planet Golf. We quickly realized that we would rather take out our eyes with barbecue forks than face a three-hour commute and spend weekends jawing with the neighbours about lawn seed. We limped back to the city and its diminished expectations.

Photograph of a house with a sinking foundation.

Stage 3: Despair
The low point, though, came when we found our ideal house, and then we lost it. It was a nice house, on a nice street, in a nice neighbourhood. From the sidewalk, it looked like nothing special. But step through its doors and hel-lo!

The place was enough to make Martha Stewart retire her colour swatches, ditch the rose trimmers and enter a convent. The inside walls had been knocked down and the open spaces festooned with a Gladiator meets The African Queen collection of exotica. The secret garden out back must have been tended by a platoon of horti­culturists. Ringed with lights, a spacious patio atop the rear garage was primed for an endless summer of cocktail parties. It turned out that the entire house had been remodelled from attic to wine cellar by a pair of interior designers.

We loved it. We wanted it. And then the home inspector arrived.