fixer-upper in Cowichan
Getting on the property ladder is becoming harder for many, but it’s especially difficult for young people just starting out. High school sweethearts Elizabeth and Nathan Moro feel lucky to have been able to buy their own home nearly a year after starting their married life together.
Elizabeth, 24, and Nathan, 25, had been living in a rental in Victoria, but travelled an hour and a half north to Lake Cowichan in order to afford a house, which they purchased last May for $287,000.
The couple had been searching for a year and were getting disheartened after finding so many homes out of their financial reach.
Elizabeth says the couple’s lowest point came when they were told they couldn’t afford a tiny cabin on a floodplain in Sooke.
But when interest rates dropped in the spring, they suddenly had more buying power.
“This house popped up in April and we drove by and said it’s so cute we should come back and see it,” says Elizabeth. “But then it had an accepted offer and we felt bummed. There was nothing else on the market.”
Fortunately, for them, that offer fell through when the potential buyers realized how much work the two-bedroom house needed.
It also helped that Nathan’s background included working in construction for his father, a general contractor in Toronto, so he wasn’t deterred.
“I know my way around a tool kit. I used to work with my dad in summers, so I had gained a lot of skills and both of my brothers work full-time for him, so I was able to call my family and shoot them a message any time I ran into any problems,” he says.
When they took possession in June, Nathan, an English teacher who works in Sooke, and Elizabeth, a veterinary technician working in Victoria, immediately began gutting the main floor of the Lake Cowichan abode, which also has an unfinished basement that they use as a storage area.
Being willing to look outside of Victoria and do most of the renovation themselves got them into the market, a goal Nathan has wanted to achieve since seeing his two older brothers start to build equity in their own homes.
“Having older brothers helped push me to get into the market, since I could see the benefit. We’re super fortunate it all fell into place,” he says.
Since the couple is originally from Toronto, where commuting is common practice, driving back and forth between Lake Cowichan and their workplaces doesn’t seem out of the norm for them. In fact, Elizabeth says they prefer living in a more rural community.
Their new house is also ideal for the outdoorsy couple, with a large backyard, a view of a local mountain and access to the Trans Canada Trail just outside their front door.
The trail has been the perfect spot to take their two dogs — Fin, a German shorthaired pointer and Cove, a standard poodle — on walks.
The property, near Lake Cowichan’s downtown area, is on nearly a quarter of an acre, so their plans include fixing up their outdoor space with a firepit and al fresco dining area.
For now, however, all of their sweat equity — about $60,000 worth, they say — has gone into completely renovating the home’s interior main floor.
Their first project was demolishing the one bathroom and replacing the vanity and bath.
They wanted a modern standalone tub, which was challenging, given the prices. The quotes they were getting from specialty bath stores were in the thousands of dollars, which was out of their budget.
However, they were able to find a small, but stylish, standalone tub from an online retailer for less.
Their next big project was fully renovating the kitchen with new white cabinetry, open wood shelving, a porcelain marble-like backsplash and countertop, a large farmhouse-style sink with brass faucet and new stainless-steel appliances.
Nathan’s father had been given Home Depot gift cards that he passed along to the couple to buy kitchen appliances, sink faucets and the home’s new light features.
There were bumps along the renovation journey, however, including having to set up an outdoor shower for a week, using the garden hose and a bucket when their new bathroom plumbing was going in.
But they say their biggest mistake was being “overly ambitious” and ripping out the original kitchen immediately, before the kitchen cabinets arrived.
The demolition happened in July, but the cabinets were delayed, leaving them with no indoor kitchen for months.
“We were using the deck as our makeshift kitchen till mid-October. We had the hose going, a propane grill and used Tupperware as tubs,” says Elizabeth.
“It was glorified camping. It was definitely an adventure, but in the end rewarding.”
“That’s what you get when you come in here and take a sledgehammer to everything,” adds Nathan, with a smile.
When some of the walls of the 80-year-old house were taken down, there were a few surprises. In the living room, for instance, there were no typical studs to hang the floating shelves the couple wanted.
A distress call was made to one of Nathan’s brothers, who came up with the solution of affixing the shelves with giant lag bolts in the wood and using super-adhesive glue.
“We joke that if anyone moves in and wants to take down those shelves, they are going to have to take out the wall,” says Nathan.
Elizabeth was able to artfully style the shelves in the living room with favourite mementos, books and photos from their August 2019 wedding in Sooke. They also bought a new leather couch from Structube, which is where they bought their classic dining-room chairs. Getting the couch and all six chairs back from Vancouver, in a friend’s van, was a major feat, but Elizabeth was determined.
Their new dining table, from The Brick, is their main eating spot adjacent to the compact but stylish kitchen.
A sense of the couple’s Italian heritage is evident in the kitchen, where serving plates from Italy are on display. Although the couple visited Venice and the Amalfi Coast in 2016, they found the Italian dishes in HomeSense on Vancouver Island.
Tiles that spell out their surname are a treasured find from their holiday in Italy and will eventually go outdoors when they tackle the home’s exterior.
Since both Elizabeth and Nathan love Italy, and particularly the coast, the vibe they have recreated inside is one Elizabeth describes as “European beach house.” And fortunately, it’s a style her husband appreciates as well.
“One of the reasons we have the same taste is we have fond memories of our Italian culture,” says Nathan.
Although they still have other interior projects planned, like eventually getting a fireplace in the living room, for now, the two are happy to sit back and enjoy their space and all the work they did in such a short period of time. “Property prices are rising again, so now we are building equity — turning our sweat equity into sweet equity,” says Nathan.