Like most first home buyers, the most appealing aspect of my first home was its price: $26,000. Unbelievable? Not when we consider this was
back in 1981. But even for the time, this cottage was dirt cheap. However, this was for two very good reasons. Firstly, and most obviously, it was tiny – a one bedroom worker’s cottage built in 1910. The second reason was its location, up a shady little gulch off Aro Street.

“Hmmm,” said a friend I’d brought along for a look. “It could be a bit sunless.” This, I thought, wouldn’t be a problem, but then, having been living for years in a flat on sunny Mount Victoria, I’d taken late afternoon sun totally for granted. But it did prove to be a problem, and often, as I looked wistfully at the sunny vacant lot over the road after the sun had left my section in the early afternoon, I seriously considered erecting an enormous mirror, aimed at my front window!

So, lesson number one:

which I’ve followed ever since, was: If you value late afternoon sun, factor that into the buying equation. This especially applies to the hilly topography of Wellington.

The next lesson occurred when having moved into this first home, I only then decided to climb into the attic. There I was confronted with countless thousands of borer holes in the beams and joists; the dust had settled on to so many old cobwebs, it resembled the set of a horror film – which in a sense it was.


Hence, lesson number two from my school of hard knocks:

Never buy a house without inspecting the attic. You’d think I’d have learned from this, and in a sense, I did. A search of the attic while looking at my second house in Newtown revealed no borer, but what I hadn’t bothered to do was look properly at the basement. The previous owner had been a DIY enthusiast who had added on a back bedroom using scraps and odds and ends of timber. This was bad enough, but then he’d set the un-tanalized posts in concrete – an absolute no-no because the moisture in the concrete had rotted the timber!

Even more ignorantly, he had installed windows without putting in flashings, so consequently, rain had rotted the wood all around the edges. The third-time round as a house buyer in Island Bay, I was both luckier and wiser. This time, I hired a builder to come and give the house a thorough inspection, which included vigorously jumping up and down in the living room to test the sturdiness of the flooring and piles.

Needless to say, as a third-time buyer I was careful to check carefully about the sun: “So when does the afternoon sun set over that hill?” I asked the
real estate agent. “4.30pm in winter, 7.30pm in summer.”

“How can you know so exactly?”

“Because I live next door!” But try as you might to get every box ticked, with every house there’s a trade-off. My first Aro Valley house may not have had any sun, but at least the steep hills on three sides meant that it was protected from most winds. My Newtown house, on the hill beside Wellington Zoo, had great sun and was protected from the southerly, but was exposed to every howling northerly. My current Island Bay bungalow has reasonable protection from the northerly, but then there’s that chilly southerly. As a friend is fond of saying, “nowhere’s heaven” But even when you think you’ve made a huge purchase mistake, there’s often a solution. In my Aro Valley house, I had a skylight installed, which wrought a dramatic improvement: it meant a pillar of sunlight moved slowly across my living room sofa from mid-morning until mid-afternoon.

There wasn’t much I could do about the basic structural faults in my first two houses, but they’re both still standing – and even the back bedroom of my old Newtown villa still hasn’t fallen over. Soon after I sold my Newtown house, I received a polite phone call from the buyer. I’d forgotten to tell her there were broken hinges in the dining room window, and the first time she went to open it, it fell out on to the ground outside. As for that shonky back bedroom, for years afterwards I dreaded receiving a second phone call, but thankfully it never came. Which might have gone something like this: “I’m dreadfully sorry to tell you this David, but when I woke up this morning, my bed was in the back garden!” Yet for all my trials and tribulations, buying and selling houses have proven to be the best financial moves I ever made: after just five years in my Newtown house I sold it for over double what I paid, while after ten years in my first house I was able to quadruple money.

And did I need to worry about that borer in the attic? No, because the buyer made up his mind after sitting on my sunny sofa for just ten minutes!

Article Contributed By: David Burton

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