Real Estate

Buy the Way: This couple stretched their budget after a difficult medical diagnosis

couple Jen Pogue and Warren Sonoda stand together in the sunroom at the their cottage Photo courtesy Jen Pogue and Warren Sonoda

The search: Toronto couple Jen Pogue and Warren Sonoda had been saving to buy property downtown. It had taken years—working in the film industry means that their income comes in on a job-to-job basis. Then, in early 2021, Jen was diagnosed with an incurable form of stage 4 metastatic triple-negative breast cancer. “With a diagnosis like that, it changes your priorities,” says Warren. It accelerated their property hunt, but the couple wasn’t impressed with what $500,000-$600,000 afforded them in the city. So, they expanded their search to cottage country. That summer, while renting on Lake Kennisis, Ont., they found a riverfront, three-season, A-frame for $499,000. “We offered $570,000 thinking, that’s competitive,” says Warren. It wasn’t—the property sold for $830,000.

The couple enlisted the help of realtor Carl Laudan, a former colleague. “Having someone who was a friend and a former filmmaker was a game-changer for us,” says Warren. “He understood what we needed and our situation, specifically as film people.” One night, Warren, who had become something of a savant, found a 1,100 sq. ft., three-bedroom cottage on Cordova Lake, Ont., listed at $614,000. Upon visiting the place, it felt right immediately. “We looked at each other and said, ‘okay, how do we make this work?’ ” says Jen.

The compromise: Comparable cottages in the area were going for $800,000—and competition was fierce. “On bid night, I was sweating out of places I didn’t know I could sweat out of,” says Jen. In a final push, the couple made an unconditional offer, and Jen wrote a letter to the sellers describing why they wanted the place. It worked— they got it for $777,000. Jen and Warren faced an additional hurdle to close. Because of their variable income, a traditional mortgage wasn’t an option. They secured financing through a B-Lender (an alternative lender, such as a non-traditional bank or a credit union) and by putting 35 per cent down.

the sunroom at Jen Pogue and Warren Sonoda's cottage
Photo courtesy Jen Pogue and Warren Sonoda

The silver lining: “Early on in my diagnosis, I learned to invent a safe, happy place in my mind that I could go to during anxious times,” says Jen. “Mine was immediately and vividly a cottage.” A year on, the couple still feel like the budget stretch was worth it. “When we bought the cottage, I didn’t know if I’d get to see what the summer sun looked like there,” says Jen. “The thought of dying before I had a chance to spend the money I had worked so hard for on something I loved is definitely what propelled me to go all in on our cottage.”

Broker advice: Mortgage strategies for freelancers

Having a variable income is common, and it won’t preclude you from applying for a cottage mortgage. “Anytime there’s a variance, lenders want to see an average of the last two years,” says Andrew Thake, a mortgage broker in Ottawa. If your average isn’t high enough, a broker can help you put together a financial plan. If you’re planning to buy in the next two years, “we could structure your tax filings around that purchase,” says Thake. That may mean not writing off as many expenses, but it will show the lender that you have the income. Plus, you can be saving and looking for a cottage simultaneously, even if you aren’t pre-approved yet. Mortgage brokers can also help you survey alternative lending (B-Lending) or private lending (C-Lending), in addition to exploring the best rates across traditional banks. “We know which lenders are going to be the right fit,” says Thake. And even if you start with an alternative lender, you’re not locked into that model. “We can help you even after you own the cottage to get you back to a traditional lender.”

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