Update on Project “House by the Sea”

How we found and fell in love with our new home up north

As many of you know, my first and most important project this year is called «house by the sea» – this was the working title my husband and I set out with when it became clear to me that I want to leave my job.

Very quickly I started imagining what it would be like to not only quit this one job and look for a new one but take a break from the corporate world altogether to do something completely different for a while (or forever – we’ll see :-)). This is how the idea of a house by the sea was formed. I wanted Ireland – Klaus preferred Germany and in the end we settled for looking at northern Germany for various reasons (e.g. Brexit) and from there a plan started to take shape. Today, after a good three months off work as we know it, I would like to give you a little overview and share how the house project has been evolving.

So, first things first: Much earlier than expected, we found our house

It’s a beautiful old country house, just south of Flensburg on the countryside. We are planning for the move to take place in two phases. Phase one takes us out of Switzerland and into a temporary accommodation close to the new house; this will happen in March while the house is being refurbished. Phase two will see us moving into the house properly and we are planning for this to take place end of April or beginning of May. Of course, with an old building like this you can never really tell what kind of surprises it holds, hence the architect and builders are a bit apprehensive to commit to a deadline.

Now, Let me share with you the story of how it happened along a couple of learnings and tips in case you ever want to do something similar.

Our new house, an “old lady”, built in 1910. She has character and potential and when we met her we just knew “this is it”

Top tip one: Start with a list of criteria, a budget and plenty of time

We parked the cat with my cousin and her family and spent one week up north in December, just to get an initial overview of the property market. We had rented a house right on the beach close to Eckernförde as our base camp. With nine viewings on both coastlines (east and westm but mostly east) lined up for the first week, we did not expect much and would have been perfectly fine returning after that without a house that fits the bill. The plan was to go for a second, longer house hunt at the end of January anyway, so we had no pressure. And maybe it was this circumstance that made us approach the first week with a relaxed and open-minded attitude. I like to believe, it might have panned out differently if we would have been under large amounts of stress.

Phoebe did not come up north with us all the way. Here it may look like she enjoys being in the car but I can tell you we had a couple of intense hours (all of us) between Zurich and Koblenz

It might be interesting to also shed some light on the criteria we had. Number one on our list was “quiet” – after having lived between a busy road and railway tracks for more than three years, and with both of us working from home in the future, it was no surprise that this aspect featured prominently. Other things we found important were a good internet connection (no, that is still not standard in rural parts of Germany), being able to go on countryside walks right from our doorstep, a beach in no more than 15 minutes driving distance, grocery shopping possible by bike or on foot, a nicely sized garden and some privacy.

We also agreed we did not want a massive modernisation project dragging out across several years nor did we particularly like the idea of buying a house that looks exactly like its 15 closest neighbours. We were after something with character, something cosy and unique but “liveable” right away. Our list of criteria helped us to narrow the candidates down so that we only arranged viewings for the objects that seemed like they could fit the bill to a large degree.

Windmill “Charlotte” close to Gelting is a reminder of a not too distant past where these windmills were used to drain the land for agriculture. Nowadays, the are is a nature reserve and Charlotte is home to a family.

Top tip two: Adjust your idea of “perfect” when you’re on a budget and explore the surroundings

We remained realistic in that the perfect mansion that ticks all boxes and is well within our allocated budget would likely not exist. Of course, a house right by the sea would have been awesome, but we quickly figured that something like the holiday rental on the beach that we stayed at would have been roughly three times our budget.

With every viewing we were also able to get to know different landscapes in northern Germany. There are completely flat plains with trees that grow at an angle, battered by near-constant wind from the west. There is hilly terrain and there are larger patches of forests, which surprised us.

On the North Sea side the climate is a lot rougher than on the Baltic Sea side in the east. Also, with sea levels rising, the flatter landscape facing west is more prone to flooding in the next decades. We visited an adorable little town called Friedrichstadt in the west that looks like a pocket-sized version of Amsterdam. We also discovered that on the east side, the comparatively “milder” climate can still be rough enough: A walk on a sandy beach at 8-9 Beaufort is not exactly a pleasant experience (#abgekaerchert) and gusts like these are not uncommon in wintertime there at all.

Where the river Elbe kisses the north sea, giant cargo ships pass by on their way to and from Hamburg, spreading a notion of the big wide world

Top tip three: Listen the “this could be the one” feeling

Our new home was the seventh one we looked at and we fell in love immediately. It did not fit all the criteria perfectly, needless to say, but we both exchanged glances during the viewing and felt like “this could be it.” The house felt cosy and interesting, welcoming and with a pleasant energy about it. When I saw the workshop shed which is now used for storage by the owner I immediately started imagining how this could be turned into a lofty guesthouse or a yoga studio. When we sat down with the estate agent at the end of the viewing, I tried to play poker-face while Klaus announced proudly “I am very excited about this one!” What? Ok, so those who know Klaus will understand that he as a scientist and critical thinker by nature rarely comes to such a profoundly positive judgement so quickly. Which led me to drop the attempt of keeping a cool demeanour and we just let things roll from there.

Top tip four: Get a second opinion and widen the perspective

After having seen our top candidate, we cancelled the other viewings that were planned for the following day and invested more time instead into getting to know the surroundings and the village and visited the house again at a different time of day. We talked to a neighbour we could get hold of, had a look at the closest restaurant, the closest shop and took in the atmosphere of the village on a little stroll and of course we got to know Flensburg, such a vibrant and perky city.

We also cross-checked the offer with friends who are experienced in buying and refurbishing old houses and from the exposé and the pictures they found very little to be cautious about which encouraged us to go ahead. We also asked an independent architect for an assessment to be sure that there is nothing seriously wrong that we could have overlooked.

A typical coffee shop in Flensburg, closest city to the new home. Fittingly, this place is called “Plan B” 🙂

Top tip five: Estate Agents – Give the benefit of the doubt and don’t tolerate poor performance

For sure this profession hasn’t got the best reputation and in many cases rightfully so. That does, however, not mean that all of them are lazy and/or have a somewhat loose relationship to honesty. I know from own experience what it’s like to be pigeonholed into a pre-formed image so I prefer to give people the benefit of the doubt. It is probably not a coincidence that of the seven different agents we met, we bought with the one we found most trustworthy, competent, easy to work with and likeable. Also in this line of work, #customerexperience is key; maybe even more so than in a business where you sell something that is of a consistent style and quality.

We as customers appreciate someone who takes us and their job seriously and is easy to get along with. The seriousness we gauged pretty quickly based on the speed and quality of responses as well as the quality and amount of documentation. One agent honestly expected we should put in an offer after having provided us with neither a floor plan nor an energy certificate. What?!

So, I hope that some of this was useful or at least entertaining for you. Maybe you found some similarities to your own experience or maybe something surprised you? Let me know! I will keep you updated on how things evolve and will take this opportunity to thank all the people who helped us in this endeavour so far – be it with coaching, tips and advice, cat-sitting, accommodation, etc.

This is how the beaches on the eastern costline typically look like. In a couple of months’ time, we will be finding our “favourite beach in the vicinity”, I hope

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