Entries from July 2013 ↓



Karen’s 28. Her squeeze is 34. “Here’s our crazy idea,” she wrote me, “drop out.”

It’s a radical thought for a couple of urbanites employed in the web design business who think a racy night is diddling with Zoocasa. At least they come here. “Love the blog. Read it for a reality check after searching for 7-figure homes in my T.O. neighbourhood.”

Here’s the crazy idea.

“My husband floated the idea of buying a farm somewhere remote in Canada to grow cash crops and manufacture liquor on site with the produce grown there, beer, cider, etc.  For some reason this didn’t seem entirely crazy to me.  Particularly faced with the prospect of heading into an unfulfilling job everyday in an economy that is not getting better.

“We have just over $100,000 in savings that we were keeping for a down payment on a house (ha) and don’t plan to do it for a few years to bump that up a bit.  If we do make the move, I work as a web designer and writer now and could do it freelance to pay the bill while the crops grow Tell me this is crazy and we can’t do it.  Tell me what we should do instead.”

Before that, a word from Franco. I eviscerated him a few months ago on this blog for wanting to move up to a bigger Vancouver condo because he has a wife and newborn. Ending up with a bigger debt on a doomed unit with no savings, I hissed, is the last thing a responsible dad and partner would do. It worked.

“You gave some sobering advice.  So I sat on it for a while and thought long and hard.  Then my wife said she can’t stand living here.  So off we went to find a rental and began the process of dabbling as landlords and putting our place up for rent.  After 10 days of no show craigslisters, questionable people from high school who coincidentally showed up to view and rent the place and a realization that unless I cheated on my taxes, I would not be able to break even every month off my rental, I decided to leverage the manipulated news of a housing recovery and put our place up.

“I took your advice and got a real pro realtor.  She found a buyer in 12 days.  I was relieved beyond belief.  Now we are feeling great.  We got a 2 bedroom just 4 blocks away in a building with better amenities than the last one and balconies overlooking beautiful English Bay and its stunning sunsets.  We now have a bunch of cash, I have a good job which pays 6 figures and I have a beautiful family to hug every day.  No Condominium investment will replace that euphoria.

“Since I took your advice and decided you were right, I now start to hope you are a little wrong about the decline targets you mention in your blog.  I hope it goes even lower.  I hope that sanity and reason are restored in a city where very few people make a mint (legally) to afford the prices that housing costs.  I am a convert to your ways.  I am not a sociopath, I just think it sucks that the country my parents immigrated to has so lost its ways and its potential.  I don’t know why we are so foolish.  People who do little “work” can sell concrete, steel and drywall boxes as the answer to some investment wet dream and call themselves professionals.  I have family in Germany.  You know what happens with apartments there?  They stay even or go down in value.  Over there, homes are for shelter, not some Tom Vu get rich quick scheme.  You want to get rich there, you build the best cars, trains and cranes, not ‘marketing systems’ like Bob Rennie and Brad Lamb. “

See? I’m not such a bad guy. Franco says he’s a Garth convert, and he’s not even ‘a sociopath’. Does an endorsement get any better?

So, I grouped these two notes (both received on Wednesday) because they share the theme of repudiation. You’ll be hearing a lot more about that in the time to come. Looks like things are going to turn out a tad worse than I’d been expecting, or hoping.

Our economy’s shifting into a lower gear, but most people have no clue it’s happening. It’s all around. Big corporate mergers (Loblaws-Shoppers, for example) are defensive moves and presage substantial job cuts. The potash thing this week is a national kneecapping. Torstar profits falling 44% is all you need to know about retailing. Now economist David Madani (Capital Economics) says growth will wither and the real estate soft landing the feds have been planning will end up being hard. “I think people are really under-estimating the risks to the housing market,” he says. “Is no one worried about this?”

Now consider this: 900,000 people work in Canada building houses and condos, compared with just 225,000 employed in the entire energy, oil & gas and mining sector. We’re losing manufacturing jobs at almost 4% a year, and adding drywallers and carpenters at about the same rate. The number of people who work making stuff is at an all-time low. The number of people who work building stuff’s at an all-time high.

So what? So we don’t export stacked townhouses or condos, like we do potash or airplanes. Cheap interest rates, house horniness and a new appetite for debt have massively distorted the Canadian economy. Like Vancouver or Saskatoon, we’re busy building a society in which we’re obsessed with selling each other bigger homes financed by money we borrow, not earn. It’s a house of cards.

Too much money has flowed into one sector, making us dependent on jobs which can only last if the house binge continues. But with record debt levels already here, it cannot. This should be self-evident. Madani’s right. No soft landing.

Franco was smart to exit. The best gift for his family was liquidity.

As for Karen, how can dropping out be crazy when it means debt freedom and self-sufficiency? Contrast your little farm life, a few hours’ drive from the city, with buying a million-dollar house in Toronto and a $900,000 mortgage. When you have digital skills, common sense and the courage to live off the established grid – despite the challenges that brings – why not try it? Besides, if it sucks you can just drink a lot.

It won’t be for everyone. But for many smart people who understand what lies ahead, the newest big idea is living small.



It’s only a thousand dollars, I know.  But last week I told you I would add nine hundred to the $100 this blog won for being weird, and donate it. I asked you for suggestions. You gave hundreds. Thank you.

Broadly speaking, you urged money for victimized animals and humans.  As a consequence I am sending two cheques for five hundred bucks, as detailed herein.


When the waters came, High River drowned. Residents had just hours, often minutes, to escape the historic floods. Many, too many, believed they would be back home soon. And so scores of animals were left behind to be retrieved later that day. But nobody came.

About two thousand dogs, cats and birds faced the deluge. Hundreds died alone. Over the next two weeks their remains were found by rescuers – soldiers, police and volunteers.

But about five hundred were rescued.


Sodden, scared and dazed, they were survivors of an event that exceeded the comprehension and experience of even their displaced owners. Over the course of two weeks, these animals were catalogued, housed, fed and loved. Others were picked up from the abandoned backdoors and parking lots where they emerged. The task of matching beast with owner was painstaking and slow. Every day all of these lives needed attention – food, clean water, medical treatment, shelter.

At the centre of it was Kim Hessel and her little Heaven Can Wait Animal Rescue Foundation, sited a few miles out of town. Kim and volunteers plucked animals to safety, and then gave them sanctuary, using everything from word of mouth to Facebook to try and reunite families

A few days ago, catching her breath, Kim shared these reflections:

Some of the things I can’t forget … the look on Cathy Dudgeon’s face to realize that the 3 “strays” in Wire Crate A were actually hers. Mary Ellen leaning over the crate to gently stroke her ancient cat that Mike had just pulled out of her upstairs bedroom after 9 days. Meeting Sarah at Checkpoint and knowing from the grief in her eyes that she’d seen something too sad for words. Teresa gently touching a woman’s back as she wept to find her cat. Steph calling me from the Firehall to say she’d found my mother, who despite her dementia, had recognized my truck. My beautiful friend Sandy for taking care of her when I couldn’t.

Seeing Judy asleep on my couch and allowing myself a moment to imagine how I would feel had I lost my home, and admiring her fortitude to give back at a time when she had nothing. Holding Ponn’s wee rabbit as she died in my arms. How thankful I was to see Angie pull in the yard to pick up snakes in pillow cases and trust that she knew how to care for them. Marcia with a bearded dragon across her chest to warm him up. The exhaustion in Teresa’s face as we sat at the computer at 1 AM to update the intake spreadsheet, knowing she had kids at home who missed her. Rick bringing me a cat covered in sludge so thick I couldn’t tell what color he was, only that his eyes were yellow.

Heaven Can Wait was overwhelmed, but coped heroically, even as it was in the midst of trying to find a new, permanent home for its shelter and adoption program. Our small amount will assist in that effort.


As much time as I can find is spent living in a small town, away from the cacophony, conflict and unpredictability of the big city. After a week or two, you expect to see the same faces at the market, walking the shoreline, gassing up or in the bank. People grow up, age or fade. They don’t just vanish.

Three weeks ago dozens did. Not in my town, but it was no less real. Watching the fireballs explode across my television screen, I could only imagine the anguish of families whose sons, daughters, wives and husbands had just been lost. Death rolled down the hill in the familiar form of tanker cars. Lac-Mégantic turned into hell.


On the weekend mourners jammed a local church for a memorial service, while the crowds outside stretched away for blocks. The heavy equipment and dozens of workers picking through a mountain of melted, twisted, tormented debris, halted their work in respect. There were more victims to find, many lives to repair.

Two hundred families still cannot go home. Most businesses downtown are gone. The local economy is largely destroyed. The railway carcasses can be hauled off and the funerals held, but the residue of this disaster will last for years. Decades, perhaps.

Only seven million dollars has been generated to date, which is too little. Large donors have been hard to find, to rescue a small town in Quebec few had heard of. It’s a low-profile version of Hades. So thank goodness for the Red Cross.

The Lac-Mégantic Support Fund is flowing money to help kids who lost parents, people now lacking jobs, businesses without premises and the newly homeless. Of every dollar, 95 cents goes to the affected. Now there are five hundred more.


Your guidance was valuable. I liked writing the cheques. Let us do this again.