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A heritage lover hunts for a house to buy in Hamilton's hot housing market

If you think fixing up Hamilton gems like Dundurn Castle for your day job would make your own house hunt a bit complicated, you'd be right.

First-time homebuyer Ashleigh Bell began her search nearly 2 years ago

Ashleigh Bell just closed on an old brick house in Beasley after her house hunt lasted nearly two years. (Kelly Bennett)

Many house-hunters say they're looking for something with character, but not many use the precise, historic lingo for windowsills and transoms and baseboards that rolls off Ashleigh Bell's tongue.

Bell is a designer and conservationist who coordinates heritage restorations at the city. 

If you think fixing up Hamilton gems like Dundurn Castle for your day job would make your own house hunt a bit complicated, you'd be right. 

On top of that, her nearly two-year search coincided with one of the hottest housing markets in Hamilton's history, where investors and flippers have eyed some central Hamilton neighbourhoods as potential profit generators for the first time in decades.

Prices in central Hamilton have been climbing the fastest of anywhere in the region, by double digits compared to the previous year. Homes that sold in November in central Hamilton sold for 18 per cent more than sales in the same area in November 2014, according to the Realtors Association of Hamilton-Burlington. 

I'm not doing this because I want to make $100,000. I'm doing it because I want a home.- Ashleigh Bell

That has made Bell's hunt feel even more urgent: Find a place and win a possible bidding war for it before someone modernizes the interior looking for a quick profit. 

Bell, 30, is the kind of quirky soul who loves those old wooden cabinets that a TV-show flipper personality might rip out at first sight. Even if they're painted lime green, she can see past it, to the potential for a "light touch" on an old house. 

For Bell, it's an environmental question as much as it's a historical one. How much material is wasted every time a house is gutted and redone? She thinks restoring and reinstalling original features can lead to less waste in the future. 

She has a distaste for plastic and synthetics. "Classical design features, proper proportions and authentic, handcrafted materials like wood, plaster, and glass never go out of style," she said.

And now, having just closed on her first house, she's got her work cut out for her.

A heartbreaking search 

Stained glass windows and natural light were selling features for Ashleigh Bell. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)
Over the past two years, Bell has seen maybe 30 houses, she guesses. She's fallen in love with one or two, heartbreaks she remembers with some emotion still, and put in a handful of offers.
I don't have a lot of money, but I do have a lot of energy and love.- Ashleigh Bell

She lost one bidding war in the summer of 2014 on a row house west of Victoria Park with one of those doors that the top and bottom halves open separately. Another heartbreak came that fall in Barton Village, where the seller chose an offer without conditions over Bell's requirement for financing and a home inspection.

"I had this weird crestfallen feeling in my chest all day," she said.

She pulled out the stops familiar to any house-hunter in Hamilton's frenzied low-priced tiers: She wrote letters to the sellers, pleading her case, detailing her hopes of getting to know the neighbourhood and investing the way she imagined the previous owners doing.

"I don't have a lot of money, but I do have a lot of energy and love," she said.

The competitiveness of the market in her price point — originally less than $200,000 — meant she knew she had to make a special case. 

"There's all these other value systems that can apply to a house," she said. "I'm not doing this because I want to make $100,000. I'm doing it because I want a home." 

A pink Victorian

The house features a grand stairway in its front entrance. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)
Finally, she found it. 

After so many near- and far-misses, Bell took the price limit off of her search on the online listings, just to see if there was something near the core that suited her fancy.

She found one house, a Victorian in Beasley, that had been sitting on the market for a couple of months. She and her realtor hoped that would mean she could negotiate a lower price. 

It has vibrant stained glass windows, a big, grand hallway, pristine exterior paint in a surprising purple-and-pink motif. It has grand front rooms that could hold gatherings, a bedroom or two she could make available to friends needing short-term places to stay. 

She dreamed of ripping up the carpets on the upstairs floors, hoping she'd find original wood underneath. 

And for nearly all of these tasks she has the benefit of having friends and family who know what they're doing — artisans and craftspeople she went to school with at Willowbank School in Niagara. 

She went for it, and got the house for about 20 per cent under its asking price, a deal she swung after an inspection revealed some significant upgrades were needed. 

She's borrowing some money, and physical labour, from family to help her knock off those initial projects: The house is 80 per cent knob-and-tube wiring, there's carpet to be ripped up and painting to do. In the spring, she'll need to redo the roof. 

Now she's experiencing feelings familiar to people who've just bought a house: Unseen costs, an every-lengthening to-do list. 

But there are bright spots: The other afternoon, her new neighbour brought over a wreath for her door. Friends and family have already invested hours and hours of sweat equity. 

And Bell said she's excited about the potential that investments in Hamilton's housing stock, especially among its older homes, can have.

"This upswing in interest has brought fresh energy and investment to many forgotten places in need of work," she said. "We just need to remember to respect these places throughout the rejuvenation processes."

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca | @kellyrbennett

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