Do I Own this? The Property Purchase from Hell

It all started as an impulse buy. My buddy and business partner Blair had overheard me fantasizing with another buddy about buying a rural property and setting up a sick-ass remote HAM radio site. Blair then took it upon himself to search for some suitable properties, I guess it was a slow day at the office. After a few hours and what seemed like a thousand descriptions of basically the same thing my ears perked up when I heard “this one already comes with Satellite Dishes.” I wandered over to his desk – my curiosity was piqued.

The original listing for 4810 Royal St

Sure enough the description of the property described it as being “Formerly used for a cable TV tower” and Street View of the property showed 3 10ft dishes out back. While on the outside I chuckled at the idea, the bug had been firmly planted in my head and the asking price of $6K was just low enough that I could throw some disposable income at it. I had some thinking to do.

Couple days later I sent an email to the realtor asking some routine questions confirming things like the property taxes, was the title clear, oh and did it come with the dishes? Her answer was encouraging “the lot does still have 3 satellites on the property that will stay in as-is condition.” My thinking intensified.

At this point if it wasn’t obvious I was seriously considering buying this chunk of land. I floated the idea by my parents and their response was that it “wasn’t the worst idea I had ever had.” Sounded pretty close to a glowing endorsement to me! Their only real word of advice was to caution me against buying a property sight unseen – who knew what horrors the nearly 10 year old street view images hid.

Fortunately, I ended up in Calgary (about a 3 hour drive away) for an unrelated work tip which provided a too-good-to pass-up opportunity to take some time and make the drive to Coronation and check out the property for myself. I shan’t bore you with the details of the trip since I cover it in a separate blog post, but the long and the short of it was that there were no major red flags raised to me – the building was in good shape and had hookups for power and DSL, the satellite dishes were still in place and in remarkably good shape, and there was nothing standing out as a huge problem – except maybe the presence of a massive, chest-high spool of conduit that I would potentially need to do something with.

The property as I found it in July of 2023

While the outside of the property looked pretty good, I sadly didn’t get a chance to peak inside the shed. While the realtor had promised to try and put me in touch with someone in town who had the keys, despite multiple emails during my week-long Calgary retreat no such person was made available. As it would turn out, this level of responsiveness was foreshadowing the struggle to come, but at this point my spidey senses were not yet tingling.

Purchasing the Property

I think everyone knows where this is going. On July 23rd I submitted an offer of $4000 to buy the property, assuming the seller would counter somewhere around $5000. By end of business on July 24th I had signed the official offer letter which was submitted to the seller (Eastlink). Even though this was such a minor property purchase, I still felt a tingling of anticipation as I anxiously waited for a response.

A week goes by with no update. I email the realtor asking if she had heard anything. August 2nd I get a reply – she had verbal confirmation that my offer was accepted. No counter-offer but she still needed to receive the signed paperwork. Great! Things were finally moving in the correct direction! And no counter? Guess I should have really low-balled them.

Another week goes by with no update. August 9th, I am just getting ready to email the realtor again when low and behold my inbox lights up like a Christmas tree. We have a countersigned offer! Hallelujah! Possession date of September 1st. We already needed to make amendments to the purchase agreement since the original date to pay the deposit had passed while waiting for acceptance, but I happily initialed and signed my life away. At long last things were moving forward!

At this point I had a signed purchase offer but needed an Alberta lawyer to complete the title transfer on my behalf. Fortunately, my realtor was able to recommend someone and promised to introduce us, however, by August 12th I still hadn’t heard anything so I took it upon myself to reach out and get in touch with the lawyer. I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email the next day confirming that they would be able to represent me and asking for the conveyancing documents from the realtor. Fantastic!

The one hitch here was that I needed to arrange for a video call to sign the paperwork in front of my lawyer and then get it couriered out ASAP to their offices ahead of closing. I guess e-signatures aren’t a thing in Alberta real-estate? Nevertheless, I was just happy to have some traction, and the expense of the courier was just the cost of doing business.

It was now Friday and, after contacting my realtor, I was assured the documents would be sent out on Monday. Wednesday arrived and I still hadn’t heard anything from either of them. I email the lawyer, he has to follow up with his assistant to see if the documents had been received. I email the realtor, she has to follow-up with her assistant to see if they had been sent. By now it was just under two weeks until the closing date. My anxiety increased 10%.

Friday arrives, I am just getting ready to send an irritated email to both the lawyer and the realtor when I hear back from the lawyer – documents have been received and they were working on putting everything together! Hooray! Maybe I actually can get this all together before the September 1st closing.

On Monday I receive a phone call from the lawyer’s assistant confirming some details. Awesome, I think to myself, things are finally happening! By Wednesday though still nothing back from the lawyer so I send another email. Anxiety increases by another 10%.

Friday arrives and I am actually able to schedule a video call for Monday of next week. I complete the video call, sign the paperwork and spend $80 to courier it FedEx overnight to the offices of the lawyer. Finally, I can sit back and relax until the property gracefully transfers into my name. Oh, how wrong I was.

Friday, September 1st arrives. Closing day. My phone rings with an Alberta area code on the caller ID. I pick it up – it’s my lawyer calling with bad news. Eastlink (the property owners) haven’t signed their side of the documents which are required before the deal can close. My lawyer figured they can have them signed by Wednesday of next week and I am given three options: I can delay closing, I can walk away from the deal with no penalty or I can try and sue them. I take door number one and delay closing until next week. Same day my realtor emails to congratulate me on the property purchase (bwahahahaha). She also informs me that the seller never managed to find the keys to the building, but did replace the lock and left the keys for me in a safe spot. She also informed me they would be removing the giant spool of conduit in the coming days. At least there was some good news.

Wednesday arrives, I reach out to the lawyers – still no documents. So glad I spent $80 to get my documents to them ASAP when the seller can apparently delay indefinitely with no consequence. The rest of the week finishes with no word. Monday, September 11th. One full week after the original closing date and I still haven’t heard anything. I email my lawyer again: “Do I actually own this property!?” and am informed that the deal has finally closed. I still wonder if anyone was going to actually tell me this?

I ask about any sort of official documentation showing the transfer of title and am informed that the land title office takes up to 3 months to actually process title transfers. 2023 and they are still blaming the delays on COVID. Fucking fantastic, I get to hold on to my signed purchase agreement as the only proof that I own this piece of land. At least it was now technically mine and I could head out there to start working on the site. More details on that in my next post.

Getting Power to the Site

Of course the entire wonderful purchase experience was happening at the same time I was trying to arrange for power to be activated. On my July trip to the property I noted that it did have a meter box (although the meter had been removed) and conduit disappearing into the ground, so I assumed activating power would be fairly straightforward. Oh, how wrong I was!

On my original visit I confirmed there did appear to be a power hookup

The first thing I needed to do was actually figure out who to contact about getting power service. In the vast majority of North America (and probably the rest of the world) you call up the local power company and ask for a hookup. The company may be either a private corporation, or government run but the process is the same; one company to deal with, but not in Alberta, oh no! Alberta has the most unique electricity retail system in North America, their website is full of confusing acronyms like ASEO, AUC and the MSA. What in the hell was I reading? I just wanted to buy power for my little shack!

After spending what felt like an hour of homework I came to some level of understanding of how electricity in Alberta works. End users purchase power from an energy retailer. These energy retailers are companies who exist for the sole purpose of being middle-men. The retailer purchases power from the generating companies and sell it to the end user at a mark-up. Many energy retailers will also allow you to bundle other services like Internet, TV or natural gas. I had to find an energy retailer who serviced my area and set up an agreement with them to buy power.

Fine, I can deal with this but who to buy from? The Alberta government does offer one helpful tidbit – they operate a website which lists all the possible energy retailers you can by from. I scrolled through the list and found someone with a small monthly admin fee, but at the cost of slightly more per Kwh. This was fine by me as my expected usage was going to be extremely low anyway.

After selecting my retailer I signed up on their website and received an email confirmation that my request was being processed. Fantastic, let’s see how long they take to get back to me.

As it would turn out, dealing with my energy retailer was even more frustrating them dealing with my realtor and lawyer. After about two weeks of hearing nothing, I call them to ask whats up. They say they were having problems running a credit check against me and was I a new resident to Canada? Nope! I’ve lived here all my life and even have a mortgage (for my actual house, not this silly hobby property) so I’m pretty sure I can qualify for a few bucks a month of power usage. I provide some additional information and am assured that they would get back in touch.

Another week goes by. I call again. This time the credit check is good but they are having trouble locating my service address. We go over some standard questions – Am I sure the address is correct, is it on a corner lot, etc. They can’t find it in their system, they need something called a site ID to help any further. At this point I am introduced to the third level of abstraction in Alberta’s convoluted power model – the role of the transmission company.

Let’s back up for a second. During my hour of homework I had discovered that power producers sell energy to retailers who then sell to consumers. I had (wrongly) assumed that they (the power generators) were also responsible for maintaining the transmission lines between the generating facilities and the customers. In reality, there is actually a 3rd player in the mix who doesn’t sell power and doesn’t generate power but does operate the physical electrical grid. I was exasperated! Of course there is yet another player in this mix, because why not add another layer of inefficiency into the system. To add to the confusion there are multiple companies who maintain transmission infrastructure in the province (of course there are!) and my retailer had to find the correct one for me to call.

Back to the story (rant?) and my retailer gives me the number for ATCO – the company who maintains the transmission infrastructure in the region my property was located in. I had to call them, figure out the site ID and then call my retailer back. Awesome, I love spending my days playing telephone tag.

I hang up with the retailer and make a new call to ATCO. Surprisingly, I am only on hold for about 30 seconds before someone picks up on the other end. I explain my situation, that I had bought a property and was trying to get it re-activated, but my retailer has having trouble finding the service ID. The women from ATCO seems to have the same problem – can’t find the property. I’m asked the same series of questions – “is it a corner lot?” “does it border another street?” After some humming and hawing I am asked if I know the last time power was active? “I know it had power about 8 years ago, but I’m not sure when it was disconnected.” “hmm” she replies, “this makes sense with what I am seeing here.” Turns out when power was disconnected, it was really disconnected. As in, the lines were physically disconnected from the building. This meant that I would now need to submit a project proposal for a brand new electrical hookup. Fantastic, more good news. This property of mine was quickly becoming a lemon. I am advised that the planning department would get back to me in a couple of business days. By this point it is somewhere around August 30 (yes, I was ordering power before I technically owned the property), and I am hoping to have electrical service by my planned trip out there on September 12th. I communicate this and am advised that they will try to expedite the request on their side.

A couple of days go by and I am surprised when my phone rings and it’s ATCO calling. Finally, someone who actually did what they promised and followed up. The call from my expeditor (I guess it’s this dude’s entire job to try and speed things up – says a lot for the length of time this was probably going to take) goes reasonably well and I am told he hopes to have a site ID generated by the end of the week. Friday arrives and no site ID, but at least I get an email follow-up saying my request had been handed off to a colleague (they have at least two expeditors on staff then). Monday arrives, then Tuesday and I call the new dude and am informed it’s still being worked on, but that they hope it will be “soon.” I ask what the lead time is and am told that because I could be connected to an existing transformer it would likely be only a few business days. Hooray! I might be able to get this sorted before my arrival after all.

The rest of the week plays out and late in the week I get another call. Bad news – the planning department screwed up and the transformer they thought I was going to be connected to was, in fact, on the other side of town. MY transformer (which is literally beside my property) was already overloaded and would need to be replaced before they could light up my service. I am informed that because the transformer is already overloaded, I wouldn’t have to pay for it but that it wouldn’t be attended to until next spring, some 6 months away. Fucking great.

So, here I was with a newly purchased property, flights booked for me and a couple friends to start doing some work on it and no possibility of power for the foreseeable future. I had two options – forgo the trip (likely forfeiting the cost of the airfair) or try and build out an off-grid solar system to power my shack. For better or for worse I chose the latter.

Now, the first thing to understand about off grid solar systems is that that are expensive as hell. The expense does not originate with the panels or the charger, but in the batteries because, you needed to be able to run for as many days as there was no sun. Fortunately, Alberta is sunny as heck, and the maximum runtime I should need with 0 sun was between 3 and 4 days. The bad news is that I still needed a HELL of a lot of battery capacity. Doing some napkin math, if I wanted to run a 25W load 24×7 off a 12V battery bank, I would need to have 150AH of capacity. Add to it that Lead Acid batteries shouldn’t be discharged to more then 50% you get 300AH of required battery capacity, or around $1000 in batteries. I didn’t even want to THINK about what a 200W load would require (the rough usage of a small server to ingest satellite TV streams). I decided to roll with a minimum viable solar solution to run a couple of cameras, and Internet connection and a small management computer to track things like temperature and solar capacity. This would bring me a bit under my 25W threshold. Trying to build out an off-grid solar solution would present a lot of unique challenges, but that dear reader will come in another blog post.

My solar charge controller. Spoiler alert, I did get it working.

Of course while I was becoming an expert at off-grid solar solutions I was corresponding with yet another person at ATCO – this time a P.Eng who was putting together drawings and a proposal document outlining the installation once the transformer was figured out. At some point I finally get a quote for how much this was going to cost me – just over $1300! It was expensive, bordering on unreasonable, but my alternative was to pay over $10K in additional solar panels and batteries so I agreed.

One thing never sat quite right with me though and that was the fact that ATCO was accounting for a whole new aerial line to be brought into my building. Something that just didn’t jive with the underground conduit I knew was feeding my meter box. I went back to review the photos I took of the site, and suddenly I had an ah ha moment! The previous owners had run conduit to the pole and then installed the service mast right on the power pole itself!

My property’s service mast was on the actual pole!

I had never seen anything like this before and it seemed sketchy as hell to me, however, browsing street view of the town I counted at least 4 other installs that looked exactly like mine. Perhaps this was a legit way of installing power?

I sent these findings to my engineer and he accepted this as a viable solution. Apparently this type of install is called an “underground secondary” and is common with short buildings that are not tall enough to meet the legal requirements of a aerial service mast. Even though it greatly simplified my built out it sadly had no impact on my costs. At least I no longer needed to hire an electrician to build a brand new service mast on the property, a small win but I’ll take it.

Of course, my trials and tribulations didn’t end there. I needed to get an electrician out to the property to inspect the system and issue an installation permit. Off to the Coronation Happenings Facebook group I went in search of a recommendation, and, based on the responses called a local electrical company. I explain my situation and am told that it shouldn’t be a problem and that someone would give me a call back in a day or so. I never received a call back, but following up on this was now low on my priority list (owing to the fact I wouldn’t need anything until 2024) so I let it go for the time being.

As I write this my battle with ATCO is still ongoing. Because the land title office takes so damn long to process changes, actually convincing them that I own the property was an interesting challenge, since the official title still shows Eastlink. Once that was sorted, I found myself struggling to actually pay them. On October 19th I received an invoice by email (with a due date of the 18th – not sure how that was supposed to work) and instructions to call them to arrange for payment. I call, and am told I need to give my credit card info over the phone, something I flatly refuse to do on principal (it’s 2023 for fuck’s sake – online payment processing has been a thing for 2 decades) and so I am instead given EFT information to send a direct bank transfer. One trip to the bank later and the teller informs me that my bank doesn’t do EFTs (or he had no idea how to do it and just wanted me to go away). I’m advised to go visit a branch of ATCO’s bank and try to deposit cash directly into their account. Umm….. what? And so it was that I found myself writing a cheque to physically mail. I hope it’s just as difficult for them to receive my payment as it has been for me to send it!

And I thought that would be it for my dealings with ATCO in 2023, but then in late October a surprise email – “Thank you for working with us on your electric service needs. We completed our work on the project on October 27, 2023” say what!? I checked the camera footage from that date (the off grid solar solution was good for something) and sure enough there were a bunch of ATCO guys around my property and one of them even climbed the pole next to my property! Had my luck finally turned?

ATCO actually showed up early to connect my property!

Back to the phone I went, to call my energy retailer and request that the property be “energized.” They accepted the request and by the end of the week I was told the property was powered up. Thursday rolls around and another 587 number pops up on my caller ID. It’s ATCO calling, apparently my meter box is either too old or is busted and they can’t physically install the meter. I’ll need to get an electrician out to replace the entire thing, then it should be an easy process. I check the camera footage, and sure enough the dude did really try to get that meter installed, spent over an hour at it but alas it was not meant to be. The final thing I see him doing is climbing the pole, presumably to disconnect my wires again. For the briefest of moments my property had power. Now where did I leave the electrician’s number…

Overall, this property purchase has been one of the most frustrating experiences of my life. The delays, setbacks and hoops to jump through have all been an order of magnitude worse then when I purchased my actual house – and that process involved the added headache of financing and a property inspection. Had this trivial purchase been my first experience with property ownership, I likely would have committed to renting for the rest of my life. I learned a few valuable lessons in this process, never assume that your realtor is correct when they say you have power (call to confirm), never assume people will follow up with you (get ready to make some phone calls) and never assume Eastlink will do anything quickly. Valuable lessons for the future. Nevertheless, I think I might finally be over the hump, and perhaps in 2024 I can blog about how I’m actually using my little rural hobby property. That is, unless the universe has some more complications lying in wait for me.

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