Do College Costs + Retirement = Canada?

Between the economic free fall and putting kids through college, retiring is a long ways away.
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"So how long do you plan to keep working?" asked a friend recently, after he went on about his own crafty retirement plan (take his pension at 65, sell his Massachusetts house and move to Florida, play tennis year-round, live happily ever after).

"Um. Forever?" I suggested. "I plan to die at my keyboard."

I wasn't joking. Between the economic free fall and putting kids through college, my husband and I will be working for the rest of our lives.

That's why we made an offer on a house in Canada yesterday.

Why Canada? I've loved Prince Edward Island, Canada, ever since I started vacationing there some 15 years ago. The island is gorgeous (see photos at, laid back, friendly, green-minded, and there's fiddle music everywhere you go. It felt like home the first moment I hiked the red dirt roads between flowering potato fields.

"Yes, that's fine, but what about the winter?" various friends countered, so I tried traveling to PEI then, too, and found other things to love, like the ice fishing shacks stacked like bright Legos along Malpeque Bay and the snow tornadoes rising like long-skirted fairies in the fields.

But I digress. We made an offer on a house located in the remote eastern corner of PEI because there's no way that my husband and I can afford to retire here in the U.S. We haven't seen the inside of the house -- there was no realtor around, and we had to leave the next day -- but we peered into the windows from the rotted deck, and we'd seen the listing sheet online. We know that this farmhouse supposedly has five bedrooms and two bathrooms. We also know that the house is being sold "as is." That's a little scary, because Canadian realtors tend to be honest to a fault. When I surf with these simple criteria: "Prince Edward Island, $25,000 to $75,000 price range, two bedrooms or more," I regularly read descriptions like these: "This house has been neglected. Needs a strong arm." Or, "Small country home that has been left vacant for a few years. Needs a real clean up. The property has no source of heat. Had a wood stove and previous owner took it."

With this particular house, the phrase that struck me was this one: "Being sold with furnishings and other items too numerous to mention." What happened to the owner, I wondered, that he would flee or fade away without emptying his house?

Finally, I called our realtor, Anne. She's a trim, no-nonsense woman who used to make her living fishing for lobster. Last summer, she showed me a few houses while wearing knee-high green rubber boots. "I don't know where the old fella went that lived there," she said, "but I can call his nephew down the road and find out more if you're interested."

That's how the island works: if you know one person, you know six, without any degrees of separation. When Anne called back, though, she couldn't tell me much. Apparently this was an estate sale, someone's children selling it for someone who had died. The old fella, presumably.

"What about the septic system?" I asked.

"Doubt anybody knows much about that," Anne said.

"How do I know if I'd have to replace it?"

"Guess you'd have to just dig it up," she said. "But I wouldn't recommend it. You might want to leave it be."

"You mean we'd just buy the house, and hope for the best?" I asked.

"That's about the size of things," she said. "If it fails, you'd know it."

This did not sound promising. On the other hand, if the old fella hadn't been using the septic system in a while, everything probably had time to drain.

So we made the offer, and now we're waiting to see if it was accepted. We'll find out this Friday. Meanwhile, I'm biting my nails.

Despite the fact that we love PEI -- and this house in particular, with its charming century-old architecture, peaceful farmland views, and proximity to our favorite beach -- I know that this plan is more whimsical than logical. For starters, we have no money. Like so many people, we were nearly flattened by the economic downturn. My husband was laid off twice and two of the start-up companies he joined went under. We struggled to stay afloat as our oldest child started college and we paid health care costs out of pocket for one year, then a second. We finally decided to sell our house and buy a smaller one.

That's when the real estate market crashed. Our first buyer pulled a runner after we'd gotten locked into buying the smaller house, so we ended up with a bridge loan for a year, until we found another buyer. Goodbye, savings. Hello, credit cards.

With no spare cash under our mattress, we'll now have to dip into our retirement funds to finance the purchase of this house. Yet another bad idea: Why take a 10 percent hit, rather than wait until we're old enough to pull the money out without having to pay taxes on it?

Our only arguments in favor of doing so are admittedly weak: our retirement funds are stagnating with the limp stock market, making us think real estate can't be worse, and the PEI house we want to buy is one that we can easily imagine loving full-time. Plus, it's for sale right now at an asking price that's half of its assessed value.

"Prince Edward Island is too far away," another friend complains. "Why can't you find a retirement spot closer to home?"

Where could we go? Ohio? Pennsylvania? Tennessee? Even those states are more expensive. We're not alone in thinking that Canada is the answer. Far from it. The number of U.S. citizens choosing to live in Canada hit a 30-year high recently (

The last time Canada saw such an enormous influx of U.S. citizens was during the political turmoil of the Vietnam war. Now, many are choosing Canada both for economic and political reasons. Our own reasons are simple: we love Canada, and the cost of living in the U.S. has killed us. Once our kids are grown, we imagine eventually selling this house in New England, which is about the same size as the one on PEI but worth 10 times more. We'll have red dirt roads and fiddle music, potato fields and freshly steamed mussels to keep us happy. We'll still be working until we drop to pay back our debts. But we can freelance remotely for the same U.S. companies from Canada -- my husband as a software engineer, me as a writer -- while we make goat cheese, have a few hens of our own and grow our own vegetables, all without a crippling mortgage and punishing health care costs.

It's a crazy dream. But it's less of a fiscal nightmare than what we've experienced here.

Or am I missing something? Should we back out of this house deal now, while there's still time to be sensible?