Wednesday, November 26, 2008
On the Edge of a Fjord
By SUE CHESTER for the NYTimes.com
Published: November 25, 2008
Everyone aspires to have a spectacular view. For Jeff and Tina Leopold, who built their dream home next to a fjord, 30 minutes south of Oslo, the vista of water, islands and pine trees provides daily inspiration.
“We are very fortunate to have a property close to the water,” Mr. Leopold said. “It’s extremely special.”
The couple met through mutual Norwegian friends while they both were studying in California. Mrs. Leopold, 37, was born in Denver but has Norwegian parents and was brought up in the Oslo region; Mr. Leopold, 42, is from the San Francisco area. They had a long-distance relationship until Mr. Leopold decided to move to Norway in 1996. They now have two children, ages 6 and 8.
“I felt I would like the challenge to go somewhere else and make a life out of it,” Mr. Leopold said of moving abroad. “I knew the biggest challenge would be establishing a career.”
When he first moved to Norway he worked as an inventory management consultant in the outdoor sporting industry. Now he owns his own company, which imports outdoor clothing. He works from a home office next to the garage, giving him the opportunity to be on hand to help with the children and to enjoy family life.
The house is a large structure of white weatherboard, with an asymmetric tangle of gables, eaves and windows and five large decks at various levels. The front garden leads to the water’s edge and the family’s dock, off which they swim and fish.
“We’re down there all summer,” Mr. Leopold said. “For the kids, it is fantastic. They love to swim. You have a long winter here when you’re inside all the time. We also go out to the islands with our boat and fish from there.”
Achieving their dream home was not easy. They had their eyes on the 800-square-meter (8,610-square-foot) property as early as 1998, but did not manage to buy it until 2003. Planning permission to build a home on the property had already been issued, but as it was waterfront, they knew there would be fierce competition from other perspective buyers. The couple, however, had a distinct advantage. Through a Norwegian property law known called “Family Purchasing Rights,” the couple were automatically given the right to buy the land, as Mrs. Leopold’s great aunt owned the property.
“Typically in the fjord area here at Asker you can’t build a house within 100 meters (330 feet) of the water,” Mr. Leopold said. “So it was unusual to get property so close to the fjord.”
They bought the land in June 2003 for 2.3 million kroner (about $350,000 at the time). Their construction budget, originally 3.7 million kroner ($533,400 now), ended up totaling 8 million kroner ($1.15 million), including the landscaping.
They now have a 300-square-meter (3,229-square-foot) house and garage with an adjoining 36-square-meter (387-square-foot) office.
In October 2007, the property was appraised at 13.5 million kroner ($1.95 million), although Mr. Leopold admitted it may be worth less following the global downturn, which has also affected Norway’s housing market.
His general estimate of the country’s market was confirmed by Odd Nymark, the chief executive of EiendomSmegler 1 Oslo Akershus, a real estate agency. “Selling property in Oslo right now is like driving a car with the handbrake on,” he said. “Turnover is down by 30 to 40 percent and prices dropped by 4.7 percent in October. We expect prices to go down 5 to 10 percent before they bottom out.”
Mr. Leopold said that, despite the downturn, he is confident that the house is still a good investment. “It will always hold its value as it’s prized waterfront, which is almost impossible to find nowadays,” he said.
The 116-square-meter (1,250-square-foot) ground floor has high ceilings and a large kitchen area. There are floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides. “We designed it so that you can be looking at the view once you’re in the kitchen,” Mr. Leopold said.
There is an open fireplace and a wood-burning stove, but most of the heat is generated from an electric system under the floor, which, at 250,000 krone ($36,040), was the most expensive part of the building budget. Each room’s heat is controlled by a remote thermostat set according to the size of windows and ceiling height so the temperature is constant throughout the house.
Upstairs there are three bedrooms and two bathrooms; in the basement there is a self-contained 60-square-meter (646-square-foot), one-bedroom apartment that the Leopolds rent out for 10,000 kroner ($1,440) a month. Also on the lower level is a guest room with its own bathroom, a recreation room (with a snooker table and plenty of room for ski gear) and a utility room for the heating controls.
“In Norway, if you have an apartment inside your house, the rental income isn’t taxed,” Mr. Leopold said. “I was quite negative about it, but after seeing the expenses the house generates I realized it was quite a good idea. One 120,000 kroner ($17,300) per year tax free — that’s good finance.”
The Leopolds also decided to have electric heating under the driveway and the path leading to the front door to keep the ground ice free. “This device is particularly useful when my family visit,” Mr. Leopold said. “They’re not used to walking on ice. Their Californian motor skills aren’t quite designed for it.”
Although Norway’s winters are long with short days, the Leopolds believe the Scandinavian summers are one of the region’s best kept secrets.
“They’re beautiful with temperatures of 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit) through the night, and it’s light until midnight,” Mr. Leopold said. “Tina loves the sun so that’s why we have a sun deck on every side of the house. We’re actually quite blown away that we are living here and have a place right in front of the water. ”