I enjoy writing about real estate, a lot. Whether it’s a blog, advertising copy or the features of a listing and its location, spinning words is my jam. Sometimes the story flows like a stream of consciousness while other times I have to dig deep searching for the message. More than occasionally, I have to close my laptop and believe the right words will be there tomorrow. Eventually, the bon mots show up. I just have to trust the universe and myself.
In this instance, when I sent the team my content for Urbaneer’s new listing Spring Blooms Fresh Beginnings On Symington Avenue, Offered For $799,000, they kindly informed me a chunk of effusiveness had been cut. This happens fairly frequently, but this time my mind kept circling back to the subtext of my feature sheet copy espousing how rare it is to find an affordable downtown house that you can move into and fix up over time.
It felt like my Oscar moment might have just been left on the editing room floor.
Because my spidey senses as a realtor – approaching 30 years in the Toronto real estate market – are telling me a critical moment is happening in the downtown Toronto freehold housing market right now, and it’s something house buyers impacted by the limitations of affordability need to pay attention to. In fact, we all need to pay attention.
The Fixer Upper Isn’t For Flippers, It’s For The Missing Middle To Get Onto The Toronto Property Ladder
No one ever seeks to spend one dollar more than they have to purchase a fixer-upper that, for the foreseeable future, will require spending every additional dollar of disposable income just to stay warm and dry. Even those of us who wish homeownership was a right – but are grateful we can afford the privilege – are still surprised (particularly those of us living in Canada’s most expensive cities) we’re obliged to stretch to the top end of our budget just to barely meet our physiological need for shelter and safety. In downtown Toronto right now, for a sum approaching $1,000,000 and a lifetime of indebtedness, you will find yourself clinging precariously on the bottom rung of Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs.
As I explored in 7 Reasons Why Toronto Real Estate Prices Have Skyrocketed Over The Past Decade, the success of our Canadian economy has relied on, if not required, the demand for housing to exceed the supply. Why? It ensures the shelter industry which is a huge engine of our economy remains lucrative and profitable, even though it has the unintended byproduct of prompting flippers, speculators, and money launderers to siphon the cheapest (and most needed) supply of low-picking fruit and juice it into easy liquid profits. The challenge today? Because the Canadian government has, perhaps unwittingly, steered us to relying heavily on this Asset-Based Economy its success now requires it to continue firing on all cylinders. The collateral damage? There are a lot of first-time house buyers who have had to reconcile that any ‘affordable’ downtown house within their modest middle-income budget will require, the day they close on their purchase and get the keys, to immediately begin repairing deficiencies (like broken windows and fist-punched holes in walls) and upgrading end-of-life building components (like knob and tube wiring) while mapping a life plan of more substantial and satisfying renovations that are currently out of financial reach. You know, wistfully dreaming of the day you get to make indulgent decisions about pretty, like choosing the type of Caesarstone, or debating whether to have waterfall counters or an 18 bottle wine fridge (and because you won the lottery you’re going to have both).
For a large segment of Toronto house buyers, manifesting the dream of homeownership will include waking to a nightmare of realities. This will especially be true if your objective is to secure a house within the limitations of a modest budget that also offers the opportunity and potential to accommodate your essential future selves. You know, like a house big enough for raising kids, space to accommodate an aging parent, room to ‘Work From Home’ because it’s a thing now, or a garage to use as a studio workshop (one of my friends calls her ‘the screaming shack’). The price of admission to get onto the Toronto property ladder is mentally taxing, emotionally draining, and physically exhausting. At times it will ravage your spirit and crush your soul, but if you survive it’s the closest guarantee you’ve secured the financial futures of yourself and those you love. In this respect, the significance of having a supply of fixer-uppers coming to market for sale is, in the context of the real estate ‘property ladder’ and the natural filtering of housing stock, critical to having a robust housing market that offers options and opportunity to everyone.
It’s tough right now to find affordable houses that you can move into and tackle like Tom Hanks and Shelley Long did in The Money Pit in 1986 (except it won’t be a mansion, honey). The pool of middle-class Canadians competing in bidding wars to purchase an affordable house in downtown Toronto – even with help from The Bank Of Mom & Dad – is swelling in number right now. These ‘affordable houses’ are barely habitable. On HGTV they’re called Fixer Uppers. Realtors have long called them ‘diamonds in the rough’, which is another way of saying coal. And right now they cost around $900,000. It’s really important all Buyers on a budget determine the options and requirements of the lender. You want to establish the lowest down payment you can provide to borrow the highest amount of money based on your incomes. For example, a Buyer who is qualified and approved to purchase a $900,000 property with a high-ratio insured mortgage from CMHC can put a down payment as little as 7.22% of the purchase price (or $65,000). The mortgage insurance fee of $33,400 can be tacked onto the mortgage, which will be $868,400, so that won’t come out of pocket, but your closing costs will be anywhere from $25,000 to $32,000 depending on whether your a first time buyer or not, given the Land Transfer Taxes for the City and province have a rebate to those purchasing for the first time.
Given a $900,000 fixer-upper requires around $90,000 to be allocated towards the down payment and closing costs, those Buyers who are short on additional savings should be extremely diligent in knowing what deficiencies exist, which components are failing, how much they’re going to cost, and when must they be rectified. You should bring in a contractor pre-purchase and determine what is the least amount of money you can spend to ensure the property meets the building code, the requirements of your insurer, and your basic comforts. Given houses that have fallen into a state of disrepair that has rendered them uninhabitable require an immediate cash injection of at least $300,000+, the prize everyone has their eye on is the house that is sufficiently ‘livable’ so that, from Day One of moving in, whatever savings that are remaining after purchasing the house can attend to all the immediate and future scope of work. Love spreadsheets and lists? In my post – Dear Urbaneer: We’ve Moved Into Our New Home. Now What? – they become your friend.
But finding a house that fits these criteria is really scarce. In fact, it’s so rare I consider properties like this as the “Unicorns of real estate” Here is my tongue in cheek advice on the pros and cons of such a purchase, that I would dispense to any buyer navigating the tight rope of affordability and livability of properties on the lower end of price, like this Symington Avenue listing.
Dear House Buyers,
I’m not sure how long you’ve been looking to buy a house in downtown Toronto, but I’m sure you’ve realized it’s pretty rare to view a property like this – which offers the trifecta of affordability, opportunity, and location – and doesn’t require 6 sledgehammers, a dumpster bin, and a construction crew to arrive the day after closing.
So have you been having discussions with your family about how many houses within walking distance to a streetcar or subway line in this price point need substantial renovations? Not to say this property is perfect, but at the very least you can move into it the same day you pick up the keys from your lawyer. As you’re reconciling you may have to renovate before moving in, perhaps there may be some unexpected benefits.
Like getting the chance to sleep with your wife in her childhood bedroom which – while nostalgic – is a current day homage to the 1990s. Who doesn’t like a teal-blue time capsule that’s
preserving hoarding a lava lamp, a ghetto blaster, an extensive collection of beanie babies (note, convince her to sell the b.b.’s on eBay to fund the renovation). This alongside a disturbing number of Lance Bass TigerBeat pinups collaged to the walls (at least Leonard DiCaprio & Jared Leto were cool). And as an added bonus, your bedroom is directly next door to your snoring in-law’s bedroom. At least your inlaws have generously offered you space to live cope temporarily for the next eight to ten months while you renovate upgrade upcycle your fixer-upper “needs TLC” crap box on a shoe-string budget.
Really. Good luck with that.
By the way, is it possible you can get divorced before you’ve even moved into the matrimonial home? (Just google Nicolas Cage).
Forgive my wry sense of humour, but when you’re a realtor who has been navigating the Toronto real estate market for 28 years, and it’s been successively firing on every cylinder 24/7/365 – for 25 years – you’ve literally seen it all. Incidentally – True Story – said couple stayed in his parent’s knotty-pine-paneled basement laying supine – each with a broken spring coil digging in their back – on a tatty 70s colonial-style Hide-A-Bed for 4 months facing the floor-to-ceiling feature wall of VHS movies which, she noticed, were organized by title rather than genre. It. Just. Didn’t. Make. Sense.
But here’s the scoop. I’m worried you don’t have enough capital to purchase a property that requires an immediate substantial renovation, and you don’t have the income to afford the dwelling which has already undergone some significant building and cosmetic improvements. We’re looking for the sweet spot. Finding the downtown property one can occupy and upgrade over time is not only the most affordable product for your buyer segment, it’s the best option that offers unlimited potential and enormous opportunity.
And they’re disappearing. Every time one is sold, it will inevitably undergo a redevelopment of some kind, thereby removing it more from this shrinking pool of unicorn product. And once they’re gone, the options that will remain for this Buyer pool will be to either purchase outside of the downtown core or to purchase a condominium. Right now these properties represent an extremely-rare highly-coveted sweet-spot, and what’s particularly challenging is that they’re also being pursued by flippers and speculators.
While the realities of renovating are disruptive to lifestyle (here’s my post Dear Urbaneer: Help! We Want to Renovate, And Keep Our Relationship Intact), from an investment standpoint, and in the context of the current market, if you’ve got the income flow to support such a purchase, this is one of the best investments you can make.
Why Is This Happening?
Have you noticed it seems that whenever a house sells, the moment it closes a big dumpster is parked out front and the house is pretty much gutted from top to bottom? A full year later the house is ready for possession and, as the moving van drives off after delivering a showcase of designer furnishings, the new owners finally move in. Or much to your surprise, a ‘For Sale’ sign goes up, setting yet another new precedent for market value on the street. It never used to be this way and yet now it appears to be a common occurrence.
Are you nodding your head in agreement?
At the time, the house in the photo above – located near College Street’s Little Italy that had been purchased for $820,000 – was undergoing a substantial transformation.
It would sell three years later – in 2016 – for $2,215,000.
The Unicorns Of Toronto Real Estate
Finding a downtown house (as in the original city of Toronto, not the suburbs) at an affordable price point (in particular under $1Mil) that you can move into right away (after picking up the keys from the lawyer) and upgrade over time (not obliged to renovate immediately) is becoming really hard to find.
They are ‘unicorn rare’, because:
1- The window of opportunity shrinks with every sale. Each time a property fitting these criteria sells it automatically has capital invested into it. This capital $ sum could be limited to the essentials required of a property tune-up (fixing deficiencies, replacing building components at or near the end of their life span, and completing a cosmetic refresh like paint and paper, lighting fixtures & hardware fittings) or it could go in the direction of a more substantial renovation.
Regardless, the house will have to sell for more money, not only to recover these capital investments but also due to the hefty costs of buying (double land transfer taxes in downtown Toronto) and reselling the property (in the future) just to ‘break even’ (Check out this past post: Dear Urbaneer: How Long Does it Take to “Break Even” After I Buy Property?)
Profile Of Sellers In This Price Point
People who are selling these houses on the lower end of the price spectrum but are still habitable either:
• have limited financial means and/or are incapacitated or disinterested in maintaining, repairing, upgrading, or renovating (in a sliding scale of time and cost) their houses
• are completely unaware or have become accepting of existing deficiencies to the point they no longer see them.
• have resistance to tackling home improvement projects out of fear. They fear it will cost more money, take more time, and cause more stress than relative to the economic return.
• they have money scarcity anxieties rooted in childhood which prevents them from spending money, even when they have it. I also think older generations do not believe in having debt, so they will let the deficiencies in their house increase rather than getting a reverse mortgage.
A Shift In Attitude Towards Shelter & Debt
For the most part, the idea of a buyer ‘climbing the property ladder’ simply didn’t exist until the 1970s and later. There was no “Let’s just get a secured line of credit on the equity gain we’ve made and install that Ikea kitchen we covet so we can enjoy it before we cash out and upgrade to a better house.” It wasn’t until the arrival of easy credit, and credit cards, in the 1980s when consumers became free-spending, comfortably incurring debt to satisfy a desire, and even leveraging debt to make a profit.
Earlier generations – who had survived amidst times of scarcity – considered this both foolish and frivolous. Just as money was meant to be saved, anything that provided utility and function – and still worked even if slightly damaged – did not have to look appealing or work perfectly. For all those previous generations who never felt their income was disposable, a rational reason still hasn’t been offered explaining why a kitchen must be pretty, let alone photo-ready with “duo-tone cabinets, a wine fridge, and waterfall counters”.
For many, including the privileged, a kitchen was – and still is – a utilitarian space that functions as a place to prepare food, indulge the occasional (or frequent) coffee klatch, and perhaps get into the tipple on a Friday night and play cards. These are the people who wonder why wine needs its own fridge. So when you encounter a house for sale today that is devoid of such trappings, it may not be for a lack of money, but because these items have a lesser value to the owner than their acquisition cost.
This is why we need to look and learn from earlier generations. For them, home is defined by the collective sharing of moments, experiences, or secrets; the display of photos and mementos; and the recounting of memories with others who have crossed their threshold and imprinted their energy, whether that be bad or good.
These are the roots of the idiom ‘If these four walls could talk.’
And it’s time to listen.
We Live In A Consumer Culture, And Our Homes Are Important Status Symbols
Just like housing design has evolved over generations to reflect our lifestyles, so too have our collective concept of shelter.
Buyers today are not afraid of debt, they’re heavily influenced by design media like HGTV, and they renovate to increase the market value of their property, to enhance or elevate their lifestyle, to express themselves creatively and reflect their personalities, and to accommodate growing needs (another child, an inlaw moving in, the need for two home offices, etc).
The steady diet of design media creates a new “normal” and affirms the desire to renovate. It also helps to justify spending the money to do so. And an extended period of low-interest rates has made that possible. It’s not surprising when you consider the rise and the impact of design media, and how it has fundamentally created a shift around the concept of shelter- and what it “should” look like
This article talks about the fashion of housing and status. The Kitchen is a Cult Item and the New Status Symbol, . My career in converting old buildings into lofts was to take a dated place of industrial production and convert it into a trendy place of domestic consumption.
At one point in time in the not-so-distant past- renovating and re-inventing your home was done either from necessity (given the age of the housing stock in Toronto) or out of a desire to put a personal stamp through self-expression. Now renovating homes in Toronto is so common that it is becoming the baseline expectation for homeowners – and there are financial consequences.
Fashion of housing is so entrenched in us now that the days of finding a house that hasn’t undergone some kind of style enhancement will soon be over, This is in part because the people who don’t attach any meaning to have a ‘model home’ are aging, and the newer generations (of which I was a pioneer as a lifestyle marketer selling lofts) are highly invested in our homes being Instagram worthy.
This marks a paradigm shift in shelter- and I don’t think people have fully realized the weight of this influence. A lot of this is because people place value in home improvements emotionally and spiritually- along with financially. It’s about justifying the cost and changing the perception of want to need.
It was the rise of consumer culture through the 1980s when the powerful reach and influence of the media commodified the shelter industry. The practicality and essential function of shelter – as in a place we stay warm and dry – became subjugated by a new emerging culture of domesticity rooted in desire and focused on display.
That’s when the term conspicuous consumption got introduced, which was the intellectual’s word for describing ‘self-absorbed show off’. This coincided with the term Yuppie being coined, used as a derogatory title for young upwardly mobile people who were considered arrogant and obnoxious. I clearly remember reading a best seller called The Preppy Handbook that derided these Yuppies. It cracked me up, mostly because it mocked me. Yup, it’s time I confess to being ‘one of those’, who, incidentally, dedicated his education to the shifts which have reshaped the urban housing landscape.
Soon The Options Will Be Limited
These ‘diamonds in the rough’ that you can still live in are the only kind of house affordable to many buyers because they don’t have the large sums of capital necessary (or access to said funds) to undertake a substantial renovation of a house that has become so dilapidated it uninhabitable at the time of purchase, or they don’t have the gross income to buy a more expensive property that may be in better condition (or size or condition).
And this is particularly challenging for those buyers who have less than 20% down because one can only go with a high-ratio purchase on properties that sell for $999,999 or less, which is challenging given the average sale price of a house in Toronto has just surpassed $1mil (‘Not For The Faint Of Heart’: Average Toronto Home Passes $1 Million Mark In February)
If your income and debt ratio can sustain it, it’s better to buy a house you can improve over time, than a condo in the sky – because of the potential for growth in the housing type.
Remember – a buyer who secures a house that is only just habitable still needs to have sufficient capital (or access to it) to do the necessary dwelling repairs, property maintenance, and replacement of major building components on an as-needed basis simply to stay warm and dry. So they have to earn an income that covers all their monthly housing expenses plus be able to save sufficiently to remedy issues. And ideally, they also can save sufficient funds to do improvements
So – back to our Symington listing. It has 4 years left on the roof of the house (the garage roof is new), 5 to 6 years left on the heating/cooling systems, a 100amp circuit breaker panel (but old knob and tube wiring which has to be replaced), copper plumbing (though the water line into the house is galvanized steel), and it’s structurally sound.
It comes back to having those good bones- because it’s upon these bones that homes can evolve towards the next stage of their evolution. And, as homes in this price point have demonstrated, their values continue to climb. In some cases, they climb a great deal in a short period of time. But, again, real estate values are cyclical; the scarcity of this kind of product in this price point today represents upside for homeowners tomorrow.
(*Title Image courtesy of APK Pure, with thanks.)
Here’s a better look inside our listing, Spring Blooms Fresh Beginnings On Symington Avenue, offered for $799,000!
Questions? Interested in a private viewing? Please contact James Ormston!
Since I started the blog 11 years ago, along with writing about buying and selling property, design, culture and urban life, healthy (and unhealthy) housing, and my real estate forecasts, I’ve explored a number of different facets that shape our housing market including:
Are you a buyer trying to determine your best path forward as a homeowner? You’ve got to not only consider the property market today- but how you can best steer your ship successfully. With decades of experience in the real estate trenches in Toronto, and a smart, strategic eye towards the future, I am here to help!
With a multi-disciplinary education in housing – and 28 years of experience in the property market – Steve and his team believe the search for a Home requires engagement on sensory, intellectual and emotional levels. In fact, it’s how we’ve become top producing realtors.
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-The Urbaneer Team
Steven Fudge, Sales Representative
& The Innovative Urbaneer Team
Bosley Real Estate Ltd., Brokerage – (416) 322-800
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