Dear Urbaneer: How Can Minimalism Help With Affordability & Sustainability In Housing?

Healthy Home, Real Estate

Welcome to my blog on housing, culture, and design! I’m Steve Fudge and I’m celebrating over 3 decades as a realtor and property consultant in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

In this month’s installment of Dear Urbaneer, where I answer questions from my inquisitive readers, I’m talking to a dwell hunter who wonders how much house he really needs, as he looks for help thinking outside the proverbial box when it comes to housing affordability.

 


 

Dear Urbaneer:

As a house hunter, I will admit I’ve had my share of sleepless nights worrying about being able to afford to buy a home, and then being able to afford it over the longer term, especially with rising interest rates and the cost of living in general being so high. So I am making a really conscious effort to not overspend when it comes to my house hunt. I’m also committed to trying to make an eco-conscious purchase, which adds another layer to my property search.

I enjoyed your post about Canada’s history of creating affordable housing and your overview of innovations in housing that could make shelter both more affordable and better for the environment. It’s really fascinating. Do you have any other thoughts on how I might make my own search more affordable, beyond limiting my budget? And how I can reconcile my priority to be environmentally conscious while remaining financially prudent?

Signed,

Seeking Sensible Sustainable Space

 

 


 

Dear Seeker:

I’m glad you enjoyed my posts Canada’s History Of Building Economical Affordable Housing – and – Design Innovations For A More Affordable Canadian Housing Future.  As a first-generation Canadian who values our social safety nets and who believes shelter is a right and not a privilege, I look as much to the past to see how Canada ‘got it right’ as I do to the future given our technology economy is still in its infancy. After all, if Canada could create economical housing in its past, and we can demonstrate current innovations make better housing, then might Canada harness the political will to invest in these innovations to create a scale of economy that could make shelter more affordable? I mean, the housing crisis isn’t going away anytime soon. In fact, until Canada shifts from being an asset-based economy to one that is investing in innovation, our need for affordable housing is going to go up before it goes down.  

I know. I know. I’m idealistic. But with the real estate market on the edge of cratering, and Canada’s productivity and economic growth stalling due to weak innovation among Canadian firms, it’s time for politicians to pull a rabbit out of a hat holding a little sign that says ‘political will’ and make the kind of bold moves that minority governments are capable of. Like during the 1960s when Lester B. Pearson won back-to-back minorities that forced deal-brokering with the New Democratic Party. That era was the bedrock of the Canadian social safety net, with the Pearson Liberals advancing National Medicare, Canada Student Loans, and the Canada Pension Program. The conditions are ripe right now for a social safety net that guarantees a roof over every Canadian’s head.

As a realtor entering his 34th year in the shelter industry, I’m having a lot of conversations right now with Buyers and Sellers impacted by high-interest rates. And they all share the same concern. They can’t afford to purchase what they want, or they can’t afford to keep what they already own. The desire to occupy a shelter that is more sustainable, and to reduce their carbon footprint, has shifted from a ‘nice to have’ to a potential probability. Because in the near future, they may be living in a tent. 

When we reconcile making our housing search more affordable, the first variable to assess is housing type. The cost for a detached house is more than a semi-detached is more than a rowhouse is more than a stacked townhouse is more than a condo apartment is more than a co-ownership and so on. And from there the variables one might interchange are the location of the dwelling, its condition, or its size. And sadly, in Toronto, no matter how many compromises one makes, it’s probably going to cost one dollar more than you have. 

But what if you made a more fundamental shift to your attitude towards your house hunt? That is to say, re-naming your goal to own less house as a lifestyle, rather than trying to get the most house for your money. Dare I suggest that, perhaps one of the solutions to housing affordability and to the environmental impact of shelter is to alter our attitudes towards how much house we really need?

Imagine what would happen if we reframed what is the appropriate amount of space necessary for an individual, a couple, a family etc., and we designed it with attention to scale and proportion sustainably? And what if we made natural light, airflow, and the connection to nature and community a priority?

Maybe housing is unaffordable because we’re simply building places that are too big.

It’s about really, truly, believing that less is more.

 

 

 Why Have Houses Gotten Bigger When Household Size Is Shrinking?

When you think about it, the property ladder itself is populated by starting at the bottom and trading your way up the ladder; we all move from ‘starter home’ to ‘forever home’ over the course of our lives, and much of what constitutes each new upward movement is size. Once the peak of the ladder is reached, and you’ve achieved your housing goals, often folks scale down the other side (again, most often qualified by size). Think upsizing towards downsizing.

It’s not surprising then that we attach so much value – mentally and financially – to size.

This may also be part of the reason that housing has increased in size; it’s not because our homes needed to get bigger to shelter more inhabitants. In theory, if housing is a reflection of self and a marker of status (click here to read Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs And Toronto Real Estate For Buyers and Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs And Toronto Real Estate For Sellers), then bigger would be better, right?

This infographic from Daniel Foch shows how household size has consistently trended downwards in the U.S. since the late 18th century while housing square footage has essentially tripled. 

Out of necessity, and out of social practice, households have historically been larger. It was also common for an extended family to live under the same roof. But as housing became more affordable in the early to mid-20th century, couples marrying began to purchase their own matrimonial home. This practice has become so entrenched culturally it is now considered a right.

Although, with housing affordability being so challenged at the moment, multi-generational and co-ownership housing is becoming more common, as a way to not only afford to buy a home but to assist with both elder care and child care. This is a marker of society (and housing) shifting again.

In fact, this desire for more space is largely reflected in countries with similar-style economies and social strata to Canada. Canada ranks third globally in having the most square footage of living space per person, trailing Australia in first spot, followed by the United States. The U.K, France, Germany and Mexico round out the top seven.

In Canada, according to this study, the average square footage is 1700 sq. ft., while the average household size is 2.51 people, and has been steadily declining for years.

So our appetite for large houses has grown, but our incomes have not matched the rate of growth. Similarly, the availability of land becomes scarcer, particularly in urban centres, as demand vastly outpaces supply, creating affordability challenges.

 

 

The Environmental Question

And it’s not just affordability that is at stake with growing housing sizes. The bigger the house, the greater the footprint. The environmental footprint can be reduced by having sustainable options and striving for a net-zero home, but it might be simpler, more cost-effective, not to mention make better use of available land for development, by building smaller in the first place.

If home sizes continue to trend upward as they have, carbon emissions will increase as well. I have written in the past about alternative construction methods that can assist in housing affordability, including modular home construction, sustainable building materials, 3D printing, some of the innovations I discussed in this post that you referenced Design Innovations For A More Affordable Canadian Housing Future.

So, knowing all of this, it is perhaps the answer to housing affordability isn’t necessarily to create more supply (although that will help), but to redefine what housing represents to a homeowner.

And that change may come from a collective shift in mindset.

 

 

*2015 Data. Image buy ShrinkThatFootprint.com

 

How To Shift The Mindset On How Much Space Is Enough?

The question – how much space do we need? – is quite subjective. That’s because the line between need and want is quite blurred when it comes to living space. That is to say, if housing is shelter, you technically need a roof, perhaps some separate living space for a bedroom, a bathroom, and a common area with a kitchen. This would increase, based on the number of people in the household.

However, as we know, it’s a lot more complicated than that. How much space can you live comfortably with family members while still maintaining privacy? Does your home need to accommodate work-from-home? Do you need a hobby space? Does outdoor space factor into your home needs? Do you want to be a property investor and rent out part of your home? Are you trying to climb or descend the property ladder?

To look at how much space is considered appropriate per person, there isn’t really hard data on need because it is subjective. That said, looking at different countries and their home building/housing landscapes – with influences such as available land, population (demand), levels of urbanization, socio-economic factors, attitudes towards family & households (i.e. more single people, more common to have multi-generational) and more – you can draw conclusions and make inferences as to what is needed for the sake of comfortable living based on expectations.

For example, densely populated, land-scarce Hong Kong has 15 square meters per person on average. Comparatively, in Canada, we enjoy 72 square meters more than that per person.

However, when we discuss housing needs through the lens of affordability, available space to build, and environmental impact as the criteria, the division between need and want becomes clearer.

The fact of the matter is that smaller homes cost less to build and to maintain (both financially and with respect to environmental cost). The barrier to this approach is the people factor, where the expectation around what housing offers and represents, socially, psychologically, and financially is where the challenge might be.

If our perception of home is that bigger is better, we might somehow feel like we are compromising or missing out if we deliberately build and live smaller.

However, there is a growing movement towards minimalism and smaller living, generated in part by affordability challenges, in part by a growing environmental conscience, and in part by a growing sentiment of trying to live more simply, for the sake of mental health.

This is a great article: How Big is a House. It summarizes different average house sizes around the world, in the context of the benefits for all in shrinking our homes.

 

 

*Image courtesy of SustaintheMag, with thanks.

 

Embracing Minimalism

To really shift this mindset, it comes to embracing the benefits of minimalism and focusing on the intangible, but real, benefits of the lifestyle.

If you’ve been a self-professed maximalist for much of your life (and admittedly, many folks have) shifting towards a minimalist lifestyle, which includes living in smaller housing, and generally living with less, is a mindset that can take time to fully adopt and benefit from.

Living minimally means living mindfully and generating more lifestyle value by severing the dependence on material goods for satisfaction.

There are a number of benefits in this mindset- including you can often live more affordably, you definitely live more sustainably- and clutter inherently causes chaos, so having a minimalist approach can invite calm into your life.

If you are toying with the idea of minimalism as a way of life, start by shifting towards minimalism, one room at a time, decluttering.

Some easy basic rules for minimalism include getting rid of duplicates. Have a one-in-one-out rule. Cut out impulse buying. Have a metric for getting rid of stuff (if you’ve not used something in two or three months, what is the likelihood that you’ll use it in the next couple of months? Time to move on?).

Those who embrace minimalism as a way of life report that they are empowered and have the freedom to live their lives more fully, rather than missing out because they have less “stuff”.

From a design standpoint, minimalism is pleasing to the eye, because of the intentional use of design and décor elements. Minimalism, when done correctly is warm rather than sparse, and invites an experience of the space properly because there are fewer distractions with extraneous visuals.

It’s a clever design approach, where storage is key, and having design elements that serve multiple purposes to increase the functionality of the space, while enhancing the overall décor. Think in-drawer storage, ottomans, concealed storage in benches, beds or sofas.

Also, on-demand things such as pull-down tables or beds can help to facilitate living in a smaller footprint, by allowing the user to easily change the purpose of a room at a given point in time.

There is a focus on natural light, which is enlightens and enhances without adding physically to a space. There is also a focus on location in terms of community, and the benefits that exist in doing so.

 

 

*Image courtesy of Teacup Tiny Homes (based in Alberta), with thanks!

 

The Tiny House & Prefab Movement

If you are loving a minimalist lifestyle and are ready to really shrink your footprint, you might consider joining the tiny house movement.

Tiny homes can be built (or brought in – many are pre-fabricated) in several places throughout the province of Ontario. The policies around these are generally dictated by municipal by-laws, but many homes can be built right on the property. They might be a secondary dwelling, or they may be the main residence on a piece of land.

It’s important to note that the by-laws around tiny home construction are for self-contained tiny homes, not those that are in addition to an existing dwelling.

Some criteria to determine from your municipality to see if a tiny home is viable for your desired location, include zoning, ability to access city services (sewer, water etc.) permits, building inspections, building code, parking etc.

And for those who scoff at tiny homes – particularly ones on wheels – there are a plethora of options out there; prefabricated home kits offer similar environmental benefits, cost savings, and reduced square footage, but with a bit more room than the average tiny home offers.

Here’s a helpful list of Prefab & Tiny Home builders in Ontario!

 

It’s our goal at Urbaneer to help you determine what your dream home really is, big or small, helping you determine what really matters to you and finding that home that fits those criteria. We’re here to help!

Did you enjoy this post? Check out my Healthy Home blog series which includes many pieces on Sustainable Living and Toronto Real Estate!

 


 

Want to have someone on your side?

Since 1989, I’ve steered my career through a real estate market crash and burn; survived a slow painful cross-country recession; completed an M.E.S. graduate degree from York University called ‘Planning Housing Environments’; executed the concept, sales & marketing of multiple new condo and vintage loft conversions; and guided hundreds of clients through the purchase and sale of hundreds of freehold and condominium dwellings across the original City of Toronto. From a gritty port industrial city into a glittering post-industrial global centre, I’ve navigated the ebbs and flows of a property market as a consistent Top Producer. And I remain as passionate about it today as when I started.

Consider contacting me at 416-845-9905 or email me at Steve@urbaneer.com. It would be my pleasure to assist you, and yours.

We’d love to introduce your services to you.

Serving first-time Buyers, upsizers and downsizers, and people building their long-term property portfolios, our mandate is to help clients choose the property that will realize the highest future return on their investment while ensuring the property best serves their practical needs and their dream of “Home” during their ownership.

Are you considering selling? We welcome providing you with a comprehensive assessment free of charge, including determining your Buyer profile, ways to optimize your return on investment, and tailoring the listing process to suit your circumstances. Check out How Urbaneer’s Custom Marketing Program Sold This Authentic Broadview Loft In Riverside to learn more about what we do!

Consider letting Urbaneer guide you through your Buying or Selling process, without pressure, or hassle.

We are here to help!

 

 

Thanks for reading!

 

-The Urbaneer Team

Steven Fudge, Sales Representative
& The Innovative Urbaneer Team
Bosley Real Estate Ltd., Brokerage – (416) 322-800

 

– we’re here to earn your trust, then your business –

Celebrating Thirty-Four Years As A Top-Producing Toronto Realtor

 

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