Welcome to my blog on housing, culture, and design! I’m Steve Fudge and I’m celebrating over three decades as a realtor and property consultant in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
In this month’s installment of Dear Urbaneer, I provide counsel to our dwell hunting clients who recently sold their suburban condominium in order to climb the property ladder into their Forever Home. Why? So they can embark on their next chapter of life – raising kids – as a nuclear family unit.
However, like many Buyers, this couple has been impacted by rising interest rates. As the cost to borrow money has gone up, their purchasing power has gone down, which has resulted in a financial shortfall to buy their ideal home – a renovated, detached, 3-bed residence with on-site parking in a central downtown-west Toronto ‘urban village’.
Trying to balance location, dwelling type, condition, and size has never been easy for any Buyer. In this circumstance, he is more flexible because he grew up in the suburbs and is accustomed to commuting, whereas she has always envisioned raising children in one of the city’s original urban villages so the family isn’t solely reliant on a car. Unfortunately, the reality is that the houses in their preferred neighbourhoods within their budget do not align with their vision of idyllic family life.
So, she is facing the dilemma of looking outside of the city core, buying a property that requires a lot of time, energy, and capital to upgrade, or purchasing a smaller residence that will need to be enlarged at a later date. In other words, the real question is “How do you compromise in your dwell hunt without feeling like you’re sacrificing too much?
I’ve always considered myself a bonafide urbanite. I have resided in the city for much of my adult life, save for when I moved in with my boyfriend-now-husband in the ‘burbs when we combined residences (and I have to admit. I did not love it – the commute, or the lifestyle).
But now we are looking to start a family, and want to find a home that supports this goal. And I had always pictured that part of my life happening in the city.
However, as we embarked on our house hunt in the city, the reality of our budget settled in, with many homes in our price point being either too small or requiring significant work, which we don’t have the budget or the inclination to tackle at the moment, especially with the arrival of children in the near future.
I realize that we will probably have to re-align our wishlist, but I feel like the compromises here are big – either location or the house – and I’m worried that I might feel short-changed either way. What should I do?
Where Will I Find My Dream Home?
Dear Dream Home:
The dilemma that you are describing is very common among dwell hunters embarking on their property search, and often those feelings of indecision intensify once the would-be Buyers discover that they have to revise their personal housing matrix to align with what they can realistically afford, which often means changing dwelling type (purchasing a semi-detached dwelling rather than detached, for example), opting for a smaller size or a residence requiring upgrading, or its location.
And yes, it sucks.
In your case, given that this may be your only move for decades, you’re having to weigh ‘life at this moment’ versus ‘life for 20 years with children’ – and that’s a complicated choice to frame, let alone make!
I feel for you, because you’re at a fork in the road that many couples face when they’re trying to map out their future biographically within the context of shelter and place, and all of the meanings and expectations under that broad umbrella we envision when we say we’re ‘home’.
For some supportive reading, I explore how housing fulfills physical and psychological needs in Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs And Toronto Real Estate For Buyers and Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs And Toronto Real Estate For Sellers. I also explore how the size of a property, its site, and its condition all factor into its price in How To Search For Your Next Property Purchase.
Review Your Housing Wish List Through Many Lenses
Let’s take a step back and really nail down your priorities.
Before you attach your visions of domestic bliss to a specific, named neighbourhood, I encourage you to create a timeline in blocks of five years (given you intend to buy a Forever Home that will serve you for 25+ years) and map out a typical weekday and weekend and the time you will dedicate more or less to the following – keeping in mind you should include travel time, and prioritize ease relative to frequency:
- your career (including getting to and from work),
- your kids (including access to childcare, schools, chauffeuring them to their extracurricular activities, or living in a location that your children can do this independent of you at an age you deem appropriate),
- household operations (grocery shopping & running errands, property maintenance and repairs, cleaning, etc),
- your extended family (family visits & functions including birthdays and holidays),
- your community at large and your personal social world (volunteering, fundraisers, PTA, your culture and/or faith, getting together with besties for drinks & more drinks),
- to your partner as well as yourself (fitness, hobbies, recreation, date nights & me nights including getting to and from those activity destinations).
Many couples planning to have children choose the suburbs to raise kids because they prioritize having as much interior and exterior space as possible without fully processing that there may be trade-offs they haven’t fully considered, including the value of their time. We all have to go places no matter where we live, and we all have residences to maintain and repair. However, a lot of people residing in large suburban homes underestimate how much of their time will be spent driving (to work, to school, running errands, to dance recital, cub scouts, hockey, etc) and maintaining their residences (like cutting the grass, shoveling the driveway of snow, vacuuming 2800 square feet, etc). There are many instances where people are going to and from home to everywhere else, and then coming home to attend to all of the household operations, that they find with the little precious time they have remaining to engage with others, they’re too exhausted to be fully present.
A friend of mine, whose children are now grown, recently shared with me how her view on where she lived changed pretty quickly to how she lived once children entered the picture. When she and her husband purchased their first home in the suburbs, their focus was on their commute times to work and to family. Five years later as their eldest child entered kindergarten and the second one was in daycare, they had come to realize their immediate neighbours weren’t very engaging, the location of the school, the daycare, and where they worked were in different directions, and the nearest natural ecosystem (they love to hike and bird watch) was a highway drive away. She and her husband realized what was important to them was being surrounded by and engaging with a supportive like-minded community, being close to places their children attended frequently, and being near grounding green space. Furthermore, although they were okay with their car-centric lifestyle, it had to be practical and efficient. To live in a placeless suburb where no one made an effort to get to know them was alienating, disheartening, and depressing. And to be spending more time driving in different directions to accomplish everyday activities was exhausting, soul-killing, and costly. After identifying that their priorities were not being met by the location of their home, they subsequently listed their property for sale and purchased a next home that would serve their family and future better.
My friend acknowledges she and her husband underestimated the importance of having a quality school with daycare near their house, how much they used the recreational amenities they favoured when they were in proximity, and how much comfort and security they felt living in a welcoming community they came to know inside and out. All of these qualities of domesticity and lifestyle ranked higher than the dwelling itself, for them. Which aligns with a real estate mantra… You can change the house, but you can’t change its location.
Everyone’s commute has to be realistically doable (every day for many as we move into a post-pandemic era!), regardless of how you’re getting to and from work (cycling, public transit, uber-ing, or the easiest most efficient highway commute).
Which, if I might return to the question at hand: Should you head to the city, or (gulp) stay out in the burbs?
Purchasing in the suburbs versus the city involves a trade-off of time, energy, and capital with respect to commuting – as I wrote about in What Are The Real Financial, Emotional, And Health Costs Of Commuting?
So, in practical terms, do you direct your budget proactively by purchasing a more centrally-located residence or spend more time traveling between home and everywhere else? What’s more important to you? Remember- the options of going to and from home diminish the farther you locate from the downtown core (walking versus cycling versus subway versus streetcar versus bus versus train versus Uber versus automobile). What’s your comfort threshold within this matrix?
And be aware that it’s not a cut-and-dry ‘one or the other’ trade-off; communities are painted in many hues and shades. For example, certain city neighbourhoods won’t always feel more convenient and amenity-laden, just as certain towns won’t always give you friendly vibes and have quality schools. Some towns are seas of sameness, and some have a village vibe that- while not exactly urban- is not ubiquitously suburban either. Think: Main Street versus busy roads lined with Big Box everything. (Although, Big Box stores can be a young family’s best friend, so having a mix nearby is ideal. Click here to read Convenience Puts the ‘Dream’ in Dream Home.)
My point? Chances are, if you reexamine your expectations around housing through many different lenses, you may feel less like you are compromising, and will often incite a shift in priorities among what is most important to you and your future daily life.
Explore Alternatives With An Open Mind
As I said, not all communities are created equal; take the time to see some neighbourhoods that could be alternatives to the city core. Beyond googling reviews on restaurants and shops and doing drive-bys to see what the neighbourhood looks like, really dig in.
Go to the grocery store that you might shop at weekly. Go to the recreation centres and see how lively they are, and what’s going on there at different times of the day. Dine at a few different establishments to see if the energy fits.
Perhaps most importantly, do the commute to work during different times of day and test it out for real.
In other words, ‘try a neighbourhood on’ in context of your soon-to-be lifestyle to see if it might be a contender. Remember, it doesn’t have to fit like a bespoke suit right away, but there’s a large gap between ‘doable’ and feeling a connection to a place.
Don’t Forget The Other Costs!
Realize that reconciling the trifecta of location, condition, and cost isn’t easy. Finding a home in your desired urban location is a win even better if it fits your budget, but there will be costs to renovate, which could ultimately push you over budget.
Consider that, to stay within budget, renovations might need to be deferred until there is capital, which could compromise lifestyle in the present. Is that tenable?
And then, of course, there is the challenge of the emotional and mental strain involved with renovations. (I cover those points in greater detail in The Affordability Conundrum For Toronto House Buyers: Location, Condition & Costs.)
Buying a real fixer-upper to stay in the city – and within budget – is something that is being done often; those buyers decide to do a one-and-done – max out the mortgage to buy a forever home in a family-friendly location that they can work on over time to suit their needs.
Really, it comes down to your personal comfort level, and, if I’m not mistaken, it sounds like you are hesitant to tackle huge renovations. If that voice is there, give it some space to speak, because it could be communicating to your future self.
While everyone loves the drama of the great reveal on HGTV, you may get more drama than you bargained for if you take on a major renovation project and start a family at the same time.
A property doesn’t necessarily have to be turn-key either, but consider how much time, and how much money, you can realistically dedicate to renovations to make your home comfortable and to suit your family’s immediate needs.
Purchasing in a suburb next door to the city versus a house actually in the city may bring you closer to reconciling the challenge that the condition of city dwellings within your budget is, by and large, too decrepit to be considered.
None of this is to say that one path is better than another. It’s all about having a hard think about what really matters to you and what your comfort level is. After all, it’s your dream home, not your neighbours’, friends, or family’s (who always like to add their two cents – often unasked!)
The Home Itself
Now, consider what kind of property you need – and want. Pragmatism will never shake hands with fantasy, but the gap can be reduced with creativity. So consider some acceptable compromises, even one you took a hard stance on previously.
Raising a family undoubtedly requires a lot of room – but what does that look like? The utility of a space doesn’t always necessitate excessive square footage (heck, people raise kids comfortably in condos these days!) Consider a home that contains space that can be flexible to accommodate needs over time – especially with flex/bonus rooms, a finished basement (or opportunity to finish a basement), or an attic.
Multifunctionality can exist where you may not have considered it. It’s about having a creative approach, and understanding that phases of childhood are temporary (if not fleeting) and it’s worth it to embrace and accommodate the evolving needs of day-to-day living during those moments in time.
For example, I have a friend with a gorgeous formal dining room who, while parenting her children during their baby/toddler/pre-school phases actually moved all of their dining room furniture out, laid down interlocking rubber floor, installed pint-size picnic tables, cubbies galore for toys, and cartoon characters for décor. Not magazine-worthy, perhaps, but immensely functional, easy to clean, and providing her peace of mind having a safe space for her kids to do their thing during those years.
And remember, nothing is permanent. As her kids grew up, she reclaimed the space for its intended use, and many a lovely dinner party has happened in that same space since.
Open-concept floorplans are ideal for raising children, mostly because long and wide sightlines let you keep an eye on Junior more easily. Fewer corners are less hazardous. As the children age, having an open kitchen to a family room, in particular, is helpful, so that you can supervise homework and get dinner ready at the same time. However, there are also merits of having a more formal space plan. As one’s children enter their moody teenage years, having a formal living room for friends to visit for an evening of adulting is enjoyable, especially when everyone has brought their kids and they’re all in the basement rec room hollering playing video games.
Outdoor space is ideal as well, for exercise, play, and even escape. But is it always necessary for it to exist within a manicured fenced yard? It’s just as beneficial if your home is located near parks and green spaces that have kid-friendly aspects (i.e. playgrounds and splash pads) but also spots for parents too – for exercise or a quiet place to relax and read a book.
If Multi-Generational living is something on your radar, depending on your circumstance, you might look for a property that is amenable to an in-law suite, or even with an outbuilding if area by-laws permit, depending on where you are looking. With the high cost of childcare, this is something becoming more and more popular with parents.
Have Dual Dreams
If you really, really, have your heart set on urban living, but it just can’t happen right now because of budget or available homes, it doesn’t mean that a life in the city is off the table forever.
In this shifting market, it’s feasible that one day you may be able to secure a more centrally-located dwelling in superior condition within your budget in the (near) future.
Or you may consider a return to the city, years down the road. You’ll have more equity, more time, and more clarity around projects and priorities for home. It’s common for folks to return to the city core as they approach, or in retirement, thanks to the appealing, carefree nature of pedestrian living, when time is more abundant to take advantage of all the benefits. Although we recommend you move less frequently because it’s costly, it’s important to understand that our needs and priorities are always evolving and sometimes where we live, and what we live in, are a detriment to living the best version of ourselves.
Trust your intuition and listen. And when you’re seriously considering purchasing a specific property, contemplate and process it according to the factors and criteria I outline in –>Dear Urbaneer: How Do I Know This Is The Right Home To Buy?
We hope you found this helpful. Please know The Urbaneer Team is truly invested in helping you achieve your shelter dreams for your future self, and for today as well. That means having the ability to help frame your dwell hunt in a way that will direct you toward what you really want, need, and desire.
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Thanks for reading!
-The Urbaneer Team
Steven Fudge, Sales Representative
& The Innovative Urbaneer Team
Bosley Real Estate Ltd., Brokerage – (416) 322-800
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