So you’ve decided to buy a condo. That’s the easy part. Now you have to home in on one of the city’s 220,070 units (and climbing). Where do you even start? We’ve asked the big questions to help you get things rolling. Here’s our step-by-step guide to finding your dream box in the sky.
First off, Are you a condo bull or a bear?
There are a lot of condos for sale in Toronto right now: about 3,518, give or take a couple hundred. Whether or not that’s a good thing depends on who you ask—and expect their opinion to be heated.
Condo-boom champions say that cities need to grow up, not out. The buildings must be dense, and put people near jobs, schools, and attractions, because commute times aren’t getting any shorter, and gas isn’t getting any cheaper. Plus, Toronto draws talent from all over the world, including people who are used to living in small spaces and stylish buildings, who think weekends spent pulling dandelions in the backyard is time poorly spent.
According to these condo bulls, now is a great time to borrow money, because historically low interest rates keep dropping to even more historic lows. Besides, there will always be someone ready to rent your condo if you don’t feel like living in it. Being a landlord is a great idea, but continuing to rent is a waste of money—not to mention a pain in the ass, since the rental vacancy rate hovers around two per cent.
Then there are the doomsdayers, the number-crunching analysts who’ve had us poised on the brink of condo-fueled financial destruction for going on half a decade now. The condo bears say that far too many property owners have bitten off more housing debt than they can chew. One day—soon! really soon!—those historically low interest rates will spike, and these maxed-out buyers will flee, leaving insta-ghettoes in their wake.
The lives of real Torontonians, however, lie somewhere between analysis and anecdotes. For you, we offer this guide as a barometer in deciding if your time is now. Take heart: The experts we’ve consulted say that condos can make for both a satisfying home and a decent nest egg, so long as you keep the stars out of your eyes.
“Toronto will continue to produce positive returns, but they’ll be modest,” says Diana Petramala, an economist with TD Bank. This past winter, her team put out a scary report proclaiming that with 70,000 newly built units coming on the market by the end of 2015, prices could drop as much four per cent this year, and then another four per cent next year. Meanwhile, the astronomical cost of land has led developers to shrink units to keep prices stable. Between 2005 and 2012, the average new unit lost 160 square feet. The invasion of teeny-tiny condos makes things risky when playing real-estate roulette: Many are bought by investors to flip or rent out, and if a shaky market makes those prospects unprofitable, a flood of for-sale listings could drive down value all over the city.
Cautious buyers, says Petramala, are no longer imagining what could be. Instead, they’re shifting their gaze to what already is. The glitzy pre-construction market has slowed, while unsexy but decent-sized condos in low- or mid-rise buildings that have a proven history of good management are a hot commodity. This has led developers to drop their prices on unbuilt units, as well as offering sweetened deals laden with “free” upgrades and other incentives. Whatever you’re drawn to, the whole scene is much more competitive—in your favour. “Condos right now are definitely a buyer’s market,” Petramala says.
So if you’re a potential condo buyer, slow down. There’s no need to rush. Crunch your personal numbers a few dozen times, and chitchat with that nice lady in the elevator when you’re on your seventh building tour. Plan on loving your condo for five years minimum, because regularly shelling out for movers and real-estate lawyers and the Land Transfer Tax is a waste of money. Try very hard to put down at least a 20 per cent deposit, because the insurance you pay otherwise is also a waste. Finally, dream of a good place to live, not a 10 per cent yearly return.
What type of space are you looking for?
Condo owners in Toronto are spoiled for choice—from super small to totally massive, done up in of-the-minute design or sporting a retro industrial look. Here’s a primer, ranked from retro to more modern:
HARD LOFTS: A hard loft is a building—often a former commercial or industrial- space, like a factory, a warehouse, or a church— that has been converted into residential units, with a goal of preserving the character of the original building. Common design features of hard lofts include exposed bricks and ductwork, and original wooden posts, beams, and floors.
OLDER CONDOS: Built in the ’80s and ’90s, older condominiums may lack modern design elements, but they often make up for it in space. They tend to have more storage, and a lower cost per square foot. They also often have higher maintenance fees, since older buildings generally require more repairs.
NEW CONDOS AND SOFT LOFTS: Brand-new, ready-to-inhabit condos and “soft lofts” have sprouted like mushrooms all over the city. Expect lots of floor-to-ceiling windows, open-concept floorplans, and modern finishes and amenities. Soft lofts are designed to have some of the characteristics of a hard loft, like soaring ceiling heights and polished concrete floors. But they also have many of the comforts of a condo: designer kitchens and baths, some carpeting, drywalled ceilings, and lower utility bills.
PRE-CONSTRUCTION CONDOS: So new they don’t even exist, pre-construction condos offer buyers the opportunity to customize their finishes. Among the downsides: having to contend with uncertainty where move-in dates and final product are concerned.
What if… I have a kid?
The most common layout for large units, the split, plops a shared living area in between the bedrooms. But that means music and TV noise can wake up little ones, says Josh Jean-Baptiste, an agent with Signature Realtors who lives with his wife and two kids in a condo near the lake. “It’s better if the bedrooms are set back separately.”
Dad and condo-owner Tim Wong-Ward wasn’t sure at first if his 1147-square-foot Distillery District unit was family-appropriate. Now, he loves it. his six-year-old daughter can run down the hall to visit a friend, or play on the pedestrian-only cobblestone streets. “A lot of parents spend their weekends looking after their property,” he says. “My weekends are free to go off to the park with her.”
Where do you want to be?
Price per square foot: $547
Average price for a one-bedroom: $348,973
The ’hood: Bar Buca, Weslodge, Valdez—this is the heart of the city’s be-seen restaurant scene, and ambitious urban singletons well aware of it.
TTC: Great access to the King and Bathurst streetcars—though the former is always packed and the latter is s-l-o-w. The east end of the neighbourhood is within walking distance of the subway.
Price per square foot: $538
Average price for a one-bedroom: $315,290
The ’hood: The terrific Corktown Commons park and an easterly outpost of the Body Blitz water spa both opened last year, and the 2015 Pan Am Games promises to attract new amenities. Jamie Kennedy’s Gilead is the only real dinner option, while Morning Glory serves up brunch.
TTC: The King streetcar heads west into the city, or east to Broadview and up to the subway. Otherwise, you’re looking at taking the bus up potholed Parliament Street.
MOUNT PLEASANT WEST
Price per square foot: $532
Average price for a one-bedroom: $347,110
The ’hood: Midtown is either peaceful or boring, depending on your point of view. The retail strip is pretty upscale: think European fabrics and pricey eye creams. There’s great green-space access, thanks to the ravine system to the east.
TTC: Subway stops are farther apart up here, but you’re right on the Yonge line.
Price per square foot: $418
Average price for a one-bedroom: $332,200
The ’hood: Rapidly gentrifying Bloorcourt and Bloordale lie just south and east, featuring the newly renovated Bloor-Gladstone library, loads of awesome hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and a solid indie nightlife scene.
TTC: South-end access to the Dufferin subway station is excellent, and almost makes up for the horrors of the Dufferin bus. Almost.
ST. LAWRENCE MARKET
Price per square foot: $522
Average price for a one-bedroom: $321,210
The ’hood: The area retains its friendly, diverse vibe, even as new buildings pop up all over. Aside from the phenomenal market, there’s upscale Korean at Swish and decent local parks and schools. You can walk to the Eaton Centre.
TTC: Excellent transit access to both streetcar and subway to get around town, and Union Station for heading out.
—Neighbourhood real-estate data from Condos.ca.
What’s your budget—and what’ll that buy you?
A ONE-BEDROOM CONDO IN…
Last sold: $163,989 in 2011
The draw: A wallet-friendly purchase price and maintenance fees—only $201 per month!—makes owning in this hotspot possible. The unit features en-suite laundry and a double closet in the bedroom.
The catch: Those low maintenance fees don’t cover hydro, cable, or parking.
Amenities: Heat, water, building insurance, common elements, gym, party room, roof deck, security guard, and visitor parking.
#1133 – 60 Heintzman St.
Last sold: $360,092 in 2011
The draw: The crown moulding, high ceilings, and four-piece en-suite bathroom in the master bedroom makes this feel like a house. It’s also got a west-facing balcony—perfect for sunsets.
The catch: The tiny kitchen has little counter space; its veneer and stainless steel finishings have a mass-produced vibe.
Amenities: The $484 monthly maintenance fees include heat, water, A/C, building insurance, common elements, parking, concierge, gym, indoor pool, party room, and visitor parking.
#1904 – 35 Hayden St.
Last sold: $655,000 in 2010
The draw: There’s concrete ceilings, support beams, and wall-to-wall windows for hard-loft lovers, a unit-long balcony and kitchen island for the entertainers, and a wall-separated bedroom for the noisy.
The catch: The maintenance fees are a pricey $644 per month and cover parking and access to the Thomson Hotel’s rooftop pool, but little else.
Amenities: Water, building insurance, common elements, parking, and access to hotel service and pool.
#439 – 55 Stewart St.
A TWO-BEDROOM CONDO IN…
Last sold: $202,000 in 2008
The draw: The low purchase price pays for more than 1,200 square feet of space, including two bathrooms and separate living and dining rooms. Recent renos include new flooring and an upgraded master bathroom, and it’s just down the block from Victoria Park Station.
The catch: High square footage means high maintenance fees—over $700 a month—and the anemic kitchen could use a new countertop and some colour.
Amenities: Heat, hydro,water, A/C, common elements, building insurance, parking, gym, pool, sauna, and rec room,
#1602 – 757 Victoria Park Ave.
Last sold: $401,988 in 2011
The draw: This two-level condo separates bedrooms from the kitchen and living room—and there’s a walkout balcony and bathroom on each floor.
The catch: The kitchen is a tight squeeze. There’s no garage in the building, so parking’s not an option.
Amenities: At $721 per month, fees cover heat, water, A/C, common elements, building insurance, parking, concierge, guest suites, gym, pool, party room, and sauna.
#301 – 21 Balmuto St.
Last sold: $559,900 in 2009
The draw: There’s concrete and glass walls a-plenty, but custom touches such as the stone kitchen counters, gas-range stove, and minimalist Corian bathroom sinks offer designer touch. For grillers, there’s a gas line hooked up to the balcony for BBQs.
The catch: The condo fees don’t include taxes—and they were $4,124 in 2013 alone.
Amenities: At $526.81, monthly fees include water, common elements, building insurance, parking, guest suites, party room, locker, security guard, and security system.
#1104 – 25 Oxley St.
What if… I have a dog?
Don’t forget to read the fine print: It’s not uncommon for condominium agreements to ban certain breeds, limit the number of pets, or put a weight limit on canines. The flip side is that if Rover is well-behaved and the right size, dog-phobic neighbours will have to tolerate his presence. “There’s a lady in our condo who does not like dogs at all,” says Alex, 29, who lives near the Rogers Centre and asked that we not use his last name. “I was in the elevator with my miniature schnauzer and the door opened and she started screaming, and refused to get in. Other people’s dogs have been scared by her reaction and started peeing.”
What does +1 actually mean?
Is it a second bedroom or a den? Generally (but not always), a +1 is a smaller, open-concept room with three walls, no closet, and no door, says Christopher Bibby, a real estate agent with Sutton Group. Also, they come in all sizes, so be sure to see the space in person before you invest in a giant desk.
What if… I have a monster art collection?
If you’re rotating through your favourite paintings, records, or wardrobe items, consider that storage lockers in older buildings are larger than those being built today. “Almost double what they are now,” says Jean-Baptiste. He recommends interior units that have a lot of wall space. You may want to consult a designer about custom shelving and other small-space storage solutions.
What makes one developer different from the next?
A crucial part of the condo-buying equation is knowing the builder’s history and reputation—here, a primer on five of the biggies.
In 2003, Daniels debuted a “Rent2Own” program that let wannabe owners move into their condos before shelling out their full down payment. Since then, 165 people have taken advantage of it; a similar program for residents of the revitalizing Regent Park has won the developer a fair amount of goodwill. That doesn’t mean Daniels always gets to do what it wants—after community consultations, the company had to replace the proposed glass walls for its new High Park Condominiums at Bloor and Keele with brick ones that better suit the neighbourhood’s style.
Diamondcorp is one of three developers behind the controversial Garrison Point project, which proposes five towers squished between Liberty Village and Union Station. Those in favour say it’s a clever design for an awkward triangle of land, while those opposed want better infrastructure in the area, not another prefab village. The residential developer has also teamed up with commercial behemoth RioCan and the office developer Allied to dream up a new, mixed-use project for the site the Globe and Mail is vacating on Front Street.
The King West aesthetic belongs to Freed—this design-forward developer kicked off the neighbourhood’s condo craze with the low-rise, 59-unit 20 Stewart in 2008. It has since built nine other residences there, including the eco-friendly Six50 and the tony 500 Wellington West (where president Peter Freed himself used to live). Currently under construction is the company’s first midtown venture—155 Redpath at Yonge and Eglinton, a skyscraper that lost a few storeys after the community complained about its proposed height.
This mid-size developer is still bouncing back from 2010, when glass panels crashing onto Bay Street off of its Murano condo led to multi-million-dollar lawsuits from unhappy residents who were prevented from using their balconies for months. Its long-awaited Ice collaboration with Cadillac Fairview is finally nearing completion: two sold-out waterfront towers with a slew of fancy amenities, the higher one soaring 67 storeys into the sky.
Unquestionably the Big Daddy of new construction, Tridel has built a whopping 13,000-plus units in the GTA over the past decade. It has a reputation for solid (if somewhat staid) buildings, including the huge Icon complex on Wellington. Owned by the powerful DelZotto family, the company’s fingerprints are all over the city’s condominium scene. It also runs Del property management, while the current chair of Tarion (which oversees new home warranties in Ontario) is law partners with one of the DelZotto patriarchs.
Which amenities do you really need? (Because you will pay for them.)
Skip the indoor pool, the yoga room, and the juice bar. They’ll cost you a fortune and odds are you’ll never use them. Here are four amenities that are actually worth the price tag.
› The gym: You don’t have to be a meathead to enjoy a clean gym with an elliptical and a few weights.
› The concierge: “People take for granted that there’s someone minding the door at every building to take packages and things, but there’s not,” says Andrew LaFleur, an agent with Re/Max.
› The party room: “If you live in a 600-square-foot condo, and you have 80 people for Christmas, or 20 people for a birthday, you’ll need the space,” says Grid contributor David Fleming, a realtor with Bosley Real Estate.
› The rooftop patio: Since most Toronto condos don’t allow barbecues on balconies, rooftop patios offer the chance to grill legally. Bonus if there’s an outdoor pool; since it’s only used for half the year, the maintenance costs are lower than an indoor one.
How much should amenities cost you?
In general, fees are calculated by the square foot. When condo hunting, you can compare maintenance costs by dividing the monthly fee by the unit’s square footage (not including balconies).*
What if… I have a tendency to rock out until 4 a.m.?
Know the building’s demographics before you move in, since there’s a reason some buildings are marketed towards retirees, while others make condo life seem like a nonstop Plenty-of-Fish mixer. “Ideally, your neighbours would be in similar life stages to you, so they can join in versus being annoyed,” says Michael Margiotta, 33, who lives in a 720-square-foot unit in North Toronto. His building has concrete walls faced with drywall, but even that isn’t enough for his noise-sensitive neighbour across the hall, who complains when Margiotta hammers in a nail, or has guests over. Freed and Lamb are two developers Jean-Baptiste points to as using quality materials that help muffle sounds.
Buying pre-construction? Which upgrades are worth it?
We asked agents and buyers—click here for a close-up view of the infographic below.
Have you asked these four crucial questions? Good. Ask them again.
What are the condo fees?
“This is the most important question,” says financial planner Shannon Lee Simmons. While older buildings tend to have higher fees going in, if the condo is well managed, they’ll rise slowly. “With new condos, fees tend to rise fast during the first five or six years, and you don’t really have any control,” she says. The more amenities, like a pool or a gym, the higher the fees will be, and the sooner they’ll increase. “Ask a neighbour who already lives there how likely it is that the fees will go up,” advises Simmons.
How hard will it be to renovate?
“Poured concrete is not movable,” points out Dany Waldman, a longtime contractor who recently got his real-estate agent’s license. Even simple drywall can be difficult to reconfigure: In a house, you can put up temporary supports while tearing down one wall and building another, but in a condo, shared walls are full of the power switches and water stacks that your neighbours depend on every day. Most condominiums also have rules about hogging the elevator, doing renos on weekends, garbage disposal, and preferred building materials.
How solid is the condominium corporation?
Make a status-certificate review a condition of buying, so you aren’t burned after you’ve already pledged your life savings. The review will tell you how much is in the reserve fund, which pays for long-term upkeep, and how recently essential maintenance has been completed. It will also reveal special assessments, which are extra fees that can be charged to owners to deal with unforeseen emergencies. “When I get the status certificate, I call the buyer in, and we go over it in detail,” says real-estate lawyer Leonard Banks. “It’s a snapshot of the financial picture, and I can get an idea of what this unit is liable to cost them.”
How long am I going to be here for?
“That’s the question every buyer should ask themselves,” says Jake Abramowicz, otherwise known as Mortgage Jake. He says that borrowers often go with five-year fixed-mortgage rates just because they’re the most popular, without considering that they might want to move in two years, and their lender could penalize them for breaking a mortgage early. “Besides the interest rate, look at the options for down the road,” says Abramowicz. “If you get a bonus at work, can you prepay without a penalty? If you need to move the mortgage, can you get a bridge loan? It has everything to do with the fine print.”
But are you sure you wouldn’t be happier in a little house?
Last sold: $138,000 in 1992
Condo-style features: This one-bedroom cottage-bungalow hybrid has a backyard (but a small one), plenty of light-spilling skylights, and exposed wood beams. There’s no parking space, but it’s just a block away from Coxwell Station.
626 Rhodes Ave. N.
Last sold: $280,000 in 2013
Condo-style features: This detached bungalow has two bedrooms and two bathrooms, as well as a finished basement, but the overall square footage clocks in at around 700 square feet. Most finishings, from the pot light–studded ceilings to the kitchen cabinetry, are recent upgrades.
48 Grandville Ave.
Last sold: $250,000 in 2011
Condo-style features: This east-end one-bedroom treads a line between condo and cottage alternative. The stone-and-wood walls give the exterior a cabin feel, while the interior features a recently renovated kitchen, granite counter tops, pot lights, and angled hardwood floors throughout. The lot size is compact: There’s no detached garage or driveway.
407 Craven Rd.
CORRECTION, APRIL 23, 2014: The original version of this article—as it appeared here and in the April 17, 2014 print edition of The Grid—included incorrect information about calculating the cost amenities per square foot. The erroneous information has been removed.