At first, Michael Train didn’t love the idea of living in a condo. But coming off a freshly ended marriage and the sale of the family bungalow, he faced the common conundrum encountered by many Toronto real estate buyers — a lack of affordable detached housing — with two young daughters in tow.
“It was really hard for me to wrap my head around it when I first started looking at condos, because I did want a house, and I wanted a backyard,” he said. “I made quite a bit from the sale of my home, but it’s just so unaffordable to get a house. We bought the house 10 years ago, and it was almost $400,000. Down payments at that point were (up to) $100,000, and that was 25 per cent of the value of your home. Now, if you have $200,000 to put down, that’s still not going to get you a house. You’re still going to end up with a million-dollar mortgage.”
However, now ensconced in a three-bedroom, 1,200-square-foot unit at Yonge and Finch with his 6- and 8-year-old, his attitude couldn’t be more different. For one, he’s delighted to kiss his snow shovel goodbye.
“It’s been great. There are a bunch of advantages to living in a condo. First of all, I don’t have to shovel my driveway, and I have a covered garage. I’ve never had that before — the house had a one-car garage, and it was full of stuff,” said Train, 39. “The other wonderful thing about condo living is the amenities. There’s an indoor swimming pool that the kids can use in the winter and summer — a four-season swimming pool, in their basement! There’s also a hot tub, a gym … it’s resort-style living, in a sense.”
And, while initially worried how his kids would handle the transition (he splits their time with their mother, who owns a detached home in Thornhill), he reports they love the high-rise lifestyle.
“We decided to put the kids in one room, and use the other as their playroom. There are bunks in the bedroom and in the other, we’ve created this play space with art materials, dress-up costumes and a giant jungle gym,” Train said. “The kids love it … You don’t need a 2,000- or 3,000-square-foot house with a big backyard.”
An emerging housing segment
Train and his family are part of a growing trend in Canada’s priciest housing markets. As the cost of a traditional house spirals well above $1 million — January numbers from the Toronto Real Estate Board peg the average detached price at $1,336,640 in the city proper, and $999,102 throughout the GTA — many buyers needing room to grow are turning to condos as their only affordable option.
It’s a significant change that has been noted by building developers, who are starting to swap ultra-modern micro-units for multi-bedroom suites with ample square footage.
Mimi Ng, vice president of sales and marketing at Menkes Developments, said they first noticed the shifting demographic five years ago when strollers started appearing at newly finished buildings’ “get to know your neighbour” parties.
“We would host these parties in conjunction with our property management team, and so we would see first-hand the people who were actually living in the building,” she said. “Sometimes when you initially sell, it might be to an investor, or the person was single when they first purchased, but three or four years later, when the building is actually completed, they may be in a different life circumstance. They may have had a child, they may be in a relationship.
“We started to realize there was this population segment in our buildings, and we started to think about whether we were really addressing this particular group with the array of amenities we were providing.”
Making room for family life
Menkes, which specializes in residential, commercial and retail developments throughout the GTA, now has two properties that include family-specific amenities. The Eglinton, located at Yonge and Eglinton, features an indoor playroom and jungle-gym, while Harbour Plaza, located in the lake-side Southcore community, has an on-site outdoor playground and track. In both instances, says Ng, the developer consulted extensively with early childhood development specialists to create the spaces. She adds that more will come, depending on the project and location.
“People were booking off the party room and trying to do a playdate in there, which is not necessarily the best space for that,” she said. “We realized that people were adapting to the space, so we thought we could create a dedicated space for that purpose.
“That’s where the inspiration came from — we actually observed the residents living in the building, and realized there was a need that could be addressed.”
Changing Canadian housing perceptions
Ng adds that the company took cues from markets where high-rise living has long been the norm.
“In 2013, we went to Asia, and in Hong Kong we saw a couple of examples of kids’ playrooms,” she said. “Obviously Hong Kong is a very vertical city, so this was very common for them.”
But in North America, downsizing the home-ownership dream can be a tough pill to swallow. In Train’s experience, it was a perception that had to be overcome.
“When you tell people, ‘I’m living in a condo,’ there’s this thought of, ‘Oh, that’s a teeny 500-square-foot space, how are you managing that?’ But it’s a big unit at 1,200-square-feet – it’s about the size of my old bungalow, where I’d barely use the basement,” he said.
“I think that’s just what people have in their heads, this mindset that we need a house. And you really don’t. Look at New York — everybody lives in apartments.”
Trading space for lifestyle
While some aspiring buyers are willing to ‘drive until they qualify’ in order to find a house within budget, suburb living doesn’t appeal to everyone. It’s this segment of people, Ng says, who are increasingly turning to condo life.
“I think that historically, people thought condos were for first-time buyers, or for empty nesters who are downsizing. But now you see a lot of people say, ‘I love this lifestyle. Maybe I want a bigger condo or a second bedroom, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want that maintenance-free lifestyle.’”
Size still matters
However, despite development activity, supply and demand challenges still exist in the condo market. Three-bedroom units are extraordinarily rare, though plans are being made to fill the gap.
“There has been a shift over the last few years of incorporating more than two bedrooms,” said Ng. “Part of that is because the City of Toronto has, from a development and planning perspective, requested that … but developers of their own volition are seeing that there is demand for three-bedroom product. There is demand for product over 1,000-square-feet, and larger units. We’re starting to see purchasers come in and say, ‘I would love to move into a unit but I need 1,200-square-feet — where can I get that kind of space?’”
However, she added that anything larger than three units is unlikely, at least for the foreseeable future.
“Going over three bedrooms — I don’t know how many developers would consider that at this point. You might see builders create three-bedroom-and-den spaces, and somebody might go in and create their own fourth bedroom — and in some other markets, you do see four and five-bedroom units — but that’s probably not going to come to Toronto any time soon.”
But Train says he’s proof such demand exists. “I would have loved a four-bedroom,” he said. “I would have jumped on it. Almost everything is two beds, or a two-plus one, which is like a tiny little room without a window.”
A scarcity of schools
Another common hurdle is the lack of neighbourhood infrastructure that often comes with new builds. Retail, restaurants and even grocery stores can be in scant supply — however it’s being outside of school districts that can especially put strain on families.
“I think it’s the age-old question of what comes first,” said Ng. “It’s difficult because from a developer’s perspective and a resident’s perspective, you want the infrastructure to be there, but sometimes the infrastructure cycle and the delivery cycle of new housing don’t necessarily sync up.”
Train says his family was lucky, as his daughters had already been accepted into an out-of-district school before they moved. However, as a former teacher (he now runs Niteo.ca, an education start-up offering hybrid schooling options for high school students), he has seen first-hand how challenging it can be.
“I definitely know the headaches of new communities being built, and new condos being built, and the backlog and influx of kids. It can be a bit of a pain,” he said, adding, “Then there are bussing issues because they can’t walk to school.”
Limited room to grow
When asked if his condo will continue to suit his family in years to come, Train admits it depends. While currently large enough for all three of them, he’s in the midst of blending his family with his partner’s — also a mother of two.
“They’re actually 8, 7, 6 and 5. It’s like having four 6-year-olds. It’s pretty crazy,” he said. “Part of the time they come here and they’ll have sleepovers and that kind of thing, so often there are four kids in one room. They don’t care, they love it.”
He also likes his new neighbourhood, and thinks it will benefit his family even after his daughters have outgrown sharing a room.
“It’s walking distance to a ton of stuff and as the kids get older and they’re responsible enough to walk down Yonge Street on their own, they can walk down to Empress Walk and go to the movies,” he said, adding he would also consider tearing down a wall between rooms if need be. But for now, 1,200-square-feet fits his family’s needs just fine.
“It’s a great trade-off because I have a new perspective on life where I don’t need all these things,” he said. “I don’t need a big house, I really don’t — it’s just not necessary.”