Last week, we launched a new series documenting Ratehub.ca’s own Kerri-Lynn’s (KL) experiences with buying her first home. We’ve already shared some of the financial decisions KL and her partner had to make, as well as how they built their team of real estate professionals, which is the foundation of the home buying process. For today’s post, she and I talked about the process of actually going on viewings, figuring out what they liked and how they ended up in a house vs. a condo.
Cait: Why did you think you wanted a condo, at first?
KL: I just thought we couldn’t afford a house in Toronto – at least not in a location that we’d actually find desirable. We’re urban people, so we wanted to be close to downtown where there’s culture, restaurants, shopping, etc. Before we started our search, we weren’t as educated on the Toronto housing market, or the different pockets in the city where housing is still somewhat affordable. Ok, scratch that, not affordable – because nothing really is here – but attainable! So, we started looking at condos.
Cait: What kinds of condos were in your price range?
KL: At first, we started looking at condos that claimed to have 2 bedrooms, but were more like 1 bedroom + dens. After looking at a bunch of those, we realized that 800 square feet wasn’t going to be enough space for us. No matter how well it’s laid out, it’s just not a great option for starting a family in (and this goes back to the fact that we wanted a 10-year home, not a 5-year home). So, we figured out pretty quickly that we would have to look at “large” 2 bedroom condos, with 1,000 square feet or more. But then once we were looking at that size, and tacked on the condo fees (which are based on square footage, and can add up fast), we realized the monthly carrying costs would be pretty similar to what we would pay if we bought a house at a higher price point.
Cait: What are some things you saw happening in the Toronto condo market?
KL: I think the biggest takeaway for us was just how competitive the “family-friendly” condo market is in Toronto. We lost two bidding wars on condos, which is crazy because bidding wars aren’t very common in the resale condo market! Unfortunately, there’s a very limited supply of large 2 bedroom condos in Toronto, so demand is high. And this is a problem more and more buyers are likely going to face. It seems like the trend is for condos to get smaller, not larger. But the need of a growing high-rise city like Toronto is to add more family-friendly units – and developers just aren’t building them.
Cait: After seeing so many condos, what are some things you think people should look out for when they go on viewings?
KL: One of the biggest things we noticed was that the quality of new/newer builds was just not that great. You have to be extremely careful and do your due diligence, because there are a lot of bad developments out there. One unit we saw, in particular, was just terrible. We waked in and you could practically bounce on the floors, because the under flooring wasn’t installed properly. You could also see where the drywall was taped, and notice where they rushed to finish up – like the two bathrooms didn’t match at all, probably because partway through they had to finish up and find ways to save on costs. If these are the things you can see on first inspection, can you imagine what’s hiding underneath the surfaces?
We can also speak to this from our experience as renters in the city. We rented the same unit for the past 4 years, in a building that’s only 5 years old, and it had major issues. Our unit flooded twice, and our heat and air conditioning seemed to breakdown every 3 months. We lived without air conditioning for the last month-and-a-half of our time as tenants there, before getting the keys to our house. This kind of stuff is not ok! For all of these reasons, we did a lot of research on the best and worst developers in the city. Everyone should do their own independent research, but we know there are a couple developers in particular that we never would’ve bought from. This is also why it’s extremely important to work with a real estate agent who does a lot of business in condos and knows where the best buildings are. And when you go on viewings, try not to let yourself fall in love with how a condo looks!
Cait: What happened when you started looking at houses?
KL: At the beginning, we were both really eager – this is why, again, it’s important to take a step back, take your time when walking through it and try not to fall in love with how a house “looks”. I was guilty of that. The first house we saw, I fell in love with it and overlooked a lot of things that I should’ve paid attention to. It wasn’t as big as I actually needed (so it would’ve only been a 5-year house), it wasn’t renovated to as high a standard as the house we ended up buying, etc. We basically just fell in love with the idea that we could actually own a house versus a condo.
Cait: What was different about viewing houses over condos?
KL: Looking at houses is totally different. As someone who has never owned a house before, it was a little nerve-wracking, because I didn’t know what to look for. I didn’t know anything about which type of electrical wiring was best, or how many years a hot water tank could last before it needed to be replaced – just stuff like that. Basically, I didn’t even know the questions that needed to be asked. Fortunately, our real estate agent was able to point things out to us, ask questions for us and shared a lot of general knowledge we would need as homeowners. So two tips from that experience: try to find a realtor who is handy around the house, and know that older houses can potentially come with more problems.
Cait: How many viewings did you go to, before you finally bought?
KL: I’d say 10 of each? So, 10 condos and 10 houses.
Cait: And was the house you bought the last viewing you went to?
Cait: How did you know you wanted this house?
KL: After you’ve gone on enough viewings, you know exactly what type of house you want – and just have to hope you can actually find it (and can afford it) in a neighbourhood you like it, which was the case with this house. As soon as we saw it, we knew it had great curb appeal. Even though the house is over 100 years old, the interior had all brand new renovations, which was important to us because neither of us is handy. My partner is also gone during the week, because he’s a travelling consultant, so undertaking a renovation would’ve fallen entirely on my shoulders and we didn’t want to have to take that on. The house was move-in ready, with modern renovations done to a high standard. It also had high ceilings and great lighting. The first floor is open concept, but you can see some separation of all the rooms and the space is laid out in a way that it’s really functional. There were enough bedrooms and bathrooms that we could start our family, and we could certainly stay in it for the next 10 years. So, there was no question that we wanted it!
Cait: And how did you choose which neighbourhood you wanted to live in?
KL: When we were first looking at condos, Condos.ca was our go-to site for information on neighbourhoods and value trends. There’s seriously no other site like it. I wish there was something similar for houses in Toronto, but we had to use a few different sites to get all of the same information. Zoocasa.com was great because it updated more often than any other site, so the newest listings were always there. Realtor.ca was also good, because it has virtual tours and most real estate sites don’t include them. We also used Scholarhood.ca to try and find a house near a good school in Toronto. And then Realosophy has a neat tool that helps you find the right neighbourhood for you.
Beyond that, if we liked a place, we spent time driving and walking around it. It was kind of fun figuring out what was within walking distance (grocery stores, transit, restaurants, etc.). Sure, the walk score can tell you that, but it’s nice to just walk around and experience it for yourself. We also knew we wanted there to be a cultural hub close by, and we liked the idea of being in an area that was gentrifying. The neighbourhood we ended up buying in is the perfect mix of everything we wanted: it’s close to downtown, there’s a good mix of families and young professionals, it’s not too hipster or too affluent, etc. And we lucked out by finding a house that was directly across the street from both an elementary school and a daycare. We’re also just down the street from No Frills, which is perfect… because it’s the only place we’ll be able to shop now. Ha!
Next week, we’ll talk about how many bidding wars KL ended up in, what she learned about them and how she finally won her first home!