Ditch The House

May 1, 2010

IS THERE A CONDO IN YOUR FUTURE?

Demographics explains two-thirds of everything. So says David Foot, the University of Toronto economist whose book Boom, Bust & Echo was one of the bestselling titles of the 1990s. Foot argues that the past is better understood and the future made more predictable by the study of human populations. To him, phenomena as seemingly disconnected as the health care crisis, ecotourism, the price of vacation properties and the popularity of minivans all came together through a demographic lens.

In the 1980s, North American baby boomers—the bulging cohort born during, roughly, the two decades between the mid 1940s and mid ’60s—were having children of their own. (“Bust” describes the intervening generation, people born between the mid ’60s and mid ’80s.) Nobody plans, at age 30, to take up leisurely pursuits like golf and birdwatching and packaged travel when they hit their fifties and sixties. But the boomers did just that, and the predictability of their behaviour made a lot of people wealthy (Foot among them).

In the Lower Mainland, one manifestation of the power of demographics has been the proliferation of condominiums. Parts of our city would be unrecognizable to someone who hadn’t been here in the past 20 years. Some 90 percent of downtown condominium units have been created since 1990, when less than 25 percent of the population lived in condos. Today, more than 40 percent of Vancouverites live in them, and the proportion can only keep rising.

Factors other than demographics are at work, of course. Transportation hassles, the scarcity of buildable land, and the environmental benefits of denser living are all conspiring to force growth up, not out. Ten years hence, many more people will live in condos and townhomes and fewer will live in detached houses.

For many members of Foot’s “echo” generation—those boomer children now entering the real estate market—a small condo is the only affordable option. At the other end of the scale, the boomers who raised these kids have regained a measure of independence and are turning (as Foot predicted) to travel and birdwatching and golf. For many empty nesters and retirees, this involves downsizing to a condo.

We asked people who’ve moved from a house to a condo to talk candidly about the pros and cons of the transition. What surprised them? What do they miss, enjoy, regret? Is a condo confining when you’ve had your own house? Is your strata council right out of an Orwell novel? What do you do if you share a wall with the neighbour from hell? You’ll be illuminated—and surprised—by their answers.—Jesse Spencer 

FOR COMPLETE PROFILES  

[Grid: 281 | Ditch the House]

TRADE UP

 Martin & Susan Braun| Owners, Vancouver Laser and Skin Care Centre

LEFT A 3,700 sq. ft. house on “Millionaires Row,” Southwest Marine Dr., complete with an expansive garden, swimming pool, and eight-person jacuzzi. We thought we had it all.

FOR  A succession of five downtown condos, starting at False Creek and finally landing ourselves in a 2,400 sq. ft. condo on the 52nd floor of Shangri-La. There’s a spa, a fitness centre, and a 48-seat private movie theatre. And there’s no house with views like ours. Cost: $2.9 million.

WHY Our two children begged us to “be cool and live downtown.” We tried renting downtown and were so instantly smitten with our new lives, the seawall, the Granville Island Ferry, that we immediately arranged to buy.

UPSIDE We don’t have to look at gutters that need cleaning, spider webs on the eaves, or leaves in the pool. Instead, we enjoy five-star amenities and valet parking. And less space means we have no room to store all the junk that the kids are just going to throw out anyway when we die. Never mind the phenomenal gain in property values for condos compared to detached houses.

DOWNSIDE Everything we worried about turned out to be a plus. The tranquility of our house, which we thought we’d miss, now seems boring. We also thought we’d miss having relatives stay with us. But it’s a plus: they no longer invite themselves for weeks on end. We put them up in the hotel part of the Shangri-La, a few floors below us; they have privacy and feel like royalty.

HAPPY? We’ve never looked back with a single regret.

TAKE THE PLUNGE 

 

Kathy Chan | UBC program assistant

LEFT A two-storey house in East Van, where I lived with my family until I graduated.

FOR A 738 sq. ft. condo in a new building at Powell and Main.

WHY You know how some kids say, “When I graduate, I want a car” or “I’m going to travel”? I always wanted to own property. UPSIDE Coming and going when I want. The energy in restaurants and bars like the Lamplighter. It’s easy to shop at Nesters. It’s an area in transition.

DOWNSIDE It’s an area in transition. Some of my friends are hesitant to come over. 

HAPPY?
I paid under $300,000 in 2007, and it’s worth $350,000 now. I thought I’d be here for many years, but if I sold now, I’d have enough for a downpayment on a bigger, better place.

MAKE TIME

Veronica & Larry Madore | Sales director; self-employed engineer

LEFT A 2,100 sq. ft. rancher on a big corner lot, in the forest in Delta. I bought it when my daughter was 12 so she could spend her teen years walking to school. I was a single mom at the time. It was the hangout house.

FOR A 1,200 sq. ft. condo with a 400 sq. ft. wrap-around deck at Beach and Hornby.

WHY My daughter moved out when she was 18. The house required lots of work. And I was working downtown, so I wanted to be close to the office.

UPSIDE We’re getting way more exercise. We don’t use our cars on the weekend at all.

DOWNSIDE I ended up with a job in Delta, so now I’m commuting back to the place I left!

HAPPY? I don’t miss my house at all.  We have time to ourselves without the work of a house.

SET PRIORITIES 

 

Georgy & Bill Good | Homemaker; broadcaster

LEFT A four-bedroom, 4,000 sq. ft. house, high on the North Shore hillside, with sweeping views of the city and a big yard.

FOR A 1,400 sq. ft. condo in Coal Harbour with two bedrooms and a den. Which is more than we need.

WHY The kids are grown up; we had a few empty bedrooms. Plus, I’m working 12-hour days, so getting my commute down to a matter of minutes was a big deal.

UPSIDE It makes you take stock of what you need and what you want. We have a house on the Sunshine Coast for weekends—and even if we didn’t, Stanley Park feels like our own back yard. I thought it would feel like hotel living, but it’s way more neighbourly than that.

DOWNSIDE It took Georgy a year to adjust to not having a garden. But one day she looked at me while we were watching seaplanes land on Burrard Inlet and said, “God, I love this place.”

HAPPY? It’s changed my lifestyle dramatically. The sheer convenience. Suddenly there’s no such thing as traffic. Even the weather becomes inconsequential because I can move around underground. And myriad restaurants are blocks away.

 START OVER

 

Sandra Lorenz | Training to become a mortgage broker

LEFT A 2,250 sq. ft., four-bedroom house in Steveston. It was an ’80s home and I put $50,000 into renovating it a few years back to give it a Whistler château feel—all river rock, warm tones, and everything.

FOR A 1,200 sq. ft., two-bedroom condo in Steveston by the river.

WHY Divorce. I was left with all the stuff in the house, and I got rid of it in one day. Had a big garage sale and everything that didn’t sell I took to the dump that afternoon. That way there’s no second-guessing. And I don’t miss any of it.

UPSIDE It has one of the largest patios of any condo in the area, with a lagoon to look out on and boats visible on the river. I can hear frogs singing in the spring. And living here with my son, it was imperative we have two bathrooms. That was something  I wouldn’t compromise on.

DOWNSIDE
Strata councils. I got a letter from mine threatening to fine me if I didn’t keep my “vicious dog” chained up. Belle is a three-pound pomeranian/chihuahua mix. It’s ridiculous.

HAPPY?
My plan is to stay here for five years, building up some equity. It cost $338,000 when I bought it in May 2009, and it’s already appreciated by $40,000. Plus I spend more time outdoors now, and was forced to get rid of clutter. People still come by lots, too, though I had thought my life would get quieter. My lifestyle hasn’t changed at all.

GET CLOSER

John Starkey | President, FCV Technologies

LEFT A 1,900 sq. ft. townhouse in Seattle. Very suburbia. In the States, you get used to gargantuan homes. Then I realized I don’t need a huge footprint.

FOR A 1,100 sq. ft. condo in Yaletown. One bedroom and den for me and a bedroom for my boys—who are five and three—when I have them.

WHY I was commuting up to an hour each day to work at Expedia and then, five years ago, I decided to move back to Canada, jump off the cliff, and be an entrepreneur. I needed a condo to do that because the commute from a house can swallow so much of your time. And starting my own company, time was what I needed.

UPSIDE I can walk out my front door, head to Ecomarine on Granville Island, and go paddling on False Creek. And my kids love that we’re so close to Science World and the seawall.  The location is ideal.

DOWNSIDE It’s fair to say that there are advantages to having a back yard, but for me that’s mitigated by Stanley Park. There’s green space around most of the condos in Vancouver.  And I worried a little about raising my kids in an urban environment, but they love it.

HAPPY? Everything about my lifestyle changed. My stress levels dropped—my commute to work is seven minutes on the SkyTrain. I wanted to spend more of my time engaging with the city, walking, biking, living my life. And that’s exactly how things are working out. VM

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