Nancy LePatourelNational Post
When I moved to Toronto almost 10 years ago, housing prices shocked me. Many of my friends back in Calgary were buying starter homes for well under $200,000. In Toronto, you had to pretty much double that. I had to accept that Canada's largest city was a pricey place to live.
Since then, housing prices across Canada have continued to rise. I bought my first home and have watched most of my friends do the same. But all of us Toronto buyers seem to have one thing in common -- we get less for our money than homebuyers across the country. Friends in Vancouver have windows overlooking the Pacific. Calgary? Most of my mates have at least 2,500 square feet of living space. Then there's the Maritimes. My cousin's beachfront pad in Prince Edward Island looks more like a B&B than a starter home. In Toronto, the average starter home is usually in bad need of a design update and forces occupants to cram their belongings into 1,200 square feet. And yet, all of us paid about the same for our homes.
I've come to accept that $400,000 can now buy you a two-bedroom in need of renos on a busy Toronto street. Hey, at least it's in a good area of town. But when I learned that the average housing price in Calgary is now almost $60,000 more than the average home in Toronto, I laughed out loud. I know Calgary has seen a 46% housing price increase in the past year, but more expensive than Toronto? I just don't buy it. I still thought $400,000 could buy more in Alberta than it can in the Toronto area. So I set out to see what average looks like.
GREATER TORONTO AREA
The average house price in the greater Toronto area is $356,423, but the GTA is a huge area, covering 86 districts from Burlington to Newcastle and as far north as Orangeville. "When making direct comparisons, it's important to note that some areas of Canada have different approaches to calculating the average price," says Dorothy Mason, president of the Toronto Real Estate Board. Toronto covers a huge area and includes all housing types, which drives the average price down. If you want a single-family house in the city, you'll be paying a lot more.
How much more? "When people start looking for a house, most want to be between St. Clair and Wilson, and between Avenue Road and Bayview," says Cheri McCann, a real-estate agent with Sutton Group who has more than 20 years of experience. "There's easy access to downtown by car or subway, great schools, safe neighbourhoods and lots of stores and restaurants within walking distance." But the GTA's average house price won't even buy you an empty lot in this area. "I just sold a two-bedroom on Lawrence [Avenue] for $400,000," says Ms. McCann. "That's as cheap as you can get."
So, what can this $356,423 buy you in Toronto? Not a place in the core, that being the Danforth, Riverdale, the Beach and High Park. "Average" will find you looking to areas west of Allen Road between Lawrence and Eglinton avenues, or the St. Clair and Vaughan region. You may sacrifice convenience, but you will find a house, quite possibly a detached, on a 32x130-foot lot. Many of these homes need overhauls.
In Parkdale, the average outlay can buy you a three-bedroom semi-detached on about 25x133 feet of land. Again, renovations are a must. This area has been on the cusp of gentrification for more than a decade, and with High Park to the west and kitschy hotels such as the Gladstone to the east, Parkdale is increasingly popular. A caveat: Many of the houses are being bought as investment properties and used as rentals with a lot of residents under one roof. "This overpopulates the area, which can lead to problems," Ms. McCann says.
The only other in-the-city option is to look to the Danforth east of Pape Avenue. "The gentrification of Danforth's streets and shops continues to push further and further east," says Ms. McCann. "The area will gain value and I suggest it as a good investment for first-time homebuyers." For around $356,423, you can get a three-bedroom, two-bathroom, semi-detached on about 19x100 feet of land. If you buy close to main streets, you may even find a house that has been updated and needs minimal renovations.
For an average-priced house in an established, safe neighbourhood with good schools, there will be at least an hour's commute to downtown. Richmond Hill and Vaughan to the north of Toronto have detached houses at that average price -- in need of updates with three bedrooms and two baths. The commute into the core will take an hour or more, but at least you'll have a garage to park your car in when you're home and a lot that averages 6,000 feet. A new house in this price range? Well, it'll be a townhouse, also with three bedrooms and two or three baths, but the lot will be tiny, at 21x110 feet. Oakville houses have similar features and commute times. At the opposite end of the city, you can find a newish house in Markham with four bedrooms, three or four baths and a two-car garage on 40x110 sq. ft.
Willing to spend more time in your automobile? Bump up your commute nearer to two hours and score a new house with three or four bedrooms, 2 1/2 baths and a two-car garage on up to 100x200 feet of land in Uxbridge. The house might even back on to a golf course or lake.
In the Toronto area, the average homebuyer must choose between commute time, size and condition of house. You cannot have it all for $356,423.
But how far will your dollars go in the rest of Canada?
Let's start with Vancouver, where the average house price is posted at $821,722. "You couldn't buy any home in West Vancouver or Kits [Kitsilano] beach for $356,423," says Rob Antalek, B.C.'s No. 1 real estate agent, with Re/Max. "The average price of a detached home in West Vancouver is $1,314,000." OK, maybe Vancouver is pricer than Toronto -- or is it? Most bedroom communities are not taken into account in the average Vancouver house price. And if you're willing to sacrifice a little neighbourhood safety and convenience, it is possible to find a nice starter house in the Vancouver core -- one that requires fewer renos than most Toronto options.
"Basically, you'll be looking at townhouses in East Vancouver," says Mr. Antalek. Although this area has traditionally been seen as a rough end of town, it is slowly transforming. "There are new residential towers going up and the desirability of the area is changing." For $356,423 you can buy a new three-bedroom, two-bath, two-car-garage townhouse. And it's new, meaning it will require absolutely no extra renovation dollars once you move in.
B.C. commuters can find a lot more for their money. "Maple Ridge is a great bedroom community just east of Vancouver," says Mr. Antalek. "It's ideal for families, with great schools, parks and recreation areas. It's also very safe." That $356,423 will buy you a three- or four-bedroom, two-bathroom house on 65x130 feet of land -- 25x20 feet more than a lot in Markham. It will have ample parking and most houses require minimal renovations. And the drive to downtown Vancouver will take 45 to 90 minutes, or 50 minutes by train.
Now let's move to Calgary, where the average house price is $413,712. The biggest thing to take into consideration here is that at just over one million people, with no cities around its border, Calgary's commute times are minimal. They used to say you could get anywhere in 20 minutes. With more than 26,000 people expected to move to the city this year, commute times are going up -- to about 25 or 30 minutes. "For $356,423, you will get a house on the farthest outskirts of Calgary," says Duncan Berndt, an agent with MaxWell Norwest Real Estate. But it will be detached in a good neighbourhood, with access to parks, schools and recreation. The house will typically need minimal renovations and will have three bedrooms, 2 1/2 baths and at least a single-car garage.
For the average Toronto price, you'll be hard-pressed to find anything other than a 1,000- to 1,300-sq.-ft. condo in downtown Montreal, but a short commute will buy you a house with 2,000 sq. ft. or more. "The South Shore is a 15- to 30-minute commute to downtown and most of the homes in this price range are in good condition," says Michel Beausejour, chief executive of the Montreal Real Estate Board. Moving out to the North Shore, you'll find manor-style houses on larger lots but your commute time will increase to about an hour. "These areas are fully functional," says Mr. Beausejour. "You don't need to come downtown for services."
Then there's the East Coast, where $356,423 will buy you a 4,000-sq.-ft. house in Charlottetown on more than an acre of land. In Halifax you'll get a little less, but you can still find a 1,500- to 2,000-sq.-ft. house in the city with three or four bedrooms and two baths. Newfoundland? A 5,050-sq.-ft. beautifully renovated home in St. John's on seven acres of land.
It's clear to see that east of Toronto, money will go a lot further. But surprisingly, it will also go further in oil-rich Calgary. Only Vancouver seems able to give Toronto a run for its money.