Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Toronto's Traffic Nightmares

Toronto is a good ranking city. For the most part, we deserve a good pat on the back for that. Year after year, we land on the top 20 of the most livable cities in the world. We are one of the world’s most multicultural city. And increasingly, we are the favoured destination for incoming immigrants looking for a stable, welcoming and profitable hometown. All very impressive stuff. But there is one list where we really shouldn’t be too proud of.  And that’s the worst traffic list. Now we’re the 4th worst city for traffic on the continent slowly but surely making our way to the #1 spot.

So, what does this mean, as Toronto gets less easy to move around? Well, it makes for a much less enjoyable city. This, in turn, chips away at our ranking as the most liveable city. But if you don’t care about your city's ranking, you probably do care about your commute time.  Sure, some city dwellers can walk every where they need – where work, fun, and a living space is all within a pleasant strut of one another. These dwellers can live without the help of a car, bike or public transit.  And if you’re one of those people, then traffic probably doesn’t bother you too much. But you’re probably like me, and traffic can make your life more miserable than it needs to be.

The problem is, some individuals like to blame densification as the problem. Some think there are simply too many condos being built. I, however, think it’s a good thing that condos are being built ( that fit in with a given neighbourhood) and that added density to our city is inevitable. I think it revives desolate sections of the city and creates more human traffic that ultimate leads to safer neigbhourhoods and solid neigbhourhoods where people will speak to one another in the dog park and where there’s enough people to support a local coffee shop and a local pub and a place where you can meet your neigbhours.

The big problem is that the city's infrastructure has not changed with the growth and intensification. That's where the problem lies. Public transit is still too focused on extending further out into the suburbs to bring more people into a system that is already too stressed for long periods of time during the day. Even though there’s been some great ideas on how to bring better transit to downtown, it's tough to get a big transit plan off the ground. 

Really, transit should be a much bigger issue in this city, whatever your political stripe. The leadership just isn’t there and doesn’t seem to have been present for awhile, and quite frankly, the city does not have the power it should to do big projects. Cities in the States have some better financial resources to make big projects go through. Think Chicago and their amazing waterfront and parks. Toronto could never pull that off in it’s current state. It simply doesn't have the financial clout or power.

So, for now, traffic will only get more gridlocked.  And as a real estate agent, I am seeing how some locations are really starting to be effected by the lack of traffic flow. Here are a few to be concerned about:

  1. Cityplace. This collection of condos just north of the Gardiner around Spadina are often maligned. Some say they are not built well. Some say there are too many rentals that are starting to look poorly maintained already. Whatever you think, it does have one thing going for it, and that’s location. It is right next to Spadina where the streetcar only can get you to the Bloor line very quickly. And the Spadina car comes frequently. But if you are like me, and drive, you may be fooled by the Gardiner that is seemingly so close. You can pop right on to the Gardiner and away you go, right? Not exactly...  With the added density, getting on to the Gardiner or just getting on to Spadina can take more time that crossing the city in your car. Don’t be fooled by proximity to the highway here.

  1. Liberty Village – For the most part, Liberty Village is pretty successful. Some top notch condos in there. Good restaurants. Places to go, but wow, there is a lot of condos in there, and as far as driving is concerned, the roads are not wide enough to support the amount of cars that will and do need them. And the more condos they add, the tougher those roads are going to get for cars and public transit requiring the street. 

  1. Carlaw St in Leslieville. This street isn’t so bad yet. The one thing the east end of Toronto has going for it: Less traffic than the west. And at one point, moving along Carlaw was a snap, but those days are gone. With the new and upcoming condo density, even though the condos are not nearly as high as Liberty Village or Cityplace, there is a significant increase in traffic along Carlaw. And more to come.

In some ways, traffic is just a way of life. Some thing that is just part of living in the city. But as Toronto changes for the better with a surge of high end luxury condos, a Frank Gerhy condo proposal, the PanAm Games, and improvement of so many of its nieghbourhoods, this city really needs to make transit it’s #1 priority. 

Monday, 22 October 2012

MPAC is back: Be Very Afraid!

If you own a house or condo or any property in Ontario, you have likely come to know MPAC all too well. And maybe, after understanding what they do, you wish you never knew them at all.

MPAC has been dormant for a little while. So, if you are new to the property world or have not bought a property just yet, you may not have much of an opinion. MPAC is the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation. It was formed in the late 90s to determine how much your home or condo is worth. And in turn, property taxes are based on this amount. 

Currently all property taxes in Ontario are based on the values of January 1, 2008. And now or very soon, the housing prices will be based on January 1, 2012. So, property taxes will be going up. Way up. And then a little higher than that depending on where you live. In Toronto alone, the average price of a home has gone up 23% between 2008 and 2012, but we all know is some key neighbourhoods, it has been a lot more.  Scarborough will not see the same increases as Dufferin Grove. I have even heard from my trusted local MPP that it will be a lot higher for properties closer to the subway. News of MPACS return has led to many new discussions about how to challenge what are expected to be some fairly dramatic changes to your property taxes. 

Back in 2008 when I received my first reassessment on my first home in Leslieville, I was shocked that my house was worth $50,000 more than my neighbours. We had almost the exact same house. The difference were so minor that I hardly think it accounted for $50,000. So after many appeals, they lowered it. Not by 50K, but enough to satisfy me. What I've learned about MPAC from this experience and from the experiences of many friends and clients: They often get it wrong. I'm not completely familiar with how they determine value. It has a lot to do with what information they have about your property, your renovations and your neighbourhood. 

Some of you may be spared and feel comfortable with your increase in property taxes. Or you may be shocked out of your mind. I have a feeling that there is going to be a lot of shock going around this Halloween season, and it will have little to do with ghosts and zombies, and a lot to do with you MPAC assessment.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Are bidding wars over?

Are bidding wars over?

The short answer: no. In fact, I'm sporting my helmet and sword, and  I'm headed into a bidding war tonight to smite the competition! And it's going to be tough fight since I am up against 6 other agents/buyers. Just goes to illustrate bidding wars are still here.

Though they are currently very much a part of the Toronto real estate market, bidding wars are simply less common than they used to be.  Not too long ago, it seemed that almost every property was set up to end in a bidding war. All sellers had to do was put their house or condo on the market in Toronto and the buyers would come rushing in with their best offer.  Times are different now, even though the bidding wars have far from disappeared.

Generally speaking, the market is inconsistent right now. Even in the next month or two, you will see fewer properties holding back offers a week in order to generate enough interest for a bidding war. But what makes some properties more successful at generating multiple bids? I've seen some great homes hold back offers and not receive one bid on offer day. For me, it has a lot to do with  well-located neighbourhoods that are leafy and pretty, trendy or on the rise.  And a little luck and timing doesn't hurt either. But it's not just about having a well-staged property with curb appeal.

Properties that attract bidding wars are often listed at a competitive price. To put it less mildly, less than market value to draw more bidders to the table. It's risky, and at times frustrating for buyers and their agents, but it's still a common practice with many to list below market value in order to get more offers. If the offers don't come in after holding back offers for a week at a lower price, then the listing is often terminated, and then re-listed at a price that the sellers are actually willing to take. Not a practice I love, but one I have learned to accept as just part of the real estate business in this town.

So, in the months ahead, it may not be the best tactic to hold back offers and expect a rush of buyers, unless you have a real zinger of a place, and you are willing to list under market value. I think we will see more real estate salespersons listing properties close to the price their sellers would like without a holding back the offers a week.  Already I have seen some properties listed above market value to leave a little room for negotiation. That means an offer any time, but a sales price that will likeley end up below the listing price. This is especially true in the condo market where bidding wars are fewer than with houses. This, in turn, will lead to more negotiations on the price or the conditions of the sale or the chattels.

It's a balanced market. And it's not such a bad thing. Prices, at this point, are not down, but they are not continuing to rise faster than the rate of inflation like it has been for years.

The banks and the goverment are making it tougher to qualify for a mortgage. So fewer people are being given mortgages. Strangely, from a Toronto perspective, this is putting a lot of pressure on the rental market, causing rents to increase substantially while first-time buyers are sidelined from buying and during a time of tight vacancy in this city.

The good news for buyers is that there is less competition in an environment where rates are still very good. For sellers, there's no need to panic. Some may say there are warning bells for a busting bubble, but when I'm going up against 6 other buyers and their agents for a property, I'm not really feeling the bubble vibe. Prices are still holding up for now, even though bidding wars are  not the only way to buy a house these days.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Frank Gehry: Good For Toronto?

Okay, I'll say it. I love them! Monster-sized condos are not usually my thing, but I like these three monsters, quite a bit. Love can be like that some times...

There's been a lot of crabby reviews and editorials since the proposed development, three 80 story towers along King West in the Entertainment District with a whopping 2600 units in total. As you likely have heard, Frank Gehry has teamed up with David Mirvish to offer one of the most ambitious projects in this city's history, making the Trump Tower seem wimpy and yawn-worthy and the Shangra La seem Shangra Blah, at least from a architectural perspective.

The critics have some good points though. The traffic will be insane, during and after construction. And the building of these towers, like all other condos on earth, will take way longer to construct than the developers say. To those traffic worries, I couldn't agree more. BUT traffic in this area is already a bit of a nightmare. So a better solution, I think,  is to build a larger subway system. I'm not sure where the money will come from. Maybe the developer could foot the cost of some of this line? I know the idea of a relief subway line has been thrown around in the past few years, just south of this proposed development.  That would certainly help reduce some of the worries of traffic. They don't call it  the Downtown Relief Line for nothing.

Critic also worry about the loss of one of our theatres, one that would need to be torn down in order for this project to be built. Though the Princess of Wales Threatre will have to go, the arts will not be neglected. There will be a 60,000 square foot art gallery in its place. And the truth is, The Princess of Wales Theatre is not full of patrons at the moment. This city, according to people who go to theatres, has too many of them. Shows don't run year after year like they were expected. Instead, musicals run for a shorter period and there are smaller shows that attract a larger part of the the theatre-going audience.

But enough with the naysayers. Here's why I think it should get built:

1. Frank Gehry has a pretty good track record. With just one Gehry museum in Balboa, Spain, he put a rinky dinky backwaters Spanish city on the map. And even for those Alpha cities, he's left his mark. There's the Disney Centre in LA. 8 Spruce Street in NYC. Both have added to the cities they were built.

2. Toronto needs some pizzazz in the achetecture department. Gehry is right. Toronto's architecture is "mostly bland". So, why not kick it up a notch?  To our credit, it's not our fault. Toronto burst in size in the 60s and 70s. We grow in a era of ugly. Now is our chance to be a little adventurous.

3. We can create a neighourhood juggernaut. King West is hardly an emerging neighbourhood. I'd say it's clearly an established one.  In many ways, it's taken over as the new centre of the city from Yorkville, snatching TIFF right out from under it, plus the already huge theatre scene that exists there. Even though it's a neighbourhood on top, this Gehry project will inject King West with even more cultural cache. Yes, it will be more crowded, but London's crowded and so is New York and so is Hong Kong.

I do have one worry though, different from the critics. I worry that a wishy washy compromise could happen. The City of Toronto may get fussy and water down the vision. Maybe the project will simply become too expensive and corners will need to get cut.  Look at the ROM. Way more interesting on paper until they ran short of money when one of the backers questioned the design. Then came the final product with cheaper materials and a simpler, less inspired design.

Hopefully they will learn from the mistakes of the ROM. And maybe Toronto will learn from a city that has taken on some daring architecture. And this time, I'm not talking about London or New York. All you have to do is turn your head west to see the Marilyn Monroe Tower in Mississauga, a design that rivals and even exceeds the best of Toronto buildings. In fact, the success of the Marilyn Monroe tower was so big, Mississauga decided to build another one.

Monday, 1 October 2012

How To Spot the Next Hot Hood Before the Prices Go Nuts

With a blog spot called "Emerging T.O." and as a real estate salesperson who specializes in emerging neighbourhoods, it's not very surprising when I am frequently asked: "What is the next hot neighbourhood going to be?"

It's a tough question because I don't always answered the same way. My answer really depends on the person asking. Some prefer their emerging neighbourhood a little more "done", a place that is clearly on the upswing that is already filled with an assortment well-reviewed restaurants, doggie day care, and yoga studios. Who doesn't know by now that Leslieville  and Ossington Street have tranformed to some of the trendiest neighbourhoods in the city, in some cases surpassing most of the established neighbourhoods as far as the cool factor is concerned?

Today, however, I want to speak to those pioneers out there, the ones who are looking for the next "hot" neighbourhood before any one has the inkling to open up a cool coffee shop or an organic grocery store. I want to talk about an area that has potential. The prices of the houses are still humble, but it's ripe for some action. In the past I have talked about Weston Village up at Lawrence and Keele as being an inexpensive place to buy on the upswing, but today I want to talk about Caledonia, several blocks east of Caledonia Street between St Clair and Eglinton. 

But why there? you may wonder. How does this Dave guy even know this is a place that will become a hot neighbourhood? Well, I don't know for sure, but there are a few indicators. First, there is housing. Like I often say, neighbourhoods that have houses that are close to public transit and are in relatively decent shape, are ripe for improvement. There are very few houses being built in this city. So, the inventory remains low and the demand, over the long term increases. 

Also, there already is a decent commercial strip nearby where cool things can go and where currently there are a number of functioning businesses, which serve the neighbourhood well. 

And lastly, there is one indicator that I have noticed from the trenches as a real estate salesperson. I have shown a lot of homes here recently, and I see a lot of first time buyers being pushed into this neighbourood because they are getting priced out of Mimico, Leslieville and the Junction, the cool hoods whose emergences have become known, and whose prices have gone up. 

One of the best things about this neighbourhood is the landscape. Surprisingly great views with rolling hills and streets that go up and down that has a look more similar to San Francisco than flat Toronto. 

The St. Clair streetcar is right there with a street car only lane for quicker public transit. It's easy to access the 401 from Eglinton, and you even had Earlscourt Park, a surpisingly large park that is often overlooked.

Caledonia right now is largely a working class Portuguese neighbourhood with a few Italians thrown in. There are other ethnic groups in here as well, but when the FIFA world cup is on, you'll know this is a Portuguese neighbourhood. (Unless Portugal is eliminated and then they back Brazil). Generally speaking, the Portuguese have been known to take care of their homes here. There are quite a variety of homes in this neighbourhood from the humble bungalow to the historic two-story brick home. It reminds me of Beaconsfield when it was called Little Portugal, located at College and Douvercourt, an area that used to be largely Portuguese and Italian. Nowadays Beaconsfield still has that Portuguese flavour but the neighbourhood is much more mixed with new homeowner, a lot more variety of commercial businesses, and much bigger price tags on the houses. 

In the Toronto neighbourhood of Caledonia, the prices are still reasonable by this city's standards. So, if you want to buy a house in a hood that could become hot soon, you may want to consider this neighbourhood.