“I never thought I could afford a home in the Beaches. Then I built my own laneway house”

“I never thought I could afford a home in the Beaches. Then I built my own laneway house”

Joey Bilewicz, a 32-year-old producer and production manager, put up a three-bedroom home on his parents’ lot for $650,000

Joey Bilewicz with his family in front of their laneway home in east end Toronto, Ontario
Photo by Lucy Lu

I spent much of my childhood and early adulthood living in my parents’ four-bedroom house in the Upper Beaches. I always loved that part of Toronto: many of my relatives and friends live in the neighbourhood, and Lake Ontario is just a short walk away. In 2016, when I turned 25 and began establishing myself as a video and film producer, I moved out of my parents’ house to live with my girlfriend, Zoe, who later became my wife. We rented a two-bedroom condo just a few blocks away.

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In 2020, we began thinking about buying a house in the area. Zoe works at a law firm, and together we made a decent income, but the housing market was insane. We could pull off a mortgage of around $550,000, which was not nearly enough for a house in the Beaches. In fact, we could barely have afforded a tiny studio downtown, not that a studio would have worked for us—we wanted a place that would be large enough to eventually raise a child in. So we entertained the idea of buying a slightly larger condo in East Scarborough and even thought of purchasing a small cottage on the edge of the GTA while renting in the city. But living that far from downtown didn’t fit with our work lives. I frequently travel around the downtown core to shoot sets, and Zoe works on Bay Street.

Joey's living room, with a white rug and a designer grey coffee table

Meanwhile, I began noticing laneway houses sprouting up across the city. I wondered if that could be our way to own a place in the Beaches. My parents’ property was long and deep enough to accommodate a second home in its backyard, and they were on board to share the lot with us. We weren’t concerned about the proximity. Even when we rented in the neighbourhood, we regularly saw my parents but respected one another’s boundaries. I was more nervous about the legal process of building and obtaining permits. More than anything, though, we were thrilled about having a chance to become homeowners in a neighbourhood we loved.

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In early 2021, we began planning our build. I reached out to Lanescape, a Toronto architectural firm that specializes in laneway houses. Their team of architects surveyed my parents’ lot to see how large we could make our home. We had to abide by a few rules: we were obviously not allowed to build over property lines, and the size of the laneway house could not exceed that of the main house. Once we knew our size limits, we came up with a rendering for a 1,350-square-foot, two-storey designer home with three bedrooms and two bathrooms.

A view of their home from the back laneway, covering in snow
Photo by Lucy Lu

We began construction in March of 2022, and estimated that our project would cost $500,000. But then we were hit with quickly rising material prices, a lingering effect of pandemic-related supply chain issues. In the span of just one month, our lumber costs went up by $18,000. So we built as economically as we could without cutting corners. We laid down a concrete slab instead of digging a basement, which saved us nearly $200,000. On it, we built a wood frame with corrugated steel cladding and finished it with vinyl windows. We also built out a front-yard patio with a concrete step and a parking pad that leads to the laneway.

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We splurged more on the inside. I’m finishing a diploma in interior design at George Brown, so it was an opportunity for me to try to realize a vision. We installed a wood-burning fireplace in the living room, carved out a full chef’s kitchen, added a veneered Ettore Sottsass coffee table and filled the house with eight closets and built-in shelving to minimize clutter. We then built twisting stairs and lined them with a custom handrail that I designed.

Joey's white, wood burning fireplace, which extends up to the ceiling

The custom handrail that Joey designed for the stairs

The primary bedroom has a king-sized bed and a walk-in closet, and we have a baby’s room and a guest suite. The bathrooms, with their funky mirrors and floor-to-ceiling tiles, are my favourite part. Even though we had to compromise on some wish-list items—like an exposed joist ceiling and a waterfall staircase—I’m happy with the result. We did exceed our budget, however, due to the inflated cost of materials, the cost of custom interior design and a number of contracting fees to surveyors, arborists, lawyers and landscapers. When all was said and done, the build cost us close to $650,000.

One of Joey's bedrooms, with pale yellow bedding

One of Joey's two bathrooms, which has floor to ceiling brown and white tile and a mirror with ridged edges

Usually, owning this type of real estate in the Beaches would have cost us north of a million. Since we’re sharing the lot, the financials ended up making a lot of sense. My parents already had a mortgage on the property, so we didn’t have to apply for a second one. Instead, we refinanced my parents’ home with me and Zoe on the title. Each month, my parents pay the small amount they still owe on the property, and we pay the amount we owe for the laneway house. There was no down payment needed, and we were able to qualify for a 30-year amortization instead of 20 or 25, which makes the monthly payment smaller and quite manageable.

Joey's kitchen, which is mostly white with black chairs at the table

We moved into our new place in March of 2023, just two months before our son, Teddy, was born. I won’t pretend the lifestyle doesn’t come with challenges. For instance, we couldn’t sell one house without selling the other. So, if Zoe and I—or, alternatively, my parents—wanted to sell our place, all property owners would have to be on board. In that way, the situation is less flexible than conventional home ownership. But, in our case, it works: my parents like that we are close by, and the extra support may come in handy as they age.

Otherwise, it feels like we’ve played the real estate game well and won a prize. I’ve been telling friends that they should do the same. Obviously, not everyone is fortunate enough to have parents who own land in the city, but there are other ways to make laneway houses work. For example, two couples could join incomes, buy a property, build a laneway home on it and each have their own home in a neighbourhood they otherwise couldn’t afford. Alternatively, I think people should consider garden suites: modular homes that can be built in someone’s backyard even without a laneway.

A chair in Joey's living room, with a painting of a nun holding a small dog above it

It’s not that I think these new housing options will fix Toronto’s affordability problem: I know that some people are building laneway houses and renting them out at astronomical rates. But they do add much-needed density to our city, and in our case, they allowed us to afford a house in our desired neighbourhood. I never expected that, at 32, we’d have a custom house in the Beaches—not to mention a home that’s so close to my family and comes with occasional child care right on the lot. I’m so grateful we found a way to make it work.

Joey's second bedroom, which has green and shite striped sheets

Joey's second bathroom, which has floor to ceiling white tile

A vase with dried flowers, housed on top of a wooden pedestal near the bottom of the stairs