The winners and losers of the absolutely outrageous, viciously competitive, record-breaking market
For buyers and sellers and those who simply consider real estate a spectator sport, this was the nutty year when the average price of a detached house hit a million. And you’re lucky if those seven figures buy a rickety bungalow next to the tracks. Open houses now require bouncers to control the mobs, buyers eye one another like competitors in a boxing ring, and every week there’s another story of a bidding war that stretched all night and made the seller a killing.
In the following pages, we present a portrait of the manic market. We surveyed the city’s top agents to find the pockets where the fight to own a house is fiercest, and gathered stories from people who’ve wandered into the real estate trenches and barely survived.
Don’t tell downtowners this, but Etobicoke is technically part of Toronto. And for prospective homebuyers looking for deals on large lots and easy access to downtown (as well as out of town, via the airport and the nearby 400-series highways), the cradle of Ford Nation has become an attractive option. It seems especially true of Twyford Road, a popular street in the upmarket Princess Anne Manor ’hood, which is walking distance from the picturesque Glen Agar park, a couple of golf courses and a handful of elementary schools. Twyford strikes a nice balance between the busier thoroughfares in and around The Manor (like The Kingsway and Princess Margaret Boulevard), and the area’s quieter nooks (like Kingsfold Court and Blair Athol Crescent, where houses are sold privately to upsizing Manor-dwellers). “Most of my clients are people from downtown,” says realtor Ana Santos. “They’re tired of being on top of their neighbours in a 35-foot lot with a one-car garage.” Downtown, you’re lucky to get a renovated townhouse for just over a million dollars. On Twyford, it gets you 80-by-135-foot lots.
In March, this detached bungalow, walking distance from the neighbourhood’s schools, was listed for $1,188,000 and sold for $1,250,000.
In February, this two-storey detached with 6,600 square feet of total living space, a quartz kitchen island and a 101-bottle wine fridge was listed for $2,499,000 and sold for $2,475,000.
In May, this renovated sidesplit property—four bedrooms, three baths, with a finished basement—was listed for $1,099,000 and sold for $1,375,000, $276,000 over asking.
Week by week, walking along Queen West from Dufferin to Sorauren, you can practically see the 99-cent shops shutter and reopen as hip restaurants before your eyes. At the same time, young couples are fighting for houses that have all the appeal of an Annex Victorian but at a lower price point. This is especially true of the housing stock on Melbourne, where Keller Williams realtor Mike Gryspeerdt broke the million-dollar sale ceiling with a semi. Over 50 hopefuls snaked out the door at the open house, drawn by the deep and wide lot as well the house’s proximity to the Drake and Gladstone hotel-bar-party compounds. Rather than flippers, the area is bringing in end-users: buyers willing to pay a premium to make a place their own, and whose love for the property makes the list price academic. Re/Max agent Nicholas Bohr encourages clients to hand-write letters to sellers to forge a personal connection and gain an advantage over competing buyers. “I’ll also google a seller,” he says, “and see if they went to the same university as the buyer to try to create synergy.”
In June, this two-storey detached with four bedrooms was listed for $889,000 and sold for $1 million.
In February, this two-storey semi-detached, split into two large three-bedroom apartments, was listed for $599,000 and sold for $721,000.
In March, this semi with a south-facing garden, a new furnace and a greenhouse was listed for $899,000 and sold for $1,008,000, $109,000 over asking.
One phrase keeps popping up when you comb through listings of recent sales on Manning: “as is.” Those who want a downtown semi or detached house in a great area, with access to trendy shopping and restaurants, all for under $1 million, can still get it on Manning. But it’ll be as is, and they’ll need to fight for it. The street, one of the last unpolished strips near Trinity Bellwoods Park, is especially attractive to investors and house-flippers. One two-and-a-half-storey multi-unit semi—which came with three fridges and three stoves, all tossed in as is—sold for an astonishing $258,898 over the $649,990 list price. Sometimes, the bigger the mess, the fiercer the bidding, as places requiring more substantial overhauls tend to scare away dabbling flippers and attract more serious contractors willing to pay top dollar. But not everything on the street needs a total overhaul: one two-storey townhouse just north of Queen, a stone’s throw from Trinity Bellwoods, sold for $803,000. With new windows, and a new roof and furnace, the place didn’t require the sort of gutting and remodelling common on the street.
In April, this two-storey townhouse divided into three units was listed for $815,000 and sold for $885,000.
In late 2013, this fixer-upper two-storey semi was dramatically undervalued at $339,000, and sold for $735,000.
In May, this “as is” townhouse was listed for $399,000 and sold for $541,000.
The mayor and small business owners complained, but the St. Clair streetcar right-of-way has proven successful for the strip, especially the section nearest Bathurst. St. Clair has attracted new businesses like the lunch counter Baker and Scone, which offers 40 different varieties of scones, and brought more traffic to trendy restaurants like the Stockyards, where there’s a nightly lineup for takeout fried chicken. The most competitive street to buy on is the stretch of Wychwood running north from St. Clair, where semis regularly break a million. Buyers like how the street name evokes the prestigious community to the south and are desperate to live within walking distance to the nearby farmers’ market at Wychwood Barns and excellent schools (including Humewood Community School, St. Alphonsus Catholic and Vaughan Road Academy, which offers the International Baccalaureate program).
In June, this three-storey detached house with five bedrooms and four baths was listed for $949,000 and sold for $1,100,000.
In March, this detached two-storey house fitted with premium appliances was listed for $899,000 and sold for $975,000.
In May, this three-storey semi-detached house, with new stainless steel appliances and framed by a beautifully landscaped yard, was listed for $875,000 and sold for $1,020,000.
Buyers in the multimillion-dollar price range are often too genteel for bidding wars. But when it comes to Cortleigh Boulevard, a leafy patch in Benzes-and-Botox Lytton Park, the gloves come off. It’s one of those rare streets between the north-south arteries of Avenue and Yonge that’s not overrun with traffic. The houses, many of which sport old-timey stone filigree on their exteriors and contain nanny suites, are set well off the street, making it feel nearly suburban for a street so close to downtown. It’s a short drive to the establishment private schools and walking distance from prestigious (by TDSB standards) John Ross Robertson Public School, where students do extremely well on EQAO tests.
In May, this two-and-a-half-storey family home with a gourmet kitchen, south-facing garden, four bedrooms and four baths was listed for $1,895,000 and sold for $1,929,000.
In April, this detached three-storey drew 19 bids on its already whopping $1,895,000 list price and eventually sold for $2.3 million.
In late 2013, an “as-is” house was listed for $999,000 and sold for $1,225,000. The buyers built a new house in its place.
Bessborough is the kind of placid Leaside street that has always been in demand. Houses, many with extra-wide yards and centre-hall plans, rarely go on sale, and when they do there’s intense demand, with the average property going a hundred thousand or more over asking. Hopefuls put in bully bids and draft letters to owners of nice houses encouraging them to sell. (Agents also do a lot of door knocking, to the same end.) Some lots are so spacious, developers try to subdivide them (one such proposal was recently met with fiery opposition). Open houses on the street draw 50-plus potential buyers in one afternoon. “People call it ‘stupid street,’ because people do stupid things to live there,” says agent Patrick Rocca, whose own house is on Bessborough. “But I paid the highest price at the time,” he says. “So if anything, I’m the stupidest one.”
In May, this four-bedroom, three-bath detached home on a rambling 38-foot lot was listed for $1,339,000 and sold for $1,477,100. That’s $138,100 over asking.
In May, this red-brick detached, recently renovated to the tune of over $200,000, was listed for $1,299,000 and sold for $1,530,000. That’s a full $231,000 over asking.
In May, this 2,000-square-foot detached two-storey house, with original stained glass windows and an elaborate garden, was listed for $1,299,000 and sold for $1,396,000.
The under-a-million neighbourhoods are where the most furious bidding wars play out—especially on streets like Riverdale’s Hamilton. Ramshackle aluminum-sided bungalows, cheap enough to rip down and start fresh, offer some of the best bargains close to downtown. Buyers see a pocket in transition now that Bridgepoint Health has replaced the old Don Jail, and the infamous Jilly’s strip club at Queen and Broadview has closed, likely to be redeveloped as a Gladstone-type hotel. For fans of hootenannies and hoedowns, there’s also the nearby Boots and Bourbon Saloon, which set up shop in the former site of the seedier Blue Moon Pub on Queen. In 2014, the biggest sales on the street have closed around $100,000 over asking.
In May, this rental property was listed for $699,000. The house received seven bids and eventually sold for $806,000. “I accepted offers the day after the Jilly’s sale was announced,” the seller says. “The timing couldn’t have been better.”
In late 2013, this oversized detached bungalow, with a huge rear deck and a basement rental unit, was listed for $749,900 and sold for $747,900.
In April, this two-storey semi was listed for $749,000 and sold for $845,000. It last sold a year ago for $545,000.
Cabbagetown’s rows of pretty, fastidiously preserved victorians are eerily calm despite being so close to the downtown core. Wellesley is one of the most idyllic streets in the neighbourhood, so whenever a house goes on the market, it’s swarmed and the subject of intense bidding wars. Chestnut Park sales rep Kara Reed booked 30 showings over a weekend for a semi, which ended up selling for a couple hundred thousand over its asking price. The most prized properties are on the eastern stretch, where Wellesley dead-ends at a park of mature trees and the Toronto Necropolis. One bungalow on Wellesley Cottages, a miniscule side street/alley running behind Wellesley proper, went for $246,000 over its million-plus asking in June.
In May, this immaculately renovated Victorian with two parking spaces, 10-foot ceilings and built-in speakers was listed for $1,358,000 and sold for $1,600,000.
In January, this lavish rebuild of a Victorian-era home (complete with a media room and a second-floor study) was listed for $2,369,000 and sold for $2,400,000.
In July, this semi-detached, two-and-a-half-storey house was listed for $899,000 and sold for $1,040,000.
Maybe it’s the proximity to the all-you-can-gorge buffets of the Gerrard India Bazaar. Maybe it’s the increasingly elusive under-a-million price tags. Or maybe it’s all the coach houses tucked behind so many of the homes—which make great rental properties. Most likely it’s all these things. As conspicuous as all the For Sale signs lining Hiawatha are the building notices, with some lots currently undergoing total tear-downs and rebuilds—a sure sign that the property itself is just as valuable, if not more so, than the hundred-year-old home sitting on top. One three-storey detached home sold for $795,000—nearly $100,000 over asking. It had been previously sold only six months before, and the seller netted a tidy $100,000 without making many improvements. The street is especially lusted after by young families, who want the short walk to Greenwood Park and alternative TDSB schools like Equinox Holistic.
In July, this semi-detached two-storey home was offered as is—“please do not enter the garage,” the listing noted, forebodingly. It was listed for $350,000 and sold for $557,500.
In June, this 100 year-old, two-storey, two-bedroom stucco-fronted “condo alternative” on a deep lot was listed for $429,000 and sold for $502,800.
In late 2013, this two-storey family home with a fenced-in front yard, back garden, and balcony adjoining the master bedroom was listed for $499,000 and sold for $612,000, kicking off a string of recent activity on the strip.
There are only 29 houses on Munro Park avenue, the most prestigious street in the Beach, and they rarely come up for sale—only three have gone on the market in the past two years. They’re generally passed down from generation to generation, old money–style, because no one wants to give up the view of the lake or the short stroll to the century-old Balmy Beach Club and its meticulously groomed lawn bowling green. The houses tend to be ornate, stucco and stone-fronted, many with early 20th-century period details like double-sashed windows and stained glass. Lots are massive for the Beach, with 50-foot frontages, and prices climb closer to the lake, often going for half a million or more over list. “It’s hands-down the most coveted street in the Beach,” says Mark Richards of Re/Max, who’s currently selling a renovated $4.3-million house on the street.
In 2013, this two-storey detached house sold for the asking price of $1,869,000 to a buyer who proceeded with a gut reno.
In July, this reno’d four-bedroom detached was listed for $4,295,000—a new high for the street. Unsold at our print deadline.
In late 2013, this detached two-storey home near the businesses on Queen was listed for $1,432,000 and sold for $1,385,000.
Tales from the Front: real estate horror stories from the buyers who lived them
I recently moved back to Canada from Germany with my partner, Boris, and our four-year-old daughter. We sublet an apartment while we looked for a house. We saw at least 100 west-end properties and lost out on five offers, sometimes by as much as $100,000. In June, we found a semi in Wallace-Emerson—it was rundown and an estate sale, but to us it felt like a miracle when the sellers accepted our offer of $667,000. Our inspector found water damage, asbestos, an old roof and bad wiring all over the place, so we dropped our price to $655,000 and asked for a mid-July closing. The sellers agreed, but added a condition of an extra 30 days if they didn’t get their will probated. Our agent told us that will probate is rarely a problem, but we were getting nervous: I was due to give birth to our second child in July, and we were supposed to be out of our apartment by the end of August. As the closing day approached, we heard the will probate would take at least three months. The sellers refused to rent us the empty house in the meantime, even when we offered to increase our deposit on the house sale. By the end of August, we gave up hope and signed a mutual release form. We’d already switched our daughter to the new school district and lost thousands on various fees. We’re renting another house while we continue to hunt.
My husband and I found a gorgeous Victorian we really liked in Parkdale. We ended up being one of five parties bidding. Our agent presented an offer of $1,003,000 on our behalf, and the top three bids all came fairly close. Our agent came back to us to see what we wanted to present as a new bid. In that time, one party dropped out. So it was us and one other party. We went up to $1,015,000 and submitted our offer. That’s when things took a turn: the selling agent struck a deal with the other party’s agent so that, rather than paying a five per cent fee, the new owners would only pay two and a half per cent. They’re supposed to tell the other party, so you can come up with a counter-offer, but by the time we found out, they’d signed a contract. Our agent said this is the first time he’d encountered this in his 20 years in real estate. We filed a complaint with the real estate council. It makes us wary about buying. You wonder what else is going on.
My fiancé and I put in a successful bid of $450,000 on a loft unit in a building on Dundas West. We’d been looking for a month, and we fell in love with its exposed brick and high ceilings, and that it was a corner unit with lots of windows. It had character, as they say. These kinds of deals are dependent on a status certificate getting approved by our lawyer. That’s when it all went south. Our lawyer said the certificate was one of the worst he’d seen. Turned out the conversion from factory to loft had been shoddily done: the basement flooded, the bricks needed repointing, the pipes had burst in the winter, and the roof was leaking. The condo board was suing the construction company, and the construction company was suing the condo board too. If we bought, we’d never be able to resell without these lawsuits affecting the price. We immediately cancelled our contract and ended up buying another place in Parkdale.
Just before the Canada Day weekend, my partner and I put in an offer of $745,000 on a house near Mount Pleasant and Eglinton, with a $35,000 deposit in escrow. The inspection revealed that the house still had knob-and-tube wiring, so we dropped our offer to $725,000. Two hours after our offer expired, the selling agent got back to us and asked for a better offer. When we declined, she said we’d forfeited our deposit to the sellers. We demanded it back, but her response was, “We shall see.” At this point, we were convinced she was crazy, so we called her broker, who made sure the cheque was signed back to us. For an entire day, we thought we’d lost $35,000. A week later, the agent re-listed the house for the exact amount we’d offered! We found the name of the seller and sent him an offer directly. Within four hours, the deal was done. His agent was still technically representing the homeowners, but we otherwise circumvented her.
When my partner and I started looking for a house, we hired an inspector before bidding on a place we didn’t get. It felt like a wasted $400. They are vague to cover their own rear-ends for liability. We decided not to bother with the inspection when we found a house we loved in Leslieville. We bought the place for $621,000, which was $42,000 over the list price. After taking possession, we found out we had to rewire the whole place—it was a mix of new wiring and knob-and-tube. While that was being done, we stored all our stuff in the basement, which was exactly when a sewage line, strangled by the roots of a maple tree, burst. The problems didn’t end: the roof leaked, the dishwasher leaked, and, oh yeah, the eavestroughs were duct-taped to the house. Right as we were moving in, the kitchen cupboards fell right off the wall and smashed to pieces. So far, we’ve spent at least $50,000 on repairs.