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Energy, verve imported from the Peg brightens a Toronto condo

John Bentley Mays – The Globe and Mail

In the eight years since Johanna Hurme and Sasa Radulovic founded it, the Winnipeg firm known as 5468796 Architecture (or 546 for short) has earned fame in Canada and abroad for its signature brand of fresh, practical, intelligent modernism. The practice has also acquired a reputation for doing notably deft designs in difficult spots, and often within very tight budgets. Until now, however, Ms. Hurme, Mr. Radulovic and their colleagues have not had an opportunity to show what they can do beyond a stone’s throw from the intersection of Portage and Main.

Having these promising architects try their Manitoba luck down in Hogtown is overdue. But it’s going to happen: 546 will make its very first mark on the ground outside home territory in Toronto’s east end, where Symmetry Developments and partners are putting up the 39-unit townhouse project the office has crafted, The Tree House.

Tree House Condos
Townhouse complexes are nothing new around here, of course. The real-estate fever of the past 25 years has littered the urban landscape with them – a few architecturally noteworthy, most not. As for imaginative energy and verve, we’ve seen very little in the local townhouse market that embodies these qualities quite as vividly as Tree House.

Comment: This project is amazing. I wish there were more like it. With all the building we have in this city, there really should be more standout architecture.

Several things make this project unusual. Sensitivity to site is one of them.

Unlike dimmer townhouse designers, who tend to clump units into tiresome rows and drop them any which way, the architects of 546 have paid very close attention to – even learned from – Symmetry’s lot out in Scarborough’s old suburban sprawl. Each of their three parallel, east-west blocks of housing offers a unique interpretation of its place.

Tree House Condos
The expansively glazed, animated structure standing alongside busy Gerrard Street East, for example, is the most steadily focused building in the group. But it’s the public, street side face that Tree House turns toward the city, so the fact that it behaves with a certain civic gravitas is appropriate.

The block at the rear (south) end of the site, on the other hand, takes its cues from the lot’s irregular shape, and from an eccentric little street that comes in at an angle, and dead-ends at the property line.

At least it’s supposed to end there. The architects of 546, however, have decided to welcome the odd, diagonal momentum of the street alignment and property configuration, instead of resisting these interruptions of the orderly, rectilinear city grid and plunking down three look-alike chunks of housing. The awkward angular push has driven the layout of a courtyard, and informed the striking form of the southernmost townhouse building, which zigzags off at a tangent from its two more staid companions.

Tree House Condos
But I don’t mean to exaggerate the formal variety here, or make Tree House seem eccentric. While each of the three blocks has a lively identity, the parts of Tree House certainly add up to an attractively coherent whole. The strategic idea that holds it together – stacking boxes – is one of the most venerable in the modern movement’s repertoire. But all modernist stacks are not created equal. There’s a world of difference, let’s say, between the routinized piling-up of exactly identical units in a warehouse – that’s how you get the dullest high-rises, but also starkly boring townhouses – and the inventive, push-pull play with variously defined oblongs that Tree House is about.

This play is nowhere more intense or interesting than in the southernmost of the three blocks. Here, the interiors of the three-bedroom townhouses – two in every vertical three-level segment – interlock ingeniously, like pieces of a Chinese puzzle, providing each family with formally distinctive living spaces on more than one floor. The entrances of both the upper and lower townhouses open onto the courtyard. The glass-faced interior volumes – some broad, others oriented upright – declare themselves on the exterior in a bold rhythmic motion, what Mr. Radulovic calls “staggered, cellular geometry,” that runs the length of the building.

The art of this development is robust, urbane, big-city stuff. Here, as in its work in Winnipeg, 546 has put the lion’s share of its considerable moxie into an arresting design, but one that can be translated into reality by the trades with entirely conventional materials and methods. The framework of these buildings will be wood, not steel. The walls, where they aren’t glass, will be clad with heavy aluminum panelling, in two tones of grey. Simple. Neat. And dumb, as the word is used in the saying “dumb is the new smart” – which means pretty darned smart indeed.

For the record: developer Sayf Hassan, of Symmetry, told me via e-mail that, in the block nearest Gerrard and the one in the middle, “all units will be a minimum of two bedrooms and two baths, with larger units having three bedrooms and two-and-a-half baths. Unit sizes range from 965 square feet to 1,220 square feet…”

Townhouses in the third structure, on the south side of the property, will vary in size “from 1,330 square feet to 1,610 square feet, and will all have at least three bedrooms, two baths and a den.”

Prices start in the mid-$400,000s. “Our intent with this project,” Mr. Hassan wrote, “was to introduce high-design modern townhouses at a price point that was comfortable for young families, first-time buyers and down-sizers.”

Comment: Bravo. Please build more.

Contact Laurin Jeffrey for more information – 416-388-1960

Laurin Jeffrey is a Toronto real estate agent with Century 21 Regal Realty.
He did not write these articles, he just reproduces them here for people who
are interested in Toronto real estate. He does not work for any builders.


Toronto’s rental market reborn as housing prices surge out of reach for many

Katia Dmitrieva – Bloomberg News

The dreary six-story apartment block in Toronto’s north end was nicknamed “Divorcee Towers” after the newly single who lodged at its short-stay units. Then Timbercreek Asset Management Inc. moved in.

The real estate investment company installed new hardwood floors, stainless steel appliances, energy efficient windows and preserved 1930s art-deco details such as a steel-cage elevator, boosting the rent to about the same as a modern downtown condominium.

Timbercreek is at the forefront of the next boom in Toronto’s supercharged housing market: rental apartments. While the company specializes in renovating dilapidated buildings, at least 21 high-rise projects are slated to be built by developers as rental apartments in the city. Meanwhile, apartment real estate investment trusts are the best performing REITs on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

North Toronto apartment building
“There’s a huge demand for rental,” Ugo Bizzarri, managing director of portfolio management and investments at Toronto-based Timbercreek, said at Bloomberg’s Toronto office. “We are seeing for the first time in 40 years people are starting to build rental.”

Comment: And so many “experts” wondered why the Toronto condo market was doing so well and why so many investors were buying condos to rent out.

Demand is growing for leased space as house prices surge out of reach for many, the condo market cools and investors seek stable returns in a low-interest rate world.

Comment: The condo market is cooling? How so? Last years was the 3rd best ever for sales. 2014 saw more completions than any other year. January 2015 was the best month for condo completions ever. Condo resales in Q4 2014 were up 8.3% over Q4 2013, with prices up 3.8%. In January, condo resales were up 6.2% with prices rising 4.5% over January 2014. Explain to me how any that indicates a cooling condo market…

Rental REITs

Timbercreek is raising about $200 million for its fourth and largest real estate investment fund, which it will use to buy and renovate up to 20 buildings in Canada and then sell to pension funds. The closely held Toronto-based company manages $4.4 billion.

The first Timbercreek Opportunity Fund, which invested in 766 apartment units worth $76 million, had an internal rate of return of 20%, according to the company. Its latest offering, the third Timbercreek Opportunity Fund, was started in April 2011 and has purchased 1,986 units valued at $186 million that are spread across major Canadian cities.

Other rental companies are also reaping the rewards of rising rental demand. Shares of Canadian Apartment Properties REIT, the country’s largest apartment REIT by units, are up 11% this year, the best-performer on the Standard & Poor’s/TSX Capped REIT Index.

66 Isabella Apartment
Supply Constrained

The Toronto-based REIT is set to gain from “improving economic growth in Ontario, easing of migration outflows as Alberta’s growth slows and an apartment market that remains supply constrained,” Heather Kirk, an analyst at Bank of Montreal, said in a research note. Fourth-quarter rents for the firm rose in all major cities, according to financial documents.

There are 21 large rental projects under construction or in a planning phase in Toronto and its nearby regions, according to data compiled by Urbanation Inc., which tracks the city’s condo and rental market. If completed, that would be the most erected in a decade, surpassing the 12 built in 2012, according to Canada Mortgage & Housing Corp. The federal agency data is for apartment buildings of 50 units or more dating back to 2005.

Comment: Add to that the 3 towers of Kingsclub and the Selby tower.

While a flood of new condos leased out by investors has helped fill demand for rental units, vacancy was 1.6% last year and has held under 2% since 2010, suggesting supply isn’t catching up fast enough.

Comment: Vacancy in the 416 is now 1.3%.

Rooftop Lounge

Projects in the works now range in size and location from the 23 story “66 Isabella” downtown with its own theater and rooftop lounge to a two-tower complex replacing aged townhouses with about 520 rental units midtown.

Home prices in Toronto, which have surged 60% from 2006 and gained 7% to an average $581,000 last year alone, according to the Canadian Real Estate Association, prompting people to hunt for cheaper alternatives. The average monthly rent for a 1-bedroom apartment unit rose 17% to $1,609 over the same period.

“Affordability is a big reason,” for rising rental demand, said Sam Crignano, president of Cityzen Development Group in Toronto. “A lot of young people starting out don’t have the down payment and so their only option is to rent.”

Comment: Or they want the flexibility of renting, don’t want the costs associated with owning. It is not just down payments and prices.

Crignano, who’s been building in the city for decades, is benefiting from investor demand. The developer was preparing to build The Selby, a 49-story red brick and glass condo tower, with Stephen Diamond, chief executive officer of Diamond Corp., up until last year.

‘Do More’

Real estate agents sold 210 units worth $80 million, according to Insider Condo Club, the marketing firm that ran the sales event Nov. 15. It took just three hours to sell the units at a packed red-carpet event, where guests snacked on hors d’oeuvres and milled around a model tower.

A week later, Crignano and Diamond agreed to sell the site to an institutional investor who’s planning to build it as a rental instead.

“We’re probably going to do more of these,” said Crignano, whose latest condo project is the 58-floor L-shaped tower designed by architect Daniel Libeskind. “As long as conditions remain the way they are, institutions will continue seeking out these types of investments.”

Another reason companies are building rental towers is it’s faster and more profitable as the condo market cools, Diamond said. It’s taking longer to offload hundreds of units and it’s more difficult to secure financing to start building.

Comment: But the condo market is NOT cooling. Not even close. And financing is easier than ever, according to a number of recent sources.

And the city’s developers can’t raise condo prices like they used to. Prices for new high-rise units have leveled off since their 2011 peak, according to data compiled by RealNet Canada Inc., a Toronto-based real estate data provider. High-rise prices gained about 4% to $450,014 at the end of September 2014 from the prior year, the data show.

Comment: How is a 4% price increase construed as leveling off?

“Condo development is still cyclical and we’re coming from an environment where you announced the project and you sold it out in two days and you just built it out,” Corrado Russo, managing director of investments at Timbercreek, said in the interview last month. “We were going a little too fast and now this is a healthy pause to try and let the market catch up.”

Comment: Sure, yeah, the condo market is pausing. That is why there were over 10,000 condo completions in January.

Contact Laurin Jeffrey for more information – 416-388-1960

Laurin Jeffrey is a Toronto real estate agent with Century 21 Regal Realty.
He did not write these articles, he just reproduces them here for people who
are interested in Toronto real estate. He does not work for any builders.


Average price for Toronto detached house passes $1M in February

A severe shortage of listings keeps real estate sales hot in the coldest winter month on record.

Susan Pigg – Toronto Star

A snowstorm was in full force as the Feb. 8 open house got started in Leaside and the city was suffering through its 18th extreme cold weather alert of the year. Still, the crowds just kept coming.

Incredible as it seems, there were so many hardy house hunters packed into the 787-square-foot bungalow on Rumsey Rd. that bleak Sunday afternoon that realtor Ernie MacMaster twice had to lock the front door.

“I couldn’t keep on top of all the boots. I just put a sign out front saying ‘Thanks for waiting,’ ” said the veteran Royal LePage sales rep.

Just four days after the gracious — if tiny — two-bedroom house on a 25-1/2 by 140 foot lot was listed for $799,900, it had been seen by close to 200 people and attracted 10 competing offers.

On Feb. 10 it sold for a staggering $1.051 million — $251,100 over the asking price — and became the newest member of a celebrated, and scary, club in Toronto, depending on your perspective: buyer or seller.

Last month the average sale price of a detached house in the 416 region sailed past $1 million as demand remains high for houses that don’t require a killer commute, and supply sinks to new lows.

Comment: I thought it would be April or May before we saw the $1-million average. Even optimistic me was surprised.

Million dollar Toronto home
“It’s not uncommon for it to be kind of crazy this time of year,” says Toronto realtor John Pasalis. “You tend to have a high number of buyers in the market in the first couple of months and the lowest number of listings. But this year sellers seem to have been reluctant to list because the weather has been so terrible and it’s really contributing to this heated market.”

Home sales in February were surprisingly hot — even with the record cold — as sales climbed 11.3% over the same month a year ago.

Comment: That is just nuts, especially for a month with such bad weather.

Prices for all housing types — from condos to detached homes — were up 7.8% in February across the GTA, bringing the average sales price to $596,193, according to figures released Wednesday by the Toronto Real Estate Board.

Comment: And just under $631,000 for the 416.

But demand remained particularly high for detached homes in the 416 area: sales in that category were up a stunning 16.9%. So were prices, with the average detached home within Toronto exceeding $1.04 million, up 8.9% year over year.

And it’s still weeks until the peak April to June spring market.

Comment: I am scared.

(While the average sale price for a detached within Toronto briefly touched on $1 million last April, it quickly dipped down by the end of that month to $965,670. It stayed below $1 million — right up until now.)

Veteran ReMax Hallmark realtor Thomas Cook blames the continued shortage of listings for pushing the price of even tiny bungalows, coveted by builders for their relatively large lots, over the $1 million mark. (The supply of homes listed for sale in February was down 8.7%, year over year.)

The 12,793 properties listed across the GTA in February was the lowest number seen in the region since before 2000, the furthest back Cook has been tracking monthly sales and listings numbers for ReMax staff.

In fact, February’s listings were 23% below the average monthly number of listings for the past 14 years, he said. Sales, on the other hand, were just 3.6% above average for the same period.

Comment: There you go, proof of the supply-demand imbalance that is plaguing Toronto. I cannot believe that listings are down a 1/4 over the long-term trend.

“It’s not that sales are outrageously high — it’s that the listings inventory is outrageously low,” said Cook in a telephone interview.

And that listings shortage is causing a strange sort of paralysis in the market.

“We’re seeing a lot of people who are now in their homes for eight or 10 or 12 years before they make a move. It used to be three to six years,” he said.

“That’s because of a combination of economic stuff, because prices have gone up so much, because it’s so expensive to move (with land transfer tax and realty fees) and incomes just haven’t kept up.”

Comment: And there is simply nowhere for them to go. It is so stressful now, easier to stay put and renovate. It is not as much economics, as sellers’ homes have appreciated a lot, so they have equity they can move. Add in record low interest rates and it is not the financials as much as the difficulty finding listings and the stress of fighting for a new home.

But that doesn’t seem to be dampening buyer enthusiasm, sustained by interest rates that remain at historic lows.

Realtor Sue Wade West got 10 offers in February on a Leaside bungalow with old gumwood trim, knob-and-tube wiring and original windows. All 10 offers were from builders planning to tear the house down and rebuild.

The two-bedroom home with a private drive on a 28-by-135-foot lot was listed for $1.1 million and sold for almost $1.3 million.

“I have clients who have been sitting on the fence saying, ‘I know this market is going to crash,’ ” said Wade West. “They’re waiting for interest rates to go up and then they think house prices will come down and they won’t have to fight over a piece of property.”

Comment: Oh lord, I feel bad for those people. It isn’t going to crash, it simply isn’t. The market gets stronger every day, there are no downsides, no signs of weakness. Even if interest rates rise, heck they could double and still be in the mid-5% range – where they were in 2008 when the market was still booming. Demand is SO high, it isn’t letting up. As long as that demand is there, everything will stay on the up side.

She warns them there are no signs of the market slowing down.

Comment: Contrary to what you read in most media. Two random economists do not a dissenting opinion make. One has been calling for a 25% price drop since June of 2011 – that hasn’t happened. And the other predicted up to a 50% price drop by this fall. He even put it in a book. Toronto house prices simply aren’t going to drop $500,000 in the next 6 months. Even if you burned all of Leaside to the ground, the empty lots would still be worth $1-million.

Some 6,338 houses and condos sold in February, up from 5,696 a year ago, according to TREB figures.

Detached home sales were up 13.9% across the GTA and the average price was up 8.9%, to an average of $782,166, according to TREB, with a detached in the 905 regions selling for an average $694,285 in February.

Townhouses — now highly sought after as the most affordable form of housing next to condos — were also in high demand with sales up 13.6% in February, year over year.

Townhouse prices, however, were down 7% in the 416 region, to an average of $507,843. In the 905 regions, the average sale price of a townhouse stood at $433,127 last month, up 8% year over year.

Condo sales were surprisingly strong, up 10% year over year, and prices held relatively steady despite escalating supply, up 2.4% across the GTA.

Comment: Escalating supply combined with escalating demand. Rising supply only matters of demand is flat or declining. When both are rising, the market stays strong. Remember the rental condo market, vacancy rates are around 1%, the demand is severe. House prices are so high, many are turning to condos – increasing the demand.

That brought the average price of a condo in the 416 region to $369,655 in February, down 0.9% year over year, while condos in the 905 regions saw sale prices climb by almost 11%, to an average sale price of $322,055, significantly narrowing the gap between buying a condo in the city versus the suburbs.

Comment: Don’t get excited, one month of lower condo prices in the 416 does not make for a new trend. If we see it for 3-6 months straight, then that means something. But one month is moot.

Contact Laurin Jeffrey for more information – 416-388-1960

Laurin Jeffrey is a Toronto real estate agent with Century 21 Regal Realty.
He did not write these articles, he just reproduces them here for people who
are interested in Toronto real estate. He does not work for any builders.