What It’s Like To House Hunt In Toronto

It’s December 2013: Newly engaged, armed with a realistic set of demands, good down payment, a real estate agent and help from our families.  We’re about to dip our toe into the Toronto real estate market. Bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, full of optimism, we’re convinced that we’ll buoyantly announce an impending house closing at Christmas.

It’s now January 2017. Nearly 2-years married, budget doubled, morale destroyed. Hundreds of houses seen, multiple offers signed, delivered and returned. Heartfelt letters written to sellers who couldn’t care less that we don’t plan to flip or knock down their house. That we’d like to fill it with laughing, playing children. That we’d like to care for it like they did.

The market is on fire. Federal, provincial and municipal political leaders make grandiose statements about helping the middle class and maintaining affordability, yet refuse to help cool the market. Banks warn about household debt levels, yet the overnight lending rates remain the same. The real estate board crows about how prices will only go up, fueling demand for the market that keeps its own jobs so very lucrative. We’re still looking, playing the part of wannabe buyers living a life of occasional tailspins, a continual game of what-if.

This is what it’s like to house hunt in Toronto in 2017.

Woodbridge house

Seasoned house hunters taking in patterned tile + blue bathtubs in Woodbridge

It’s all-consuming

You’ll feel like a broken record. By this point, everyone knows about our (fruitless) – house hunt. We’ve whined, I’ve tweeted, we’ve commiserated. We’ve become incredibly well-read in all things real estate. We debate non-stop. We speculate. We ruminate. We spend our evenings debating our options, wondering if we’re at a peak or wondering if we’ve completely missed the boat.

When you’re house hunting in a market like this one, it’s always in the back of your mind. People are afraid to ask, yet also curious to ask. You develop a secret tribe of fellow house-hunters/market-watchers: the friend with $150k socked away for an eventual down payment, the Twitter bud with the exact same budget and level of incredulity at the market, the pregnant co-worker who keeps getting outbid. You’ll quickly realize that no one else understands unless they’re in the market themselves.

Everyone has an opinion on your situation

Especially those who were lucky enough to buy before things got entirely out of control. Reduce your expectations, they’ll say. It’s just a starter home (at $1.3m plus the cost of extensive renovations). Get a condo / semi / townhouse / detached home in Timbuktu. You listen, you nod, you smile. You explain that you don’t really agree and have they seen what things are going for these days? Couple these opinions with the media’s constant droning about how millennials are so entitled (with our precarious work situations, impossible housing market and rock-bottom interest rates just begging for a spike) and you’ve got the perfect storm for an opinion hangover.

Glenaden House

Sunnylea – the house we lost on my dad’s birthday. 

You’re haunted by the ones that got away

Armour. Christine. Glenaden. Firglen. Kiloran.  These are the street names that haunt us. Each of these homes slipped away for one reason or another: the house we should have bid on last January, looked at again when it came back on the market (destroyed) the following January and ultimately let go of. The – nearly perfect – house we saw that listed a bit over budget but went for under because of the seller’s conditions. The house we bid on this summer, only to be outbid by 200k. The beautiful-on-the-outside home my husband still talks about. The house we bid on this winter, that managed to get 13 bids *in Woodbridge*. That we lost.

Hunting in this market feels like you’re always chasing the one that got away. We constantly wonder “what if” – what if we had upped our budget, been a little less picky, been a little faster. It’s hard to let it go: I sometimes find myself ruminating on the house tours in my “RIP Houses” bookmarks folder.

Your wants & needs are reduced to nothing

I joke that at this point we’d be happy with four walls and a driveway. Of course, that’s in jest, but our original search for a 3 or 4-bedroom family home close to our families and near transit seems like a distant past. Now, our search parameters include condos, townhouses, semis, detached in pockets everywhere from Bloor West Village to Woodbridge. You understand the demoralizing reality when friends bid on 18-ft lots with million dollar offers and yet still lose. The market is soaring and the only ones making out ahead are the flippers, the speculators and the boomers who are cashing in on their way to the retirement home.

Armour House

234 Armour Blvd. – the first one that got away

You become superstitious

After so many misses, I catch myself performing some internalized rituals. I wait for the feeling. I look for a sign that this is the house – that kitchen with the sweetly scalloped wood detailing, the shared interests gleaned from Googling the sellers, the ray of sunshine in the would-be-someday nursery. On offer day, we operate under a veil of secrecy. We add our anniversary date to the end of our offer – 060,615 – for good luck and on the off chance we’ll win the war by a few bucks. We try not to get excited. We don’t tell people what’s going on. We’ve yet to hide a lucky penny under the door mat, but maybe we should – the superstitions and sign-searching have yet to work.

You wonder if it’s all your fault. 

This is potentially the toughest part of the whole ordeal. We’ve been house hunting for years. I’ve had three jobs, we’ve gotten engaged and then married. We have a cat and are considering children. Suffice to say that our situation, our budget and what we’re willing to purchase has vastly changed over the past 4 years. But it’s impossible to push the thoughts from your head that continually nag, is this all your fault? What if we had just bought something and flipped it like everyone else? What if we had ‘settled’ as it seemed, three years ago. We’d certainly be in for a big payday now. What if we’d been more willing to up our budget at the start?

It’s a neverending loop of questions with no answer. And it’s hard not to internalize the results.

Bathurst Manor House

A red vinyl bar adds to the ambience in Bathurst Manor

You wish for a housing market crash

Hear me out on this one. A housing crash would bring with it a raft of other problems: job loss, home loss for some friends, overall crisis. But, for us and for other would-be home buyers sitting on down payments, it could also bring the opportunity to scoop up a home at a more reasonable price. Statistics show that even a moderate increase in interest rates would cause problems for existing homeowners. One study showed 1/4 of Canadian homeowners have less than $1,000 in the bank.   Many homeowners may not have enough saved up or enough equity in their homes to weather the storm. The thought of a correction is terrifying and tantalizing at the same time. [NOTE – because people seem unclear – I’m not wishing financial ruin on anyone. These stats simply highlight that many Torontonians are stretched too thin by this crazy market. In my opinion, a correction of some sort is inevitable.]

What now?

It feels like we’re back to square one. With inventory at an all-time low, interest rates still at rock-bottom and TREB insisting prices will continue to increase, it’s hard to see the light at the end of this tunnel. I’m at the point where I don’t believe we’ll get anything – even with our healthy down payment, salaries and support. And yet, we’re still looking.

As prices increase, it gets harder to justify what we’re seeing in our price range. Is it really worth it to bid on a house without parking or a backyard and only one bathroom that will ultimately go for $1.5m? Can we really bank on the market endlessly appreciating like people say it will?  Probably not. But if we don’t bite the bullet, will we ever get anything?

Our current strategy is to keep up with the areas we’re comfortable in and to focus on getting a house we’d be OK with getting stuck with. We’re not going to overextend ourselves, knowing a mat leave is probably in our (currently distant, but still impending) future and also acknowledging that neither of us is confident in the current market. And yes, we’re looking at fixer-uppers outside of prime areas (for those of you with all the opinions about what else we should give up to get a property). We’re resigned, we’re less hopeful, but we’re still looking.

One thing’s for certain: it’s no picnic to house hunt in Toronto and the surrounding areas. If you’re doing the same, welcome to the tribe of the weary and downtrodden.

If you’re house hunting in the city, I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments. As always, you can follow along on our adventures using #GTAHouseHunt on Twitter.