Although Paddy usually gets the conversation going before I even sit down, this time he was strangely silent and obviously deep in thought, not saying anything until I asked him what he was pondering.
“We’re thinking about selling our house and buying a condo,” he said. “We no longer need all the space, and the stairs are beginning to take a toll on us.”
“I can understand that,” I replied, “but let’s talk about whether you should rent or buy.”
“What!” Paddy exclaimed, loudly enough that some people turned and stared at us.
Lowering his voice, he went on. “I can’t believe what I’m hearing. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard you say that you should own your living accommodation, not rent it. I can probably even list your reasons.”
“That was general advice,” I said, “and it generally still holds true. But there are always exceptions to any general rule; and I think at your age, and in your circumstances, you’re an exception.”
“I’m all ears; explain, please,” he urged.
“OK,” I said, “but not in any order of importance, because, as the saying goes, different strokes for different folks. Let’s start with the difference in resale value between condos and houses. There’s a ready market for houses in Toronto, much more so than for resale condos.”
“But we’re not planning on reselling the condo,” Paddy protested.
“That might change,” I pointed out. “When you bought your house your ownership horizon was decades, but your condo horizon is a few years at the most, and could be a lot less. You might find that you hate condo living, or health reasons might dictate that you won’t be there as long as you think”
“But wouldn’t it be just as difficult to sub-let it as it would be to sell it?” Paddy asked.”
“I don’t think so,” I told him. “And even if that turned out to be the case, you would have a lot less capital tied up.”
“Go on,” Paddy again urged.
“In addition to not knowing whether you’ll like condo living, there’s the uncertainty of the cost. Condos, sometimes even relatively new ones, are notorious for levying heavy, unexpected, assessments on their owners. We have friends who got hit with a $20,000 assessment for major repairs shortly after they moved into their condo. And I suspect that annual condo fees tend to increase more than annual operating costs of a house.”
“We’ve definitely decided to sell our big house,” Paddy said, “So what other option do we have?”
“A smaller house with fewer stairs, like a bungalow,” I suggested.
“Well,” Paddy admitted, “I can see some merit in your points; any others?”
“Yes,” I assured him. “You’re going to get a nice nest egg from the sale of your house. If invested wisely, the income from it will go a long way to paying your rent, and you can use some of the capital to enhance your life style, to travel for example, and still know you’ve got extra money if needed.”
“But if we rent,” Paddy protested, “aren’t we ultimately at the mercy of a landlord?”
“Yes, “I agreed, “but when you own a condo you’re at the mercy of the condo board, and they’re often a pretty unreasonable bunch. For example, how are you going to like someone else telling you when your air conditioning and heat can be turned on and off? Or whether you can put a Christmas wreath on your door? And it’s the condo board that decides what renovations you can do. They also decide the condo fee increases I mentioned earlier.”
“Yikes,” Paddy lamented.
“Besides,” I continued, “a properly-drawn lease offers a fair degree of protection. The landlord/tenant laws in Ontario strongly favour tenants. You can also add some protection by renting from a person or entity that is either in the rental business or owns the unit as a long-term investment. You keep talking about condos, Paddy, but don’t forget there are lots of rental apartment buildings in Toronto.”
“There’s a condo going up in an area we really like,” Paddy said, “and we were thinking about buying a unit in it.”
“That,” I admonished him, “is absolutely the worst thing you could do. I’ve never known anyone who bought an unbuilt condo that didn’t have a boatload of problems.”
“Like what?” Paddy probed.
“First,” I answered, “they’re never ready on time. Next, the finished product rarely resembles the pretty pictures and descriptions used in the sales and promotion materials. I’ve known people who moved in, only to find that their furniture didn’t fit because the room measurements stipulated in their agreement were based on the inside dimensions of the walls, whereas in the promotion material and plans the measurements were based on the outside dimensions.”
“That wouldn’t amount to much,” Paddy protested.
“Sure it can,” I countered. “The 1,400 sq. ft. unit you thought you were buying could turn out to have only 1,350 sq. ft. of living space.”
I paused for a couple of sips of coffee. As Paddy remained silent, I went on.
“I’ve also heard of cheaper appliances being substituted for those described in the promotion material, paint being used that was so inferior it turned chalky before the people even moved in, and the location of plumbing and electrical installations bearing no resemblance to the plans. If you’re dead set on buying a condo, try to find one that’s been updated in an older building.”
“Why?” Paddy asked.
“The older buildings are better built,” I told him, “and the units tend to be a lot larger than in newer buildings. And if it’s been renovated, the odds are that the layout will be more modern and many features updated, such as kitchen, bathroom and appliances. I’d gladly pay a premium for an updated condo in an older building.”
“Well,” Paddy moaned as he plucked his jacket from the back of his chair, “I guess we have to give it a little more thought.”
“I think you have to give it a lot more thought,” I said as he hurried off.