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Monday, January 2, 2012

Growing older, with all the amenities

The housing market may look a little up and down to Toronto architect Drew Laszlo as he designs the latest homes for clients.
But that’s because one of the top requests he’s getting is for elevators. It’s phenomenon that may be symbolic of the changes in Canadian demographics. Once the domain of high-rise buildings or mansions, the elevator is making its way into everyday homes — albeit for people in the high end of the market who can afford it.
“It’s getting more and more common on a daily basis,” Mr. Laszlo says about the elevator trend. “I used to see it once in a blue moon but now when [he designs] a new house, they either want it or are giving it serious consideration.”
The cost can run upwards of $20,000 but it almost makes financial sense for an aging Boomer population that realizes once stairs become unnavigable, they’ll be forced to move to either a hard-to-find bungalow or a condominium tower.
Meeting the needs of the aging Boomer population is expected to become the dominant theme of the housing industry in 2012 and for decades to come.
A study from the Conference Board of Canada released in the fall of 2011 predicted that by 2030 about 80% of new housing demand would come from consumers in their golden years. Those people will either end up in condominiums or will need to make alterations to existing homes.
“What I hear from people is they want to grow old in their homes,” Mr. Laszlo says. “They know their legs will go at some point. In speculative houses, the builders want them more and more because when it comes time for resale, it’s something people will remember. If you are building a house for $1,000,000, what’s another $20,000?”
The elevator is also a bit of a status symbol but one the moderately rich can afford. They are usually about five feet by five feet  or about the size of a closet — and can be roughed into a house and not installed until a later date.
“You don’t even know it’s there, it looks like another door,” says Mr. Laszlo, who notes having something the size “of a closet” means sacrifices on all all floors. “The Boomer can now buy a house because he knows it can have an elevator.”
So what else do Boomers want? Bathrooms. It seems they cannot get enough of them as they deal with children living at home longer and parents moving in with them.
“You have four bedrooms, you have four bathrooms,” Mr. Laszlo says.
Flexibility is something most people seem to be craving in the Boomer population as they deal with issues previous generations may not have faced, says Paul Johnston, the broker of record for Block development in downtown Toronto.
Treasure Hill Developments has come up with a complex with 37 homes that each include a concept called in-law suites. The name is misleading because it’s not just for in-laws: It is essentially a self-contained apartment as large as 750 square feet within a four-storey 3,700-square-foot home.
“What we are providing is flexibility. It could be finished entirely separately as a suite, it could be finished as gymnasium or workout room or it could be used as an at-home office. It is totally accessible with a separate entrance,” Mr. Johnston says. “People’s needs within their homes have changed a lot.”
But the biggest need people have and will continue to have seems to be more space, says Hugh Heron, of Heron Homes, who has been in the industry 60 years.
“When we were building homes in 1967 that were just under 2,000 square feet, the industry said we’d never sell them,” he recalls. “In those days, it seemed like a huge house. Back then the en suite was a basin and a toilet. Fast-forward to today and that single family home is 4,000 square feet and en suite bathrooms are just unbelievable.”
He says the biggest change in the past decade has been the growth of condominiums, as affordability chases people either out of the city or up in the sky.
“Governments wants density, particularly in Toronto, so a lot of this stuff is going to go high instead of low,” Mr. Heron says.
The Building Industry and Land Development Association says about 60% of the housing in the greater Toronto area sold in 2011 has been high-rise. It’s a trend being seen in other large markets such as Calgary, Altus Group said in a recent report.
And even though condos are becoming the home of choice, their pricing keeps going up and forcing the industry to make them smaller so people can afford them.
“If you look at the resale market in 2003, the average unit that traded was over 1,000 square feet and now it’s just under 900 square feet,” says Ben Myers, vice-president of Urbanation Inc., about Toronto’s market.
The shrinking condo trend will continue.
“It’s going to go down further when some of larger buildings being built now start to register,” says Mr. Myers, adding 600-square-foot condominium apartments have started to become the norm.
The high price tag for housing has consumers looking for breaks on costs and energy bills have come under the microscope. It used to be property taxes that buyers always wanted to know but energy costs are becoming something people are considering.
“We have an industry capable of building environmentally advanced housing,” says John  Kenward, chief operating officer of the Canadian Home Builders’ Association.
New requirements across the country that homes be built to meet certain energy standards could dramatically change how people view homes, he says.
On Jan. 1, Ontario will require houses to be built to what was called the R-2000 standard, which involves strict technical requirements for energy efficiency, indoor air quality and environmental responsibility.
A national code is coming into place later in 2012 and most provinces are expected to adopt the code in time for 2013. Once that happens, the codes won’t just be voluntary but mandatory.
What it will do to house prices is anybody’s guess but it could create a price differential between new homes and existing homes, Mr. Kenward says.
“The world is going to change because of the new codes,” he says.