We stood is a semi-circle watching the dog. Seemed like a reasonable thing to do on a day when the jackets came off and the sky blued. The mutt nosed around the toes of the six people yakking on the street corner, got bored and laid down. With no prompting from me, the convo turned to houses.
James and his partner moved here from Scarborough fourteen years ago. Sue and Fred came the year before last, after selling a condo in mid-town 416. James is a nationally-known artist with a studio up the road, and treks back to the Big Smoke annually for a show and sale. One day Fred bound up his ponytail, packed his Toronto recording equipment into a truck, drove it east for two days and installed everything inside a big, converted double-car garage beside his house. “Just finished the sixth album,” he said. “But I should charge more. All these guys wanna do is hang around and do guitar remixes.”
Sue and Fred paid less for their large two-and-a-half storey house with the big lot and wraparound porch than a one-bedroom concrete box overlooking the 401. There was enough left from the condo sale to add a Mercedes to the driveway. James paid even less, but that was more than a decade ago, and he still enjoys the unobstructed view of the back harbour.
“Couldn’t get me back in Toronto,” he says. “When you have to pay a million bucks for a house and carry a massive mortgage, how can you keep from getting mean? Or competitive? Or just scared? I mean, what happens when you lose a job and owe hundreds of thousands? How can people sleep?”
There was a mortgage broker who worked from his big home down the street, but apparently he shut the door for lack of business. It seems like financing a house is an alien idea. But so’s the concept of house as investment. On the south shore of Nova Scotia, with better weather than Toronto and an hour from the sprawl of Halifax, real estate’s a slow thing. A house might take 200 days to sell, and will probably change hands for about what the owner paid. Nobody here thinks much about the property ladder. Or watches HGTV.
In fact, as in parts of BC, a housing correction’s already taken place. Sales are off by a third from year-ago levels, and prices have trickled lower for the past two years. There is no speculation. No flippers. No multiple bids. No bully offers. No assignments. No hurry. Sellers hang signs out, then garden around them for a couple of seasons until somebody arrives who likes the place. Realtors wear sandals and drive minivans.
Of course, houses are affordable for a reason. The whole province has fewer people than Mississauga. The unemployment rate is 9.5% (in contrast, Toronto’s at 8.2%, Vancouver is 7.0%), which probably explains why so many people are self-employed, or the excess of artists, writers and musicians. And there’s perception. Being humans, we tend to clump together, then believe where we’ve chosen is special. How else to explain people coming on this blog to chirp, seriously, “it’s different in Regina”?
Five years ago I bought a house on the south shore, and every weekend or two grab the shuttle from Toronto. In two hours I go from a city where people spend $1.5 million on houses made of pressed sawdust and industrial glue, to a place where you can retire at age 50, living imperiously on the proceeds of an ugly suburban box in Calgary. And have a better house. My town has five-star restaurants, two concert halls, a hospital, a working harbour, a new school, tourists from Japan in horse-drawn carriages, and the sea. Sadly, though, no Starbucks. And the only strip club folded. I think she retired.
There are lots of places like this in Canada, where people live in houses they can afford. Never was a bubble. There won’t be a bust. Mortgage rates are irrelevant. Real estate’s not a strategy. Folks aren’t obsessed. Nobody talks about it. Except the come-from-away people standing around watching a dog snort gravel.
So, is smug a sin?