Unusual Housing in Toronto
July 7, 2004 8:30 AM   Subscribe

I was thinking about buying a place to hang my hat, but I'm not sure what's right for me (Let's all go inside, shall we?)

Paying rent is for suckers, and in about a year I'll have my downpayment all saved up, but I'm pretty sure I don't want to buy an econo-box condominium apartment. I think maybe what I want is a loft, but a real loft, not a "we bought a building with high ceilings, put in apartments, and now we call them lofts so we can charge 20% more" loft. (funny tangent, an artist foaf was living in a loft, and their landlord booted them out and sold the place to a developer who then gutted the place to put in "lofts")

So, my twin questions are:
Where would I go about finding non-conventional living spaces? How would I find a real-estate agent that will not look askance at such a quest?


If, in 5 years I say to myself "This is a treehouse! What kind of stunted man-boy life am I living here?! It's time to grow up!" what will my re-sale chances be like? Will I take a bath on my biggest purchase ever for the privilage of living somewhere "weird"?

I'm in Toronto, in the frozen north, I want to be downtown, and close to the subway, if that's important to your answer.
posted by Capn to Home & Garden (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
i know nothing about toronto, but here in the great american midwest, i know at least half-a-dozen people living in churches/synagouges which have been turned into condos (and am FOAF of a woman who lives in a single-family house which was a church). i had a friend in san antonio who lived in a bank that had been turned into condos.

in these cases, the architecht made conventional living spaces (thus enhancing resale value) out of nonliving space, but left elements which identified the structures original use (for instance, the stained glass windows, the choir loft and the bank vault). (i've also seen condos made out of nonliving space that completely obliterated all traces of prior use). so i'd suggest looking for redevelopment projects. if they're still being builty, check out the plans for retaining the original character of the structure. if you buy a unit before it's built, you may be able to specify which details are to be salvaged in your unit.

your other option is buying space in a condo building that's all build-to-suit and finding an architecht that will build you what you envision (i know a great interior architecht here in chicago, if anyone is interested), but that is generally quite expensive. you can get some great salvage for doors, countertops, appliances, fixtures &c which you can use whether you buy a finished place or not.

as for finding an agent who will not try to show you what you don't want, call a couple agents. outline what you're looking for and set up an day with each of them to look at several properties. explain to each of them what you liked in what they showed you and what you did not. agree to work with the one that reacts most appropriately. i imagine there are rules about working with several agents at once, but i've never known anyone to run into problems trying out three or four agents before choosing one to work with.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:46 AM on July 7, 2004

It's all about buying a small warehouse and renovating it (depending on zoning laws, of course). Not only will it be fairly cheap, but you'll be able to throw really badass parties.
posted by cmonkey at 9:23 AM on July 7, 2004

Retrofit a railroad freight car. As long as it's on rails (for legal/zoning reasons), you're golden.
posted by gottabefunky at 11:15 AM on July 7, 2004

Loft Living:

(1) The "real" lofts you seek are commercial spaces that are either zoned as live-work spaces, or the authorities don't look too closely at whether or not you actually live in the place.

(2) Being a commercial space, the landlord will typically want to write you a 5-year lease. You can expect to pay somewhere between $0.50 - $1.00 per square foot per month. In more concrete terms, a 3000 sf "loft" in Seattle's Pioneer Square district typically rents for $1500 - $3000 per month. By comparison, a 750 square foot 1 bedroom apartment goes for $500-$1500. Clearly renting the loft is a LOT cheaper.

You don't seem to like the idea of renting, this is unfortunate for two reasons:

(3) interest rates are starting to go back up. You could jump in on buying property, but if you haven't spent the last year carefully studying the workings of the real estate market, you will more likely lose money than make it.

(4) Lofts, being commercial space, are perfect for subdivision and subletting. Suppose you get that 3000 square foot loft, and then are shocked by the amount of space you now have. Grab a random theatrical carpenter* and a few cases of beer. Offer the beer to the carpenter in exchange for a few walls, dividing the space into one 1500 square-foot unit, and three 500-square foot units. Now, rent each 500 SF unit to some local artists for $200-$500 each per month. Now you are spending very little money on your own space (possibly breaking even or making money if you do it right) AND you are giving back to the community by providing useful space that otherwise would not exist.

*theatrical carpenter: remember, this is a commercial space, so none of your subdividing walls need to be load-bearing. A theatrical carpenter will know how to quickly make cheap walls that look cool, exactly what you need, and none of what you don't need.

Three to five years into your loft adventure, you may decide "lofts are so neat, I want to own the whole building." Take your business model to a bank, and work out the details with the commercial real estate office.
posted by Kwantsar at 11:19 AM on July 7, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks, this gives me much to ruminate on.

But how does one go about actually finding such places? Will your standard real estate agent know anything about places zoned live/work, would someone specalizing in industrial properties?
posted by Capn at 12:07 PM on July 7, 2004

Check your local/alternative newspaper for art gallery openings and for-rent postings. Galleries run by brokers are typically in high-rent retail zones, while galleries run by artists are more frequently in the loft district. Also, check the various housing sections in your local craigslist.
posted by Kwantsar at 1:22 PM on July 7, 2004

I'm into my third loft in Atlanta. The best way to find what you want is to spend some time in the older areas of your city that were once prosperous but got wasted because people decided to move "out" to the suburbs over the years. Usually you will find old abandoned buildings just waiting for somebody to bring back to life.
posted by oh posey at 3:10 PM on July 7, 2004

I've seen what Kwantsar describes done in lil' old Provo Utah. Four girls took a downtown warehouse and rented it, built four lofts, and an art gallery, and used the rest for shows for local bands. Every Wednesday they had the most awesome community open mic nights I've seen anywhere. It lasted for a bit over a year before some of them moved and those left didn't have the money, but it was really cool in the meanwhile.

To get around zoning, the city told them to hire themselves as security guards for the art gallery at a rate of 10$ per month, and that would make them eligible to spend the night.
posted by weston at 3:57 PM on July 7, 2004

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