Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Where the heart is: What it means to buy a home

Source photos: Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail, Photo illustration

I wanted to buy the house for its description alone: "3Br Victorian W/Sympathetic Modern Influences of Fancy Charm." It was, like the best real-estate ads, a dating profile couched in the language of home ownership. Fall in love with my original mouldings; stay, when the passion ends, for my brushed-steel appliances.

It was unclear whether the urinal in the red bathroom represented a sympathetic modern influence or fancy charm. Both, possibly. Urinals seem to be a thing these days in chic urban spaces. But I didn't have time to ponder. Behind me, people were craning their necks to see into the bathroom, so I ducked out to join the crowd oohing over the custom walk-in closet.

The house at the end of my block had just gone on the market. I went to check it out almost as soon as the open house began, and yet 20 people were already through the door ahead of me, whispering and pointing and climbing to the renovated loft in their stocking feet.

Story continues below advertisement

This story is about my street, but it could be everyone's street, especially if you live where house prices are climbing out of sight of the naked eye. It also will be familiar to anyone who has lived in a neighbourhood that was once a bit sketchy, a home to people of quite different ways and means, but now as aspirational as an Edith Wharton heroine.

Housing stock is ridiculously tight in downtown Toronto. The open house had the air of a ball held after a terrible war in which all the young men had been killed. Here, at last, was an eligible bachelor, and potential partners were lined up out the door. All were waiting to feel Cupid's arrow, or at least their accountant's sanctioning nod: It's a good investment.

Because it is a good investment. I need to believe that, since the pretty Victorian is only a few doors from my house and, according to the addictive, maddening algebra that haunts our dreams and infects every social gathering: If that house is worth more, then mine must be too (even if I can never afford to leave it).

Even the innumerate become Stephen Hawking when thoughts turn to real estate. Which they do, inevitably, if you're within sight of middle age. The corners of the mind once given over to daydreams of sex are now filled with high-efficiency furnaces and creeping rootballs and double-, no, triple-glazed windows.

I apologize for how relentlessly middle-class this preoccupation seems. But I didn't make the demented real-estate market; I just live in it. Margaret Schlegel, the main character in Howards End, perhaps the great novel about real estate, asks at one point: "Aren't you ever amused at the solemnity with which we middle classes approach the subject of houses?"

E.M. Forster wrote the book more than a century ago, but it could have been yesterday. The schism at the heart of the story is as fresh as a new coat of paint: For Margaret and her free-thinking family, home is an extension of identity. Their house is almost another sibling, a source of comfort and a bridge to the past. When they lose it, they're adrift.

However, the mercantile Wilcoxes, whose fate is linked so inextricably to that of the Schlegels, view Howards End (their house) as little more than an asset, a source of revenue, a bridge to a richer future. It is Forster's genius to show that the house is both head and heart, investment and beloved, burdened with more expectations than any four walls could ever fulfill.

Story continues below advertisement

If this tandem sounds familiar, you may be one of the hundreds of thousands of Canadians who don flame-retardant gear, brave the fires of bidding wars, borrow so much that you wake in the middle of the night in a clammy-pitted panic, all so you can buy a house. About 70 per cent of Canadians own their homes, whether a condo, a castle or something in between, compared with only 41 per cent of Germans.

This may be because, in Germany, it's easier to rent than to own. Or it may be that Canadians have both economic reasons for owning (24 per cent of us say our home is our prime retirement investment) and psychological and emotional ones. We are Schlegels, and Wilcoxes, too.

Canada's molten market

A home is so much more than the walls that surround us. Buy a home and you're instantly given the secret handshake and admitted to the world of adults. Buy a home, and have a blank screen on which to project your longings for perfection, even after your body and mind have proved stubbornly resistant to improvement. Buy a home and you have a nest egg.

Buy a home … but who can afford one in this molten Canadian market, which the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development says is one of the most overheated in the world? Not all of it is overheated, of course: Like a stew warmed in a microwave, it has blistering spots, such as Toronto and Vancouver, and tepid ones in between. But there are enough lava pockets to burn.

What young person or artist or single mother or cobbler-together of part-time work can buy into this madness? Much of Generation Y has decided that it can't, or won't, succumb. When I ask real-estate agents the questions on everyone's mind – how can first-time buyers afford the down payment on an $800,000 house? – they say the same thing: Parents are coughing up inheritances early (the ones fortunate enough to afford it). It has come to this: People must look ahead to their own deaths so their children can have a place to live.

Story continues below advertisement

Even so, good luck getting a toe in the door where I live. My gritty, friendly, ugly-duckling street wouldn't pass for grand even on a dark night, but in this market it suddenly has the allure of a beauty queen.

Once, my street was working-class. Its houses, built in varied architectural styles around the turn of the 20th century, supplied the men who went to war, and returned to work in the factories that ran along Dupont Street. You see their occupations – labourer and clerk and carpenter – listed in old city directories. A 1922 Globe obituary of a florist on the street (Arthur Frost Answers Call) mentions that, when he'd settled there 30 years earlier, the area was beyond the city limits "and boasted only a few scattered farmhouses." Now it's practically downtown.

Later, in the great migration that followed the Second World War, Portuguese and Greeks and Italians moved in. They packed into houses, three families on as many floors, and when their children grew up, they longed for space and moved north to the suburbs, where they opened pizza restaurants and built pillared houses that looked like pictures of the Old Country.

My next-door neighbour Josie came to Canada from Naples in 1959 with her fiancé, Tony, and got married two weeks later in a dress she rented for $20. They lived in a house at the foot of our block with many in-laws in the other rooms. The city expropriated the house to build the Bloor subway line, and in 1969 she and Tony bought the one where she still lives, for $17,000.

Later, when I tell other neighbours about this, we'll burst into laughter – imagine, $17,000. But it's not exactly happy laughter, more like the sound you make when jumping in a very cold pool. The average price of a three-bedroom in my neighbourhood is now $700,000, providing you can find one for sale.

Josie is the street's Scheherazade. She knows all its secrets and dishes them out with spell-binding skill and a very thick accent. My house, she informs me, was once a drug den (which I already knew – when we moved in, all the interior doors had locks on them and they were broken). She would call the police when its transient occupants peed out the upper-floor windows. Another neighbour's death was shrouded in mystery. "We were worried," Josie says, "that she's eaten by the cats."

Josie is also the migration story in microcosm. She remembers when the Italian butcher made deliveries on his bike; now, he and his son sell grass-fed beef and burrata to Toronto's top restaurants. She, on the other hand, still has the $200 bedroom suite she bought from the shop on the corner in 1959, a disregard for what's in vogue almost unimaginable today.

"It was all Italians," she recalls. "It was like a village, at night with the passeggiata" – the ritual evening walk, like back home.

When her kids, like so many others, moved to the suburbs, house prices stagnated, and our neighbourhood developed a bad reputation. As Josie sat on her porch and watched, drug dealers moved in. Which is why, for a while, people like my husband and I could afford a house here.

An impossible dream

Today, my own grandparents wouldn't be so lucky. They came to Canada in 1929 and, after renting and saving their pennies, were able to buy on Royce Avenue in the once-dreary Junction Triangle, only a few kilometres from where I live and now the latest example of rocketing gentrification.

My grandfather was a bricklayer and my nonna a seamstress (when she wasn't trying to lift the curse of malocchio, the evil eye, which for some reason she felt had been placed on the family). They could cover the mortgage only by having tenants and, in a historically absurd turn of events, rented their top floor during the Second World War to a German and his Japanese wife. Every week my eight-year-old father had to report to the police station with his mother, to assure the cops there was no Axis plot brewing in Toronto's west end.

Now how many bricklayers can afford downtown Toronto, or Vancouver, or Calgary? I never expected to be able to, either. A parental separation bifurcated my life, as it does for so many, and turned it into a sociological experiment in having and not having.

Part of my childhood was spent in a pretty red-brick house with a vast bay window just north of where I live now, and part in a decrepit inner-city high rise. It had windows, too, and once I woke, startled by an explosive crack, and peered out to see the police shooting at a fleeing suspect. I have looked at houses from both sides now.

I never dreamed of owning one: If anything, a house seemed like an anchor, a burden, the antithesis of adventure. A way of shutting the door on the world. But then suddenly I was married; a different door opened and we were expected to step through.

We started looking in 1999. Toronto was floating on a housing bubble then, too. Perhaps the bubble never really burst, although real-estate agents say it took a downturn five years ago during the financial crisis. There we were, with our tiny pile of cash, like small-time gamblers in Las Vegas, and the houses we could afford had crooked floors or death-row wiring or mushrooms in the bathtub.

We bid anyway, and lost them all. This is the thing about house hunting in crazy markets: You adopt the strategy of unsuccessful gamblers, throwing more and more of your chips after a losing hand, handing your agent a better bid because panic has you by the throat, and surely this time you must win.

One day our agent announced she had something we might like. When I walked into our house, I knew. The sun streamed through the windows of the top-floor loft and, even though it was tiny and had no back yard or parking, I knew.

There was a little park behind the house and, while I was pretty sure there was some transactional sex going on under the slide, I could still imagine taking future children there to play. It was irrational, but I was smitten.

It's no coincidence that the language of romance so closely mirrors that of house-hunting. How often will a woman describe a potential boyfriend as a "fixer upper?" If she doesn't put in a bid, someone else will.

We offered $225,000 for the little blue house, $8,000 over asking. It seemed astronomical. It would take every penny we had saved, and there was no one to ask for more. We had to put the lawyer's bill on a credit card. The agent phoned while I was watching the Kentucky Derby on TV: The house was ours. Suddenly it didn't matter that my horse lost.

And then, out of the blue, just months after moving in, we were offered a new gig in Los Angeles. We rented out the house and moved to an apartment that charged a premium for its view of the Hollywood sign (which you could see, with a telescope). A few years later, we transferred to London, renting a giant house surrounded by unfathomable natives who filled the sky with fireworks on Nov. 5 and said things like, "You must come round some time," even though they didn't mean it.

The prodigals return

For almost 12 years we did not live in the little house I loved. And in that time, the street changed for the better. Young couples with small children took a flier and snapped up the relative bargains: They squinted and saw the potential.

My neighbour Zayna bought the first house on our street to sell for more than $500,000. Pregnant with her second child, fatigued at having looked at more than 40 places in various stages of decrepitude, she was losing hope when her agent called and said, "I've found it."

All house hunters wait for that call, the equivalent of your best friend phoning to say, "I've found him. Come right over before someone snaps him up." Zayna fell in love with the house: It was red brick and detached, and had an apartment for her brother in the basement.

The couple selling it couldn't afford to live there any more. They worked in the film industry and the film industry had gone phhhht. Zayna and her husband sat in a car parked outside and put in their over-asking bid, as one does, because one is weary, and impatient, and just wants a place to host a family barbecue.

That was in 2007. Two years later, Peggy arrived with her husband and two sons. They had rented in Toronto's east end and, by the time they were ready to buy, had been priced out of their green and leafy neighbourhood.

Having grown up in San Francisco, she didn't know much about our area before moving in. Just after signing the contract on her house, she went on a walking tour, and the guide said, "Most of you associate this neighbourhood with the gang warfare of the 1990s …"

Oh my god, Peggy thought. What have I got into?

But she didn't really mind a bit of grit. While teaching at a university in Florida, she had lived on a giant lot and known none of her neighbours. In Toronto, she wanted a walkable neighbourhood with a decent school nearby. After looking at 15 houses and bidding on two, she nabbed one across the street from me for $453,000, essentially the equivalent of buying Manhattan for a handful of beads.

Being an academic who studies urban affairs makes Peggy a good person to talk to about the extreme kookiness (not a technical term) of Canadian real estate. In 1970s Toronto, she says, the ratio of median house price to median income was about 3:1 and now it's about 10:1. On the day after we talk, Deutsche Bank will declare Canada's housing market the most overheated in the world.

By the time Deanna appeared, the bargains had all gone. She did not fall in love with her house, but she did fall in love with our street. Like Zayna, she had seen too many properties and lost too many bidding wars. Determined not to lose this one, she and her husband bid a whopping $68,000 over asking and got the house for $567,000.

Reality soon set in, she recalls, "and just as I was standing on the lawn regretting how much we'd paid, one of the neighbours came over and said, 'I can't believe what you've paid for this house.' "

This is the other thing about owning a house: The norms of civility go right out the window. Neighbours who wouldn't dream of commenting on the size of your nose will happily remark on the size of your lot, your fence, your debt.

Deanna may have second thoughts about the house, but never the street. For one thing, it is "mixed" or "downtown" or whatever is the current euphemism for "not entirely white." This was important to her, raised in a Chinese-Canadian family in Winnipeg – the kids playing outside, neighbours chatting, elderly Greeks tending their vines and young professionals drinking gin and tonic from mason jars.

Then she says something that makes my head snap around: "I've been in a constant state of nostalgia for my own childhood. I wanted to recapture what I had."

These words could have come from my own mouth, although I wouldn't have been so articulate. It makes me realize that what I wanted was not so much a house as a way to fix what was broken in my own childhood, the way things were before it all went wrong. I want my kids to have the street I lived on, that ravine, those games of hide and seek.

In Mount Pleasant, Don Gillmor's masterful novel about Toronto's striving middle class, a real-estate agent tells beleaguered protagonist Harry Salter why he can't afford to lose another bidding war: "Harry, you have to understand what this house means to you. I don't mean bricks, parking pad, breakfast nook, whatever. I'm talking about its meaning. Because that is what you're buying."

She finishes with a perfect, slicing hook: "We only get one shot at it, Harry. Do you deserve this house?"

Do you deserve this house? It's amazing how many great novels have this as their central theme. In Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie Bennet realizes she's in love with Mr. Darcy only when she sees his vast … estate. What is Wuthering Heights but the tale of a man who can't have the woman he loves, so schemes to live in her childhood home instead? Gone With The Wind is not the love story of Scarlett and Rhett – frankly, she cannot stand him for most of the novel – but the love story of Scarlett and Tara, the plantation she will sell herself to keep.

"I'll sleep when I get to Tara," she says, because the houses of childhood are the places we visit in our dreams.

I used to dream about our blue house when we lived away from it. When we moved back after more than a decade, the street had grown but the house somehow seemed smaller.

Where there had been a dusty hardware store that smelled mainly of mouse droppings, presided over by a dyspeptic, belly-scratching tyrant, there was now a shop selling roller derby gear. The dollar store packed up its polyester muumuus and quietly stole away. Shoppers Drug Mart moved in, which was greeted like the Second Coming, almost as good as a Second Cup. You could get a latte.

And the film couple? I have no idea what happened to them. The artists have all moved to Guelph. When we left Toronto, the average resale price for a house was $228,000; it was $514,000 when we returned. Soon the things that drew us all here – funkiness, grit – will be gone, and in return we'll get organic fruit stores, a pretty dismal trade.

Our house seems too small because now we are four people, all of whom are getting larger. I'd like a backyard. My eye wanders. Like a straying wife, I threw lustful glances at the handsome Victorian on the end of the row as it was being renovated. I watched while pretending not to and, when the time came, slipped down the street to the open house. It felt like cheating.

But isn't trading up what we're supposed to do? The entire culture is geared to creating discontent with what we already have. The next perfect thing is around the corner, or down the street.

Even if I'd wanted that house, it was too late. Someone else wanted it more, and it was gone.

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
Columnist and Feature Writer

Elizabeth Renzetti has worked at The Globe and Mail as a columnist, reporter, and editor of the Books and Review sections. From 2003 to 2012, she was a member of the Globe's London-based European bureau. Her Saturday column is published on page A2 of the news section, and her features appear regularly in Focus. More

Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨