House Hunting in Toronto: My Experience in a Seller’s Market

Last week my HB and I had our first experience house hunting in Toronto. If you aren’t familiar with Toronto’s current real estate market, in short it’s full-on bananas! Houses are regularly priced under market value to ignite bidding wars, bidding wars and bully offers are par for the course, and a lot of the houses within my HB and I’s budget are interesting to say the least.

To give you an example, so far we’ve seen a total of 7 houses (2 of those were actually condo townhouses), and there was only one we liked. Here’s what it looked like.

house-hunting-toronto-danforth

Cute right? It was actually the first one we saw and we were pretty impressed. You could tell right away that the owners maintained it well. However, there were a lot of things that just didn’t sit well with us from the get-go.

First off, it was tiny! The master bedroom was a good size, but the second bedroom, which my HB would have used as an office, could barely fit a single bed in it. The bathroom was equally small and basically needed to be gutted. Lastly, the kitchen had been remodelled (in 2006), but it didn’t include a dishwasher. Who remodels a kitchen and doesn’t put in a dishwasher? Who?!

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Since it was our first time looking at properties and there were quite a few things we wanted to change about it that weren’t just cosmetic, we decided to pass on putting in an offer. Looking back we’re still happy with our decision, but it sure was snapped up fast!

It was listed at $479,000 and it sold two days after we saw it for $531,000 without any contingencies. That means it was purchased for $52,000 over its asking price, possibly without a home inspection by the buyers. I sure hope the new owners like to do dishes by hand.

Since that was the best house we’ve seen so far, let me go through the three worst ones we saw. I’m sure on our house hunting journey we’ll have a number of other horror stories to tell, but for now let me start with the one we nicknamed “the ship”.

house-toronto-uneven-floors

From the outside, this house looks promising, right? I liked the blue exterior and the wood walk-up, but it was in a relatively sketchy part of town. As you can see, the view from the front entrance looked onto a big industrial parking lot. On the plus side, it had a basement suite we could rent out as a mortgage helper.

But it desperately needed some work and it had a very odd layout. Put simply, there was no hallway to connect each room. Each room was just connected with another door, so in order to get to the kitchen or bathroom, you’d have to walk through the first and second bedrooms. Clearly, this basement was never meant to be lived in it.

When you got to the main floor of the house, it was actually pretty decent. It had a good sized kitchen and living room along with a bedroom which we would have used as an office. But once you walked up the stairs to the upper floor, that’s when things got weird. The floors were so uneven my HB, our realtor and I all had difficulty standing straight. If we’d brought a level, I’m sure it would have exploded or something.

After we left the house, no joke I felt a bit seasick and had to take a minute to get my bearings. When our realtor asked us how we felt about it, I told her straight-up “My gut says to run…as fast as possible.” I can’t remember exactly how much this house was listed for (I think the mid-400s), but I really hope no one buys it unless they can afford to knock it down.

Thinking that we’d seen the worst property on our list, we eventually made our way to “the ghetto house”.

house-toronto-blue-steps-ghetto

This house also looked like it had potential from what we saw online. It was on a nice street with other well-maintained houses and it was in a good neighbourhood close to transit. But the moment we approached the front door I knew something was wrong.

First of all, the front porch smelled like booze. Old booze. Old cheap booze. Then it got worse. As we opened the front door, a big smelly cloud of garbage and cigarettes hit us like a one-two-punch.

For some reason, my HB could look past the smell (or smell past it?), because he still thought the house could be saved instead of burned to the ground. That is until we started taking a good look around. First of all, almost every available space was converted into a bedroom, and there were at least 50 illegal immigrants living there.

And as a selling point (I guess?) the owner made sure to let us know that two feet from the backyard there was a store that sold really cheap meat. Umm…why would we want cheap meat in the first place? We lasted about 5 minutes and left the house covering our noses.

And I’m seriously not exaggerating about the smell. When we got home we could still smell it on our clothes. The minute we got home we jumped into the shower and tossed our clothes into the laundry. How that place is listed at $509,900 I’ll never know.

Last but not least, there was this too good to be true bungalow I deemed “the puke flavoured jelly-belly”. It looked innocent on the outside, but once you bit down on it, it was just full of regrets.

bungalow-toronto

After passing on the first white house and seeing a bunch of properties I wish I could forget, this place looked perfect. It had a basement suite we could possibly rent out and appeared to be in stellar condition.

Unfortunately, although it had only been on the market for a few days, it had received a bully offer the day we booked to see it. What that means is even though seller set a specific date for when buyers can put in an offer, some bully gives the seller an early offer anyway in hopes of beating out the competition and avoiding a bidding war. Because of this bully offer, we had to decide right after our showing whether we wanted to put in an offer as well.

I was so anxious on the car ride there, I could hardly focus. Luckily, my HB had his game face on and read through the entire home inspection report before we stepped inside. I’ve got to hand it the sellers, they cleaned up the place real good.

But I’ve seen enough HGTV to know when I’m really looking at a shack with an accent wall and a fancy looking kitchen backsplash. That and it was also obvious that the basement suite they boasted about was totally illegal. While walking through it my HB almost hit his head on the ceiling twice.

There were also a few major issues noted in the inspection report. There was evidence of water damage in the basement and possible knob and tube electrical.

Basically, even though the sellers made the place look nice, all of their work would have to be reversed in order to fix all of the problems they hid. We walked away relieved that we just avoided a major money pit. Let’s hope those bullies know what they’re in for.

So that was my first experience house hunting in Toronto. It was pretty stressful and eye-opening, but spirit isn’t crushed (just yet anyway).

Even though we haven’t found anything good enough to bid on, we’re confident that the right place will appear at the right time. Until them, I’m so glad we live in an apartment with even floors and no crazy odours.

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Showing 46 comments
  • Rob
    Reply

    Years ago, due to a Head Office transfer, I too was in your position, Jess. My wife and 2 little kids (at the time) were still living back in Montreal while I was here in Toronto working and travelling back home on weekends. For the several weeks that this went on (prior to when we finally moved here) I would spend the weekday evenings going around looking at houses with my Real Estate agent. This was over the winter months and, like yourselves, I saw lots of “strange sights”, house-wise. Fortunately, I had done my homework, had my priorities, and had a good agent who knew the surrounding area (close to the location where our new head office was going to be – no long commutes to work for me, I had decided). Eventually I found the house that met most of my preferences (you can’t ever expect to get everything) and made an offer which was accepted by the seller. Mind you, I knew that the kitchen would need to be gutted and totally rebuilt (due to various reasons that I won’t go into) and my wife had not even seen the place in person (yes, I took a chance that I knew her preferences well enough – lol).

    So here’s, the thing Jess to consider. You guys will not get everything in a house that you are looking for (that’s a given). Eventually you’ll probably have a family so think to the future location-wise. Living across the street from an industrial area probably wouldn’t be wise. And a proper 2nd bedroom (for future kids) is probably wise to consider.

    I wouldn’t bet odds either on getting a dishwasher with the house. Plan on getting your own (new) one installed later, where you want it located. Unless your HB is a handyman, you may well have to forget about any fixer-uppers. And, sorry to say, you also may have to plan on a fairly long commute to work if you want to find any reasonably priced decent house, so look in areas close to public transportation (ttc, GO, whatever), so as not to be dependent on driving. For a first house you may well have to “pay your dues” in this way before you can later afford to buy up into something better.

    All part of the “fun” of home ownership, my friend! 🙂

    • Jessica Moorhouse
      Reply

      Thanks Rob! I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what happens! 🙂

  • Gretchen
    Reply

    Those are some crazy prices for those dumps! I bought my house for 1/10th of the prices you’re looking at, and I’m not bragging when I say it’s much nicer! That must be so stressful, but keep your head up – you will eventually find the perfect house in your budget!

    • Jessica Moorhouse
      Reply

      Welcome to Canada. If you want a house in Toronto or Vancouver, be prepared for some crazy prices.

  • Taylor Lee
    Reply

    We’ve been doing house hunting in our area and it has been absolutely ridonks. Average price for a 2-bed condo? 550-600K. I’ve been trying to keep my eye out for something close to public transportation that’s just, you know, not moldy. No laundry machine? Fine, I’ll install it. Bathroom made out of hideous pink tile? We’ll take it! Just as long as we can stay in budget, it would be miracle for find a place.

    • Jessica Moorhouse
      Reply

      I’d honestly be fine with living in a condo instead of a house, but prices are still expensive for condos! Plus maintenance fees are insane. Like $350 to $800 per month insane. If we could find a house where we could actually own land, that would be ideal. I know we’ll have to do some renovations no matter what though.

  • Financial Samurai
    Reply

    Fascinating stuff! How far away are these houses from downtown?

    I walked into a total beat with a goats skull in the backyard and bedroom. House went for $1.2 million and was totally remodeled after.

    Can’t get much for $600k in SF when the median price is $1.1 mil!

    Sam

    • Jessica Moorhouse
      Reply

      Pretty close to downtown. Most of the places we looked at were in the east end, about a 30 minute subway ride to Toronto’s financial district.

      • Financial Samurai
        Reply

        Not bad then! Is the $1 million price range buying someone a really nice house then?

        B/c $1 million in SF is a VERY average house….. maybe like 15% nicer than the ones you’ve profiled here.

        • Jessica Moorhouse
          Reply

          $1 million can get you a semi-detached or detached brick house pretty close to downtown and it’ll most likely be renovated. But most houses in Toronto are about 100 years old.

  • Keb
    Reply

    I recently bought a house in Toronto and just wanted to point out that pretty much every basement apartment in the city is illegal. My realtor said she has never seen a legal one in 20 years in real estate. The rules are there but they’re not enforced, because if they were the rental vacancy rate in the city (which is already problematically low) would be practically zero. Just something to consider as your search continues!

    • Jessica Moorhouse
      Reply

      Oh I know. Our realtor told us that too. But the ceilings were just insanely low. If we could find one with normal ceilings, that would be a miracle!

  • Christine Weadick
    Reply

    Holy Cow Toronto prices have gone mad!!! But it brings back memories of the craziness back, I think the 1980’s when prices had a crazy fit then too. Numbers ran lower in general but it was just as nuts from what I remember. We have been in our current house for almost 23 years now which is longer than we planned. It was a fixer-upper when we bought it and still is sorry to say. We knew going in the wiring wasn’t great here just from what we could see…for some strange reason people don’t like you punching holes in the walls to check the wiring in behind said walls. Our first plan was to re-do the kitchen first then the wiring until we got a good look at things….yea….the wiring was bumped up to job #1 real fast. Hubby did most of the work himself with my help feeding wires through and such. Seriously I did not sleep the first year it was so bad….hubby worked nights, we had three young kids and I would have been the one to get them out if there was a fire during the night..by myself. Given the condition of the wiring this was a very real possibility. I was scared shitless to put it politely!!!
    I still look at real estate ads out of curiosity and it blows my mind what some folks think they can (and likely will) get for some of these places and I’m not even talking Toronto… We live in a small town in southern ON., our prices are not an a part with yours but still some things are much the same …… Good luck Girlfriend…..you are going to need it!!!!

  • Melissa
    Reply

    Holy cow, that is AWFUL!!! I can’t believe places like that are selling for that much. Toronto needs to get its act together for more affordable housing – not for low income, but for regular people! Is Toronto doing anything to build up or out? I hate urban sprawl, but there has to be something for young people to buy.

    The worst place my bf saw while he was house-hunting was a house that had been abandoned (VERY common here during the recession) and, from the pictures, looked decent.

    Oh, how the pictures lied. In between the time the pics had been taken, homeless people had “moved in” and done terrible things to the place. They sprayed graffiti everywhere, used the entire house as their bathroom, and then to top it off, they set the kitchen on fire. A whole section of the house was fire-charred. I’m pretty sure that place had to be torn down too…

    Also – don’t buy a house that had smokers. Trust me. I live in one now, and the walls still “cry” cigarette resin. It’s so gross. The walls cry brown tears, that’s how insidious smoking is. I think you can buy special paint to cover it up, but it’s still disgusting.

    • Jessica Moorhouse
      Reply

      The kitchen was set on fire??? Ok, I think that house beats any that I saw. Wow.

  • Aleksandra Sagan
    Reply

    Yay! I’ve been waiting for the house hunting posts to start.

    Your experience sounds similar to a lot of the people that I know who’ve been house hunting in Toronto in the past or currently. It’s definitely a seller’s market and houses go fast.

    We’re thinking about getting pre-approved for a mortgage sometime in the near future – not necessarily to buy yet, but it can’t hurt to get pre-approved. So, I’m curious to see how your journey will keep going.

    • Jessica Moorhouse
      Reply

      Definitely suggest getting pre-approved. It helped us figure out what we could afford, and then how much we actually felt comfortable spending. Plus it was fun finding out our credit scores.

  • Michelle
    Reply

    Wow these prices are crazy! We have been sort of house hunting, but are more occupied with the thought of selling our current home for now. I wish a bidding war would happen on our house LOL. That does not happen where I live though.

  • Fig @ Figuring Money Out
    Reply

    Those prices and stories are crazy! I’ve been house hunting before when I almost bought a house and it’s such a different experience in my city where there are more houses than people and the average price is really reasonable based on the average income in the area. I can’t even imagine house hunting in Toronto because I’d be so stressed out by the process! It sounds like you’ve got a pretty good handle on it though so I wish y’all the best!

    • Jessica Moorhouse
      Reply

      It’s pretty stressful, but still, compared to Vancouver, prices in Toronto are actually reasonable for buying property in the biggest city in Canada.

  • Newlyweds on a Budget
    Reply

    I was looking forward to reading about the house hunting! Eric and I didn’t really do much house hunting. We looked online A LOT but in the end we only saw about 6 houses in person before we found the one we bought. And even now, I still go to open houses in our neighborhood and I’m shocked at how outdated a lot of the houses are. They need a TON of work. Ours is already pretty updated so we’re happy.

    • Jessica Moorhouse
      Reply

      What I’m really surprised about is when I see a house on the market, it’s obviously been updated, but there’s no logic to it. I mean, don’t people use floor plans or talk to contractors before just remodelling a kitchen? It just makes no sense to me.

  • Rob
    Reply

    Jess, have you guys ever considered perhaps renting a house for awhile, rather than buying one, in order to get a feel as to what home ownership might entail (as opposed to condo / appt living)?
    You might find things more affordable and allow you guys time to save up more for eventual home ownership later on. Just a suggestion.

    • Jessica Moorhouse
      Reply

      I don’t think it would make much financial sense to rent a house at this point. If our apartment is as expensive as it is, I think it would cost us the same as a monthly mortgage payment to rent a house. But thanks for the suggestion Rob!

      • Potato
        Reply

        Have you done the math though? There are many more costs to owning than just the mortgage — roughly speaking, the interest/o.c. is only about half of it. I’d suggest looking at a few detached/semi/townhouse rentals to see what your non-condo options are and how they stack up to owning. If you’re looking in the ~$600k range (including renos) then you can be paying up to ~$3000/mo in rent and still break-even with renting (though best to be a bit conservative and keep it to ~$2-2.5k/mo — or ~$2.2k/mo if you were to net out your hypothetical basement suite). However, look at what even $2k/mo gets you as a rental and compare it to these options.

        • Jessica Moorhouse
          Reply

          We’ve definitely weighed all the options. The thing with townhouses in Toronto is there are still really high fees. They’re very similar to condos. I think the main reason we’re looking for a house if possible is to own the land. With a condo or townhouse, you’ll never own a plot of land and that’s where the real value is.

          • Rob

            Jess, from what I know about the current RE market, if you want to own land, downtown is not the place to look unless you want to spend high. Only out in the suburbs – east/west/north (and at least an hr’s commute) is where you’re going to find anything half decent these days.

          • Potato

            You missed the word rental, I think — I was trying to strengthen the response to Rob’s suggestion to rent. I suggest renting a townhouse (or at least using it as a comparable in your analysis) b/c it’s comparable to sharing a detached house with a tenant in terms of living space/shared walls to meet your needs. If you want to own land whether it makes financial sense or not that’s totally fine and a personal choice, but be sure you’re going in with eyes open on that front.

            For us it does make financial sense to rent (it’s a 3 bedroom detached house in North York). Yes, the rent is almost as much as the mortgage payment would be, but that is not the end of the analysis (or the costs on the owning side of the ledger).

  • Connie @ Savvy With Saving
    Reply

    I feel your pain! We were house hunting for awhile and it was just awful. We lost out on three bidding wars, to all cash, above asking offers. It’s crazy!! It looks like buying just isn’t realistic right now but I’m still looking out for fixer uppers that we could get a semi-good deal on. I wouldn’t mind doing renovations.

    • Jessica Moorhouse
      Reply

      Same here. I don’t mind doing some renovations, but lots of houses are just so poorly taken care of, they’d easily turn into money pits.

  • Emily @ Urban Departures
    Reply

    Living in Toronto myself, I am extremely interested in your house-hunting adventure. My husband and I considered moving out of our condo and into a house- in the east end- a couple years ago but after seeing dump and after dump (one house, going for $600K with four offers on the first day, had no kitchen! How is that even possible?!), we put the search on hold. Now we lament about how prices go up and up and feel fated to a long life in the condo. Well, with interest rates going down, some would consider it a good time to buy! Good luck. I look forward to reading more house-related posts.

  • Cash Cow Couple
    Reply

    Wow. What a nightmare! I hope you find what you’re looking for soon so the house hunt can discontinue and you can start settling in. There is so much to know and to look for when buying a house.

    • Jessica Moorhouse
      Reply

      Absolutely. I’m sure I’ll be able to write a book by the end the search!

  • BeSmartRich
    Reply

    I live in Toronto and finding a good house in reasonable price is extremely tough in these days. Good luck in hunting. Hope you find a great place.

    BeSmartRich

    • Jessica Moorhouse
      Reply

      Very true. It’s not easy but I’m confident we’ll find something that fits our needs. But if we don’t, we’ll just keep renting.

  • canadianbudgetbinder
    Reply

    We live in the GTA but didn’t buy right in Toronto as the prices are of the charts but even where we are they are super pricey and sell fast.

    Sounds like you are both having fun. Our house came with no dishwasher as well BUT when I renovate this 18 year old kitchen I will make sure to put one in. We don’t really need it BUT if we come to sell as you can tell it is important to those viewing the home. Not everyone wants to do dishes by hand like we do. I guess we just get used to it. Happy House Hunting…

    • Jessica Moorhouse
      Reply

      You want to do dishes by hand? You’re crazy! I literally dream at night about how my life would change with a dishwasher. So many more hours per week would be freed up!

  • Irene Brooks
    Reply

    House hunting in Toronto is pretty tough, isn’t it! It is normal in the big cities to be like this. There are so many people who are looking for a house and this makes the prices very high also. I am looking for a nice house in London for three months and still nothing. Me and my husband had experience similar to yours and we are pretty desperate. Good luck with finding the house of your dreams! 🙂

    • Jessica Moorhouse
      Reply

      Thanks Irene! We’ve thrown in the towel for now and have just resigned to renting. At least we can afford an apartment to rent in the city we work in, but I know down the road when we want to start a family we’ll want a place of our own.

  • Veronika Dalton
    Reply

    That’s crazy! I’d almost just rather rent somewhere and wait for the market to improve. Have you found a house since this post? I feel so lucky to live where I do. My townhouse (3 bedrooms, brand new build with no previous owners, two car garage) cost us 162,000 and we live in a growing metropolitan area.

    • Jessica Moorhouse
      Reply

      We decided to quit the house hunt and have been renting ever since without any regrets. Gonna wait this crazy market out but might look into investing in commercial property or farmland. Also where do you live? That sounds like a dream!

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