Will Condos Become the New Family Home in Mississauga?

To many people, the idea of a family living -- happily living, at least -- in a condo is unthinkable.

As far as the average suburban dweller is concerned, condos are where you go to start building equity (or live independently for less in the case of renting) or die (if you're downsizing as an empty nester). To some, they're transitional homes at best and gargantuan glass eyesores at worst, popping up like metallic weeds and eating all that precious green space that dwindles before everyone's eyes.

But love them or hate them, they're here to stay -- and for good reason.

For many families -- not just singles and retirees, but bona fide families with two incomes, two kids and two pets -- condos are the only affordable housing option and living in one, space sacrifice aside, is not at all drudgery. It's also interesting to note that, as the prices of town, semi and detached homes continue to soar, condo developers are paying attention and giving prospective buyers more three-bedroom options to peruse when seeking a suite to rent or buy.

"In our high rise market, we're seeing demand for bigger suites in all areas," says Dominic Tompa, broker of record for the Daniels sales team. "The gap between condo and low-rise prices has gotten significant and people find it impossible to buy a house."

Tompa is absolutely correct that the price disparity between high and low-rise living is enormous.

According to July numbers released by the Toronto Real Estate Board, the average price of a detached home in the 905 (that includes Sauga, obviously) is now a whopping $888,565. That’s perilously close to $1 million. Semi-detached homes in the city are selling for up to $588,947 and townhouses are running buyers about $521,584. If you’re condo shopping, you can expect to pay $358,291.

For many Mississauga residents, housing prices are an enormous hardship.

According to a recent affordable housing report, there are currently 234,600 households in Mississauga. At present, 74, 575 households fall within the low income bracket, bringing in less than $55,500 a year. As for middle-income households, there are currently 67,480 households that bring in $55,000 to $100,000 a year. For a household with a more moderate income, an affordable home would cost $398,000 or less to own or $2,500 or less to rent (well within the price point of the average condo).

For some families, condo or apartment living just works -- both because it has to and because it has perks that few people focus on.

"There are five of us [in our family], two adults and three children. The kids were aged 1, 2 and 3 when we moved in [to an apartment] and were turning 8, 9 and 10 when we moved out," says Sarah Hachem, a mother of three who made apartment living work for her family of five (and two cats!) around the GTA for years. "The biggest reason [we lived in an apartment] was that we couldn't afford to purchase a home in the areas of the GTA that we really liked, so we decided to downsize to a smaller apartment to save money for a bigger down payment."

While life can work in a small space -- Hachem and her family lived in a two-bed, one-bath, 1,100 sq. ft. space -- there are challenges.

"Fitting everything into a small space [is a challenge]," Hachem says. "With three young children and all of the gear and toys that come with raising them, we had to become extremely organized and use every square inch wisely. [There's also] privacy. As the kids grew older (two boys and one girl) they started wanting their own space to relax and unwind. We gave the kids the larger of the two bedrooms and put in a set of bunk beds and a loft bed, that way each child had their own little 'bunk' area for sleeping and it maximized floor space for playing."

There were also benefits.

"We loved making so many friends in the building. The [kids] always had someone to play with and we always had friends and a helping hand nearby. We also enjoyed being together and living in a small space allowed us to grow into such a tight-knit family. The school bus stopped right in front of our apartment every morning and there were approximately 60 students that all attended the same school. The kids would play after school almost every day with the other children. It was great for getting to know our neighbours and to meet other people in the building. The apartment also had a pool and a fabulous walking trail that was just minutes from our doorstep. If the kids ever wanted to play, we would just walk down to the trail and you would always find other families exploring or out there riding bikes, playing with sidewalk chalk or building snowmen in the winter."

While smaller spaces might be necessary for people on a budget, what about larger condos for people who just cannot spend close to $1 million on a detached home and actually want the benefits of condo living?

As of now, three-bedroom units -- which are certainly more family-friendly than one or two or even two bedroom plus den suites -- are a rarity in new condos in Mississauga (but that's changing). Before, there simply wasn't enough demand for them because they commanded too high a price for who was once the average condo buyer. The average single, couple or retiree looking for a condo wouldn't spend $500,000 or more on a suite when they could spend the same (perhaps less) on a townhouse. Now, the space isn't the only thing in demand -- the entire community that comes with a condo is.

"Our Erin Mills project, going from West Tower to Arc [the current Daniels pre-construction project planned for the area], we saw more demand for two and three-bedroom units. We have more two and three bedroom suites planned [for Arc] because there's been huge demand for them and they sold out right on launch," says Daniels' Tompa.

Arc, which should be completed in early 2019, will boast 17 three-bedroom units and 35 two bedroom plus den units.

"That's a substantial portion of the building," says Tompa. "Fifty per cent are two-bedrooms or larger. In Mississauga, we saw the demand when we launched West Tower in 2014."

While three-bedroom units are not exactly cheap -- not in new builds, at least -- they're certainly more affordable than low-rise houses and therefore an attractive option for families who want to purchase a home and cannot afford a detached house (even with good incomes and decent savings).

According to Tompa, three-bedroom units in Daniels buildings are typically priced in the high $500s and a 1,078 sq. ft. three-bedroom costs $572,900. If a resident wants even more space, 1,250 sq. ft. units are available for $600,000 or more. So while a half million-dollar (or more) home is indeed steep for many, it's certainly more affordable than an $888,565 detached home. It's also important to note that, right now, housing inventory is treacherously low in Toronto and the GTA (Mississauga included). Listings are few and far between, so a townhouse priced at $530K could easily go for well over $600K.

Purchasing a condo is, at this point, easier. Sellers don't tend to hold offers (although some do), meaning buyers are less likely to find themselves engaged in pricey and upsetting bidding wars. Condos also come with amenities -- many of them kid-friendly -- and perks like covered parking, snow clearing and 24-hour security.

"We're changing the nature of amenities to suit families," says Tompa. "The low-rise market, even if prices stop increasing, is still out of reach for many people. Families will look at vertical communities. Now, we have to build what families want to live in. At Arc, there will be a children's playground and running track and an area for picnics. [Condo living] is about socializing and living."

While vertical living will indeed most likely become more common in Mississauga and beyond, there are still people who find the notion not just shocking, but disappointing.

"People always seemed shocked when I said we were living in a two bedroom apartment," says Hachem. "They would praise me for my patience and tell me they 'don't know how I did it!' I grew up in a tiny farming town in Essex County so living in the city in a building was something most of my family and friends had never experienced before. Everyone would mention moving out of the GTA to be able to afford a house and a back yard, but then we had to factor in commuting and family time. It just wasn't worth it to us."

Hachem raises an interesting point about the appeal of staying, well, home. As prices increased, Mississauga residents were told to pack up and head to Milton and Georgetown. As those communities got more expensive, young families in the city were told to go to Stoney Creek and Barrie and Bolton and Bowmanville. While it's fair to point out that homes in Barrie are more affordable, it's also important to note that commuting long distances can be a hardship. Hours spent in the car are hours spent away from family and friends. You give your kids a yard, but less of your time. If you work and play in Mississauga, it's often not worth it to commute to the city from Ancaster or Guelph.

"If they said the kids needed their own backyard, I would point out that we did have a yard -- we just shared it with the rest of the building. We had parks, the hiking trails and so much more nearby, all of which we utilized to the fullest! I also got the 'don't you think your daughter needs her own room?' While it would have been lovely, the set up we had really worked for us. The kids were still young enough that having children of different sexes in the same room really didn't matter. We weren't willing to sacrifice family time for space."

Hachem and are family aren't the only people who will ultimately decide that less space is worth the opportunity to continue living in Mississauga (or Brampton or Oakville or Toronto). Tompa thinks the demand for bigger units will continue to increase over time.

"It's going to be a growing thing. We'll see more three-bedroom units and family-friendly amenities."

So whether you hate all the new condos cropping up in City Centre or think they're serving the growing community in a valuable way, it's best to get used to them -- they're not going anywhere and, in many cases, they're helping families stay in the city that they love.

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