Approaching retirement, Carolee Harris wanted to free up some equity for the years that lay ahead.
Like many Canadian boomers, she looked to a major investment — in this case, her three-story historic Victorian home in downtown Toronto.
Thing is, she couldn’t stand to leave behind Harbord Village, the neighbourhood in which her 19th-century abode at 151 Robert Street is located.
The prospect of looking after tenants in her old age had no appeal either, even though her home had been renovated as an income property including two legal apartments.
So she came up with a scheme to avoid moving or renting out part of her place, one that would let her dip into her property investment, too: Harris decided to split her home into a pair of condos.
“It enables me to sell basically half of the equity in the house and not have landlady-like responsibilities,” says Harris, a doctor in her sixties.
But even with the home already divvied up, getting the property designated as two condo units has not been easy.
It took more than half a year of work leading up to getting the dwellings approved in May, and it wasn’t cheap. Harris estimates the undertaking is running her $50,000, not including previous renovations to create the apartments.
“It was the same process as if I were converting a 30-unit rental building into condos,” she says. “You have to go through all the same steps.”
Harris says the whole property had to be looked over closely to determine what each unit encompasses.
“Windows and doors, everything had to be divided,” she says. “We had surveyors come in and survey not just the land but the unit so they could be legally described for the land registry office,” she says.
She also set up another gas meter and electrical panel and gave up part of her own basement to make room for storage lockers for the new unit.
With all that being done, there are more expenses to deal with. A condo corporation and board have to be set up, which also means the requisite maintenance fees every month.
The board of directors will include Harris — who will occupy the main floor and basement — the future owner of the upstairs unit, and a mutual third party.
Engineers accessed the property for a reserve-fund study to estimate repair and upkeep costs over the next 25 years, which translated to a monthly fee of $756.20 per unit.
Harris acknowledges the board could vote to pay less in the future, but it doesn’t sound like she has any problem with the fees.
“While I’m here, I will probably support keeping the reserve fund healthy, because we should all do it when we have houses,” she says.
Spread out over the top two floors, the suite should appeal to empty nesters looking to move into the city from the suburbs who don’t want the hassle of a big yard, says Harris.
In fact, the unit doesn’t come with a yard — Harris has retained that for herself — but it does have an airy 300-square-foot third-floor deck.
It’s also ideal for couples that don’t have big families, she adds, because although it’s big for a condo at 1,800 square feet, it only has two bedrooms.
Harris’ isn’t the only single-family home to be converted to multiple condo units, says her realtor Gary Thomas Alison, though hers is certainly one of the smallest.
“Most of them are fours or sixes in these very large century houses, all basically within that location,” the Royal LePage agent explains.
Nearby at 416 Brunswick Avenue, a converted triplex is selling for $2,995,000. Alison has heard of the odd condo conversion in The Beach in the city’s east end as well.
He says these projects are more popular in other North American cities.
“It’s something that’s very common in Montreal, New York, Boston — even in Vancouver,” he says. “It’s just not common in Toronto,” he adds.
“It should be because it allows more affordable living space in a very densely populated area,” Alison says.
Harris adds that these conversions can allow twice as many people to live in heritage neighbourhoods without the need to tear down old buildings.
However, the costly and lengthy affair that Harris went through is one reason why there aren’t more of these multi-unit homes in Toronto, says Alison.
The home has been on the market since September, and though she says sometimes people are “freaked out about the idea,” there has been “a lot of interest.”
Harris isn’t going to take just any offer, though. “This is the only chance I get to have a say [in] who lives there,” she says, acknowledging there’s an element of vetting.
“Because after all, we are the board.”