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Baby Boomer tastes redesigning Canada’s condo market

Darah Hansen
The Vancouver skyline from Stanley Park.

Jim Case raves about his downtown Vancouver condominium, but he admits there was a time when he would never have considered living in anything other than a single-family home.

At 54, Case is considered a Baby Boomer, the wealthiest generation in Canadian history. And, like most members of this demographic, he has stubbornly resisted the urban trend towards a condo lifestyle.

Case was raised on the belief that a house with a yard represents success. It’s what you work hard to buy, where you raise your family and retire to after the kids grow up.

Indeed, before Case, and wife Laurie, made the move downtown, he thought condo living could only be claustrophobic and crowded.

“We are pretty private people and we feared what it would be like to share common areas with literally hundreds of other people you didn’t know,” Case said in an interview with Yahoo Canada Finance.

Over the last two years, developers have been working to change that particular mindset, designing high-rise projects to specifically appeal to property-rich Boomers who are looking to free up both time and cash invested in their family homes, without losing the benefits of low-density living.

The effort appears to be paying off.

The number of large, even luxurious, units coming onto the market in Metro Vancouver, and, to a lesser degree in Toronto, has some in the industry calling this “the year of the three-bedroom.”

According to the Vancouver-based Urban Development Institute, there are at least 10 projects targeting the Boomer niche in various stages of planning and development across the metro region, including Vancouver, Surrey, Richmond, and Coquitlam.

One project in West Vancouver is set to offer townhouse-style, living though in a high-rise building, while others give buyers the option to combine multiple units.

All the comforts of a single-family home?

“It is a trend that we haven’t seen before,” said Anne McMullin, UDI president and CEO.

“The Baby Boomer isn’t looking to downsize. Rather, they are looking to move into something with plenty of space, and the security and ease of condo living,” she said.

The sales centre for one such project, The Charleston in Vancouver’s pricey Yaletown district, opened last week. It’s the second tower by the Onni Group to feature large condo units, up to 3,000 sq.ft.

Nic Jensen, Onni’s vice president of marketing, said the development taps into a desire by Boomers to maximize a sense of space and privacy that they’ve been accustomed to. That means fewer units in the development layout. The 48-storey Charleston, for instance, is advertising the total number of homes to be constructed at between 80 and 125, with entire floors available for purchase by a single buyer.

A similar project of its size aimed at a more cost-conscious market could see as many as 500 units squeezed into the development.

Other considerations include extra space for Boomers’ beloved vehicles and plenty of storage to pack away years of household memories.

The larger homes come with a hefty price tag, of course. Units at the Charleston start at $800,000 for a 1,000 sq.ft. floor plan and top out at well over the $1-million mark.

Case, the CEO of Travelers Financial Group, and his wife Laurie moved into their three-bedroom luxury unit about four years ago.

At first the move was temporary. They’d sold the 7,000-sq.ft. family home in West Vancouver after their three sons had moved out, and had intended to rent a place downtown only until the construction of a new home in the same neighbourhood was completed.

They hadn’t anticipated enjoying urban life so much, from the restaurants outside their door to the nearby sea wall and park offering them plenty of space to walk and ride their bikes.

“The longer we stayed downtown, the more we liked it. It’s great energy,” Case said.

The couple ended up combining three units on one floor to create a 3,300 sq.ft. apartment, with three outdoor terraces and a home office that looks over into Stanley Park and the North Shore mountains.

“It does not feel like a condo at all. It doesn’t have 16-foot ceilings like we had in the house. We have 9.5 foot ceiling and that is OK,” Case said.

Condo living on the rise

Just over a million Canadians now call a condominium home, with that number expected to increase dramatically as high-rise towers eclipse other forms of housing construction by the latter half of the decade.

Millennials make up a large portion of the condo market, driven largely by affordability. Immigrants, too, are heavily represented. Newcomers to Canada are more than twice as likely to buy into a high-rise than any other type of housing.

It’s not just cost. In various surveys on the topic, people also say they prefer the maintenance-free lifestyle, lower energy costs, proximity to shops and restaurants and easier commute times.

Boomers have been the last generation to make the shift. A poll by Leger Marketing conducted last year found that, even among Boomers who were considering a downsizing move, most said they would not consider a condo any time soon.

Case maintains, for those who can swing it, a condo is a great option. He and his wife are in the process of upgrading their own downtown living situation. They intend to sell their current condo and purchase a 3,700-sq.ft. unit in The Charleston project. Case said the new development offers more exclusivity (125 units versus 200 in his current building), along with a 360-degree view of the city and natural surroundings, and 3,000 sq.ft. outdoor deck, complete with a swimming pool and hot tub.

Case said he doesn’t expect to get the same investment potential out of the condo as he would in a single-family home, but, “At our stage in life we don’t really need to do that anymore.”