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Hot real estate market leaving Toronto buyers with broken homes

Tom Hanks's character in 'The Money Pit' knows how these home owners feel.

Three years ago Paul Gancman turned Kitchen Fix, his custom kitchen business exclusively into a repair service. Why? He was swamped with calls from new condo owners living in the Greater Toronto area. Their warranties had just ended and things were falling apart.

“The drawers seem to self destruct at about a year,” Gancman said from his Oakville, Ont. shop. “It’s quite common for hinges and doors to fall off cabinets. They aren’t built to last.”

Last month, Adam H. experienced the built-to-crumble phenomenon within days of moving into his new home in Maple, Ont. Two kitchen cabinets fell from their hinges when he opened them, slipping out as easily as a hockey player’s false teeth. He turned to Gancman to fix what really shouldn’t have been broken in the first place.

What’s in the walls?

“The GTA might be a hot real estate market but frankly it’s a nightmare out there,” Gancman says, who receives up to 10 calls a day to do repairs in the area. The market it is so hot right now, that buyers are experiencing some serious remorse after rushing to purchase a home without some careful forethought.

As Naushy Saeed, sales representative with iPro Realty Ltd in Toronto noted, buyers need to be prepared to intensely investigate any property, new and old.

Searching for a house is stressful, she said. But there are steps buyers can consider taking that will help them watch out for pitfalls and smooth the process while they search for a place.

Toronto’s older homes present specific problems. “You don’t know what is going on behind the walls and what problems there are,” Saeed said. It would be terrible if you moved in, start getting comfortable, and disaster strikes. Roofs leak. Basements flood. Furnaces break down. She suggests negotiating with a home inspector who can inspect multiple properties at a discounted rate during your house search.

“I know that time isn’t always on your side,” Saeed said. “But I always say to get a home inspection before you put in the offer. Yes, you run the risk of paying $300 to $400 and not getting the property but at least you have the assurance you did due diligence.”

Beyond the inspection

Even with the home inspection, however, buyers need to sometimes do some close inspecting for themselves.

“Home inspectors only inspect for safety,” said Gancman. “They don’t look for the finishes or substandard hinges.”

It’s just a part of the real estate business that some builders and sellers are simply looking for the cheapest way to get the biggest return on their investment.

In September 2015, actor Karen Hines chronicled her disastrous experience as a first-time Toronto homeowner in her play Crawlspace. The roof fell in after she moved in. And there was an inaccessible crawlspace where a raccoon had crawled in, died, and was decomposing, filling her home with a wretched scent.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail last fall, Hines said she should have taken her father to see the house before buying it. “I was in the sway of my realtor, who obviously didn’t have the same investment that your dad has. My father, being of his generation, knew a thing or two about construction. I mean, he built his own cottage.”

Hines, who has since moved to Calgary, added, “So many of the problems that my house revealed were symptomatic of a greedy flip – something done on the cheap, something done to look good on the surface or to look good for a while.”

Upgrades: do them yourself

When you’re buying a brand-new home or condo it’s exciting to visualize yourself in your dream kitchen but Gancman advises buyers to turn down the builder’s upgrades, such as additional drawers, a pantry, expensive countertops, and appliances. Go for the basic kitchen and have it built after you’ve moved in, even though it seems inconvenient. He says buyers can save up to 70 per cent and still find higher quality materials.

For example, builders will install stainless steel appliances as stipulated in the contract, Gancman said, but they are typically manufactured three years earlier and purchased on clearance.

He has seen his share of water damage from cheap fridges and dishwashers that leak. Cupboards made of particleboard wick the water high into cupboards and drawers and it costs thousands of dollars to repair, he said. That expensive, upgraded countertop is not only prefabricated, it weighs thousands of pounds and has to be removed in order to repair damaged cupboards.

But worst of all is when he’s called to fix custom kitchens within days of buyers moving in.

“The most shocking are brand-new kitchens done terribly. Sloppily. Everything is crooked and not level. The drawers won’t close without rubbing against each other,” Gancman said. “The soft close doesn’t work. The drawers have big gaps at the top and bottom. It requires a level of accuracy that the subcontractor could not quite execute.”

Money upfront

If you want the deal to close quickly be prepared and organized. Sellers want a firm offer without conditions, iPro Realty’s Saeed said.

She recommends buyers get prequalified from a financial institution or mortgage broker and ensure they satisfy the lender’s conditions. Also have your credit reviewed and ensure you have quick access to your down payment. Have a cashier’s cheque ready. It should not be sitting in an RRSP or a bank account where it might take a day or two to days to close the deal, she said.

Closing time

Your budget might start to feel stretched when you near the finish line. You’ve already had the home inspection that cost between $300 and $400. Then there’s the down payment, which is minimum 5 per cent of the value of the property. (If you have bad credit or are self-employed you may have to put down 10 per cent.) On occasion, a lender may want the property appraised, which will cost you another $400, Saeed noted. Legal fees will come to roughly $1,500 or more. And don’t forget land transfer taxes and, as Saeed pointed out, in Toronto, there are both provincial and municipal land transfer taxes (Toronto is the only city in Canada with a municipal land transfer tax). Then there are your moving costs, property tax adjustments, and property insurance. And if you’ve purchased a condo, remember there are monthly maintenance fees.

Saeed is upfront with her clients. “I tell them it will be an emotional roller coaster. They should be prepared to put in an offer and, if it doesn’t work out, move on to the next one. And know they will be putting in multiple offers and, frankly, losing out on multiple properties,” she said. “But I never want them to make a hasty decision that they regret. You have to be as methodical as possible.”