Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Will Recession Create a Back-to-Basics Movement in Architecture?

Witold Rybczynski suggests it might. The renowned Montreal-born architect and thinker asserts that one casualty of the worldwide economic downturn might be what he terms architectural "instant icons".
He was the keynote speaker at the American Planning Association.
Once upon a not-so-long-ago, buildings were designed and built for the long haul. Think the Empire State Building, which at the time of construction was not considered a standout of skyscraper construction, according to Rybcynski. It gained that status over the decades, thanks to the people of New York.

"What makes icons isn't architects. It's really the public," Rybczynski said. "It's really the public deciding on its own, sometimes quickly and sometimes over a long period of time. ... It somehow captures the public's imagination."

That has shifted in recent decades as architects and their clients strove to create instant landmarks. Syndey's Opera House is an example of a signature building that instantly transformed the skyline. Frank Gehry's undulating Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain is another.
But for every success, there are a equal or greater number of failures. He pointed to his hometown's extravagantly unsuccessful Olympic Stadium, The Big Owe, as one example of a "instant icon" that failed and failed big time.
In this report from his speech, Rybczynski seems to fault the Big Owe on practical grounds - uh, the friggin' retractable roof has never once worked - rather than aesthetic - it's fugly - grounds.
Rybczynski says that with money scarce, the pendulum may be swinging back. People will worry more about how a building works and less on how it looks. If that happens, it will be up to the public to decide which buildings are icons.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

More on my Verdun Fixer Upper

Here are some more photos from the Verdun fixer upper Amy Barratt and I have spent the last two months getting ready for market.
It's been a journey. The house has had one owner since it was built in 1946. There are a lot of memories - and more than a little memorabilia - inside those four walls.
The owner is nearly 94. He was in no condition to make it ready for sale, so we rolled up our sleeves and got down to it. There were many trips to the Friperie Renaissance with mattresses, small furniture, clothes, books and household items. We went through many bottles of cleaning fluids and scrubbed many walls and floors. I personally raked the front lawn and cut back the overgrown plantings, bagged and baled the leaves and branches. We staged the house with what furniture is left. Finally, I painted the front door a cheery shade of almond white last Saturday.
I hope the pictures give you an idea of how cosy and sweet this house is. I'm hoping it will find a buyer who wants to make it into a happy family home once more. Know anybody? Have them give me a call!
Have an aging family member who is considering downsizing from a house to an apartment, condo or supervised living facility? We would be glad to work with them.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

What Were They Thinking, #1 in a series

This photo was part of a set of eight pictures accompanying an otherwise very ordinary MLS listing for a duplex in southwest Montreal. What on earth made the agent A) take this photo B)decide to use this photo to market the property? Kitchen, check, living room, check, bedroom, check. Ah yes, depiction of man on teddy action, check.
Straight up folks, naked people art does not help sell properties. Not even when there are teddy bears involved. In fact, especially not when teddy bears are involved.

Contrary Beauty or The Ghosts of Cities Past

Saw a fantastic show by photographer Martin Berubé and painter Renée Mollitt at the Galerie West in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue on Friday night.
Berubé takes evocative photos of the decayed and forgotten corners of the urban landscape in stark black and white. The photo on this post, copped shamelessly from the Spacing Montreal web site, is a window detail from the old Bank of Montreal building on Wellington St. in the Point.
The photos, often of faded signs, empty windows and blank walls are haunted and haunting. I'm always amazed when an artist can find beauty in the kinds of day to day scenes that many of us pass without a second thought.
The show is called Bellezza Contrari, contrary beauty. Sharing the wall space with Berubé is mixed media artist Mollitt, whose landscapes and oversized flowers are rendered in bold colours and given texture by the use of dryer lint, waxed paper, dryer sheets and other recycled materials. They were gorgeous.
The show closes on Tuesday.
By the way, the Wellington St. bank building, owned by McGill architecture prof Pieter Sijpkes looks substantially different today. The good professor lovingly removed the peeling paint by hand to reveal the glowing orange-red brick beneath. I was there last night for a play put on by the Point St. Charles Community Theatre. The non-profit group has a ton of fun and raises money for a youth drama program in the Point. Agatha Christie followed by egg salad sandwiches and home baking. My kind of night on the town!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

You'll Never Know If You Never Ask

Canadians are getting to be quite good a negotiating lower mortgage rates, according to a new report from an industry trade group.
For example, in the last year, the typical mortgage-seeking consumer was able to knock 1.68 per cent off the rate posted by their lender,.
That news flash comes to us from CAAMP, the Canadian Association of Accredited Mortgage Professionals. Other highlights:
Three quarters of Canadians who renewed this year saw their interest rate reduced.
The big lesson here? Always ask for a rate reduction. If you aren't confident that you can negotiate with your lender, use a mortgage broker. You don't have to pay for their services. What you might not know is that when you shop for mortgage credit it can actually have a negative effect on your credit rating. Better to let a broker make the call for you.
Other CAAMP tidbits:
There are 9.1 million homes owned in Canada. with a combined estimated value of $2.67 trillion. The outstanding mortgage balance, or money owing, on these homes equals $739 billion.
As a country, we have a 72.3 per cent ownership stake in our homes, compared to the U.S. average of 43 per cent.
But wait, you say. We don't own our houses collectively. Right!
According to CAAMP, 40 per cent of Canadian homeowners have at least a 50 per cent equity stake in their homes.
Two per cent of homeowners owe more on their mortgages than the properties are currently worth. How can that be? Just remortgage your house and then watch a market - Calgary? Vancouver? take a downward turn.
15 per cent of Canadian mortgage holders took money out of their houses this year, often to pay down other debt or consolidate debt. In all Canadians applied $34 billion of their built-up home home equity to other debt or projects or this year.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

It's Always Spring At This House

Snapped a picture of this cheerful house just outside the entrance to Parc René Lévesque in Lachine. In case you've never been, the park is a sculpture garden on a spit of land that juts out into Lac St-Louis. A great place for a Sunday walk, bike ride or in-line skate.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

New Verdun Listing!

I am preparing this fixer-upper for listing on the MLS system. It is a two-bedroom cottage built in 1946 for the current owner. The house has separate living and dining rooms, a small kitchen and an addition containing a sunroom. The bathroom is on the main floor. Asking price is $255,000.
Upstairs there are two bedrooms, although the space could easily be converted into one large bedroom. The basement is finished, with a laundry room and second bathroom. There is a separate brick garage, with automatic door. The large lot features mature trees, shrubbery and flowers. The natural gas heating system is recent and the windows are new.
The location, 2nd Ave. near Champlain, offers fantastic access to two metro stations (Jolicoeur and Verdun), the downtown bike path, de la Verendrye Blvd., Highway 15 and the Champlain Bridge. Because the elderly owner has been hospitalized for several years, the house is being sold without legal warranty as to quality.
You are welcome to call me for a visit. Please bring offers. The vendor is quite motivated.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Jane's Walk Comes To Montreal

The Urban Ecology Centre is organizing a number of Montreal neighborhood walks on May 2 and 3 as part of the grassroots Jane's Walk initiative, named in honor of urbanist and activist Jane Jacobs.
Jacobs, the author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was a passionate advocate for human scale in urban planning. She believed that the bustle of urban life was best observed at sidewalk level and preached that the only way to understand a city was by walking it. She also believed that cities were for people, not cars. That made her something of a crazy prophet when she landed in Toronto from New York in 1968.
Jane's Walk originated in Toronto in 2007, a year after Jacobs died at age 89. The walks have spread to 40 cities and counting. This is the first year Montreal is participating. So far, rambles through Outremont, Villeray, Shaughnessy Village and the Plateau are scheduled. Keep an eye on the web site, other walks might be added. Of course, if you'd like to organize and lead a walk yourself, the Urban Ecology Centre would be glad to hear from you.

UPDATE - They've added a whole bunch more walks since yesterday. Keep checking in!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Moving to the Rhythm of Montreal

Here's a fantastic NFB short by Sylvie Trouvé that captures the pulse of Montreal. See how many familiar landmarks you can spot. Mmmm! Orange Julep, I hear you calling my name.

New Hampstead Listing!

Just listed, a lovely 3+2 bedroom semi-detached brick cottage in Hampstead. For those who don't speak fluent real-estatese, that means three bedrooms upstairs and two more in the finished basement. There's a main floor family room with its own entrance - ideal for a home-based business. There are oversized patio doors in the dining room, leading to an enormous walk-out terrace in contoured concrete. The back yard is huuuge with an apple tree and the biggest pear tree I've ever seen in captivity. The vendor tells me that come August, he gives pears to all the households on the street. Clearly this is a house with a soul and very easy on the eyes. Asking prices is $457,000. You can call me for more information, or view the complete listing here.

Accès Condos and the Lure of Free Money

The fire that gutted 96 units under construction in the Faubourg Contrecoeur condominium development has focused attention - though not the best kind - on the city's Accès Condos program.
As many as 40 buyers were hoping to move into their affordably priced condos between now and July 1 on the site of the old Lafarge quarry in Mercier. Those plans are now on hold until at least October, following a suspicious fire that razed the project to its foundation. The arson squad is investigating.
It is a stroke of pure misfortune for buyers using the Accès-Condos program to become homeowners.
Accès-Condo works in two ways. First, the municipal housing agency, the SHDM, sells land to builders at an advantageous price if they promise to build affordable housing.
Next, the SHDM advances buyers 10 per cent of the purchase price as a down payment. Buyers are only obliged to put down $1,000 of their own money.
The cash advance is repaid only when the owner-occupant decides to sell, whether in a year, two years or 25 years. At the time of the sale, the vendor also has to pay the SHDM 10 per cent of the profit.
I love the concept of Accès Condos, but there are a few things I would advise any buyer before plunging in. This advise is based on my own experience as an agent, working both with buyers and sellers.
Don't buy into the project as a short-term thing. If you buy today and sell next year - your home will not have risen in value sufficiently to pay off the SHDM "loan" and part of the profit. You also run the risk of competing with other unfinished and unsold units still available in your building. This investment will gain in value the longer you hold onto it.
Beware of shoddy workmanship. These condos tend to be quickly built, using cheaper finishes and less than careful workmanship. In one Acceès Condos building where I had a unit for sale, gaps appeared in the hardwood floors every winter when the heating came on, the air dried out and the wood shrank. The gaps closed in the spring and summer, but they looked like hell for five months of the year. Buyers were not impressed.
My advise? Accès Condos is fantastic for buyers who are unable to scrape together a down payment on their own. It has helped working families in places like St. Laurent, Cartierville and Côte des Neiges buy three-bedroom condos at reasonable prices, allowing them to stay in these neighborhoods.
There's no such thing as free money, however. My advice to a first-time buyer would be to scrape up the money for a down payment on your own and buy a place that you really love in a neighborhood that you really like. Buy to stay, not because you're getting a deal.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Residential Construction Declined in March

Foundations were poured for 1,805 residential units in metropolitan Montreal in March, a 12-per-cent decline compared to the same month a year ago, according to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.
That was improvement over February, when the number of starts dropped by 63 per cent.
CMHC attributed the decline to two factors, the tighter economic picture and a growing inventory of resales houses on the market. New home construction typically picks up when the resale market tightens.
The drop in construction was felt pretty much across the board, with freehold home starts down by 35 per cent, condo starts down 30 per cent and rental starts down 26 per cent.
The one category that bucked the trend was semi-detached and row housing, which rose by 40 per cent in March,, a modest gain of 76 new units.
The decline in new construction is good news for both vendors and agents. Less new inventory helps focus buyers' attention on the existing home market, where there are still plenty of good deals to be had, anyway.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Montreal from the Sky circa 1930

Andy Riga has posted a cool site featuring archival photos of Montreal on his Metropolitan News blog. Lots of interesting images there. This scrollable map caught my eye. Too bad you can only scroll from left to right and not top to bottom.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Out and About

I spotted these dogs and their walkers as I was hunting for parking in Old Montreal today. I only had a chance to snap one frame. Even in good overcast light, the flash went off and caught their eyes. I must have been 40 feet away. Still, a fun picture.

Guerrilla Gardening

I know, I know! This is supposed to be a blog about real estate. Truth be told, I'm fascinated by where we live and how we live, regardless of whether we own it or not.
That's why the concept of guerrilla gardening appeals to me. I like the idea of people sowing seeds and planting seedlings in public spaces for no other reason than the joy of watching something grow amid the squalor and neglect of some god-forsaken traffic island, back alley or hyrdo pylon.
This site offers, pix, videos and tips on beautifying the urban landscape. There's even a Montreal chapter. In honor of International Sunflower Guerrilla Gardening Day on May 1, I'm going to plant sunflower seeds around the base of a Hydro-Québec transmission tower near my house. You could do the same. Think of it as an act of rebellion and hope.

Variable vs Fixed Not the Only Mortgage Question

Several of Canada's big banks cut their mortgage lending rates by between .10 per cent and .20 per cent over the weekend. The trimming will certainly have some borrowers wondering if they should lock in, or renegotiate.
Mortgage guru Moshe Milevsky of York University has a bit of advice - don't be so obsessed with fractions of percentage points.
That's a new tune from Milevsky. The professor earned a lot of ink a few years back with a study that showed that between 1950 and 1999 buyers who opted for a variable-rate or short-term mortgage over a five-year, fixed-rate mortgage saved substantially 88 per cent of the time. How substantial? According to Milevsky, as much as $22,000 on a $100,000 mortgage over 15 years.
In a recent interview with Canwest, Milevsky said the strategy was still sound last time he checked, with 85 per cent of those going short saving money.
But now Milevsky says that people are too focused on the dollars and are focusing too little on the sense, pun intended. In today's market, there are "three or four things" more important than the spread in mortgage rates. There were real savings to be had when the fixed rate was nine per cent and the floating rate was five per cent.
Today, the difference can be as little as one percentage point. The mortgage guru now counsels buyers to focus more on how much they can spend, how solid their credit rating is and what their employment status likely will be in five years' time. Once those are clear, then the question of long or short might become more obvious.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Fewer Sales But Higher Prices

The Greater Montreal Real Estate Board has just released its March sales numbers. It's a mixed bag, but we'll take it!
MLS sales for the month were down 12 per cent compared to March, 2008. Still, that's an improvement over February, when sales declined 30 per cent, or January, when sales were off by 37 per cent.
Despite the decline in transacations and a growing inventory of properties, prices are holding steady. The average single-home price rose by 1 per cent, while the average price of a condo rose by 2 per cent and the average plex (2- to 5 units) rose by 3 per cent last month.
Not all parts of greater Montreal fared the same during March. Sales were down by 4 per cent in Laval, 11 per cent on Montreal island, 14 per cent on the South Shore and a whopping 27 per cent in Vaudreuil-Soulanges, off the western tip of the island.
I'm curious about the large dip in Vaudreuil Soulanges. The area has seen a tremendous build up in recent years, perhaps there's surplus inventory of new construction putting pressure on the resale side. Maybe fear about the return of $1.50 a litre gasoline has people rethinking life in the far distant 450. Maybe it's a one-month anomoly thay will right itself next month.