December 3, 2012

Island townhome has a ‘New York vibe’

Downsizing to a smaller, yet chic home allows a young family to focus on lifestyle

Victoria Times Colonist

VICTORIA — Moving six times in eight years is not something Brooke and Joshua Johner would necessarily recommend for any other young couple. But the two executives — both in their mid-30s with careers in banking — did extremely well with their strategy, and today they own a classic townhouse near Cook Street Village in Victoria where they plan to stay.

Built by Abstract Developments, their home is part of a six-unit strata complex that includes a basement garage, two middle floors and a spacious loft. “We benefited well from a market rise and made equity gains almost every step of the way,” Brooke said. “We made money on some homes and broke even on others, but that’s the real world.” Their current home in Fairfield — a neighbourhood of Victoria — has a chic, New York vibe with brownstone facade, open-concept main floor, patios and balconies facing both east and west, large skylights and common areas requiring little or no maintenance.

There is no lawn to mow or beds to weed. There is also no yard for their three-year-old Peyton to play in, but this young family has found creative solutions to help her burn off excess energy when not at nearby parks. The open loft has a play area on one side for Peyton, and a three-person lounger and big-screen television on the other for the adults. Peyton has her own small TV for kiddie shows, and two white leather armchairs on her side of the room, so the family can spend harmonious evenings or rainy Saturdays in the same space.

“It’s a bit silly having had six homes already, because you pay realtor fees and transfer tax every time you buy and sell,” Brooke said. “I wouldn’t necessarily advise people to do this, but it worked for us. We were lucky with the timing.” They stepped on the first rung of the property ladder soon after they married in 2004. “We bought a condo and sold it a year later, to the day, so we didn’t have to repay our first-time homeowner grant,” Brooke said.

“We wanted a single-family home, and it was achievable at that point.” They lived in their first house for four years and sold it. On being transferred to Vancouver they took a condo, but after six months had a chance to move back to the island, where they bought a place on Bear Mountain, but soon decided to build their own home in Royal Bay, Victoria. They were able not to lose money on either the condo or mountain home.

“We would use our builder, Bob Harris, again tomorrow … it was a great experience and we learned a lot. Bob was fantastic and his estimates were right on target.” Joshua explained they didn’t make money when they sold the house they built — “We came out neutral because the market had softened by then” — but they had decided to downsize to their current brownstone. Moving to Cook Street Village was driven by their desire to minimize debt and free up lifestyle opportunities. They wanted to enjoy more family time and fewer chores, and to send their daughter to private school.

“Our last house was 2,700 square feet, with four bedrooms and a movie theatre, but our daughter didn’t want to hang out in the dark watching football,” Joshua said. “Our new townhouse is 1,000 square feet smaller and we don’t miss the space at all. Although they didn’t build this townhouse, it is very much to their taste and, coincidentally, even the wall colours are the same as in the home they built.

“It is a smaller home, but we love the high-end details, which give us a little bit of luxury,” Brooke explained. They appreciate the deluxe stainless-steel appliances, built-in wine fridge, quartz countertops, soft-touch drawer closures, roughed-in alarm, zone-controlled stereo and central vacuum. Other features include an ethanol-burning fireplace with quartz and stainless surround, ensuite washer and dryer, and oversized skylights.

“We wanted something we didn’t have to worry about … we have peace of mind here,” she concluded. Joshua explained what attracted them to Fairfield was work-life balance. “Being young professionals, both working full time, with a young daughter, we didn’t want a big yard or a big commute. Yard work at our previous home was taking away from the things we enjoyed doing … and we wanted Peyton spending less time in the back seat of a car.”

He believes there are great opportunities for young people today. “My wife and I have been able to capitalize on that, and found a high-value home at a reasonable price, in one of Victoria’s most desirable neighbourhoods. “Instead of mowing lawns and raking leaves, we walk to our ‘backyard’ in Beacon Hill Park, located along the south shore of Victoria. I think people have to look beyond what they see on CNN or on the front pages of newspapers, and find out what’s happening in their local market.”

He urges young families to build up equity and invest within their means. “Run a budget before purchasing a home. Find out what your mortgage might be … put the extra money into a savings account for a few months, find out if it’s comfortable. “Rates right now are at historic lows but although sales are down, prices are still relatively stable. So align yourself with a good realtor and mortgage expert, sit down and make an educated decision.”

One of the things he likes best about his new home is being able to walk to Starbucks, run along the Dallas Road waterfront every morning, or step out for a quart of milk. “We can lock the door and go on vacation without any worries, and there is little or no maintenance. “We have family passes to the Y and the Royal B.C. Museum — and we spend much more time with our daughter now.”

Mike Miller, of custom home builders Abstract Developments, said the home combines highly efficient living with green elements, quality design and a “fabulous” location. He believes that’s why the brownstones sold out in three months for $599,000 to $639,000. “The property was zoned for apartment building, a high-density zone, but we have found residential single-family-dwelling townhouses are being well received right now. The idea here was to build fairly narrow, tall, linear row houses with a New York look.”

He was also inspired by the “very, very elegant, timeless and simple interiors at the Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel in downtown Vancouver.” Miller noted many people today don’t want cars. They want to walk or bike to work, be close to amenities, and not bother with big gardens. “It’s about affordability and lifestyle.” Casey Edge, executive officer at the Canadian Home Builders’ Association of Victoria, said in these “challenging times there are a lot more custom homes and renovations happening than spec homes.”

“What’s driving housing-start numbers is multi-family units, low interest and labour rates — not consumer demand. “Whatever’s going up now is very focused: It has to be in the right location at the right price point. Baby boomers want smaller units and other people are adapting to the economy, adjusting their living environments to accommodate their lifestyle or financial situation.”

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