Back in 2004, when I was in my late 20s, my husband and I bought a condo in Toronto for all the reasons young people typically buy condos: we wanted to be right downtown, close to the things we enjoyed, and we couldn’t afford a house in any of our favourite neighbourhoods. Plus, the ease of condo life appealed to us. With no kids and little furniture, we had modest space requirements, and we certainly didn’t want to spend our weekends doing home repairs. Still, it took us a while to find a condo we wanted to live in. Even though many of the buildings we saw were just a few years old, they already looked timeworn, with cracking drywall and battered fixtures. If the finishes were shoddy, I worried there might be structural deficiencies, too. We ended up buying a one-bedroom-plus-den in a 1980s building—ancient by Toronto condo standards. Nothing about the common areas looked cool (in fact, the hallways had dated pink carpets), but the structure was reassuringly solid. In the few happy years we lived there, no infrastructure problems were revealed, the building was well maintained, and the monthly fees never went up.
Since then, hundreds of new condos have risen in the city. The pace of development has been frenetic—and that’s mainly a good thing. For decades, the downtown core was under-built and the city’s skyline remained unchanged. The new skyscrapers are populating formerly empty areas of the city, spawning new restaurants and retail, and creating vibrant new neighbourhoods. Condos can largely be credited with revitalizing Toronto’s core. The vast majority of the 160 or so condos now in development are within a kilometre or two of Union Station, which means we can expect Toronto to get even more dense and interesting in the next few years.
I have no sympathy for house owners who resent condo development. One of the city’s latest condo-related squabbles happened in the Beach, where a developer’s plans to replace the Lick’s on Queen East with a six-storey residential complex met with bitter resistance. In my opinion, the Beach could use a new condo or two. Or maybe 12. But not all condos are created equal, and the health of the city depends on good-quality construction. Developers are not just selling units to individual purchasers; they’re erecting a new city that could last generations. When panes of glass began falling from a series of condo balconies onto the street in 2010, many people wondered: in our haste, have we built a city of vertical time bombs?
Philip Preville goes a long way to answer that question in “Faulty Towers” (page 36), his richly reported cover story. He argues that the city’s current condo boom, with its Wild West feel, has inherent dangers: developers and contractors want to pocket as much profit as they can before the boom ends, so everyone’s working fast (sometimes cutting corners). And, because condos are so good for the city’s economy, nobody wants to slow the boom down to ensure builders meet higher standards. In this environment, some developers will make excellent buildings. Others won’t.
If I were in my 20s again, looking for my first property, I’m not certain how I would ensure that the tiny space in the sky I was about to spend $300,000 on was a safe, solid investment. You can’t get a home inspection of a brochure or website or model suite. We hope our cover story will spell out some of the potential pitfalls—or better yet, lead to a broader discussion about how to protect the consumer, and the city itself.