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House Wars: true tales from the Toronto real estate market

The house hunt has become a blood sport involving bully bids, bribery and a willingness to pay $100,000 over asking, without conditions, for the ugliest address on the street

Real Estate Bidding Wars

Carlie Brand and Matthew Slutsky were looking at houses again.

It was a sunny April afternoon, the fifth month of their serious search. Brand, a whippet-thin 26-year-old with a mass of curly hair, works in the human resources department of a downtown hospital. Slutsky is 33 and a co-founder of BuzzBuzzHome, a real estate website that catalogues new cons­truction across Canada. They’d been married for a year, were nearly ready to have kids and wanted to move from their condo at Bay and Dundas into a house. They were willing to pay $1 million for a three-bedroom, three-bath turnkey showpiece. Even with that high ceiling, they quickly found themselves without any decent options in their ideal neighbourhood of Seaton Village, and shifted their focus north to Hillcrest.

TRUE TALE 1
TRUE TALE 2
TRUE TALE 3

The couple had already lost three bidding wars and were feeling burnt out. The first bid had been in January, for a house on Olive Avenue—“That house was the love of my life,” Brand said of the semi-detached three-bedroom with original trim and baseboards, for which they tangled with two other buyers before losing by $7,000. They were one of seven bidders on a sprawling but timeworn house on Ellsworth Avenue, in Hillcrest, which they lost by just $1,000. “We had already bid $30,000 over where we thought it should be,” said Slutsky, explaining why they chose not to bid any higher. Right before I met them in April, a house on Arlington Avenue, also in Hillcrest, had gone for $80,000 more than they were willing to pay after another three-way bidding war.

“I’ve given up on a lot of hopes and dreams,” said Brand, as she walked into the first of three houses the couple would tour that day. It was a detached two-bedroom home on leafy Helena Avenue, a two-minute walk from the arty food hub at Wychwood Barns. It was also a dump. Listed at $539,000, the house had been, according to its MLS agent’s write-up, “lovingly maintained by the same owner for 50 years.”

In reality, it had a tiny, crooked galley kitchen, ancient wall­paper and carpet, miniature closets and a musty floral smell. The original claw-foot tub in the tight washroom seemed not like a cool antique, but the site where dozens of now-dead strangers had washed off their grime.

The couple’s agent, Cary Chapnick, was trying hard to keep his clients’ spirits up, and began musing aloud about the possibility of tearing the house down and building a new one. The location was amazing, he pointed out, and the 20-by-140-foot lot sizable and grassy. “You can build something new for about $250 a square foot,” he said. Sure, Brand and Slutsky countered, but a list price of $539,000 in this neighbourhood likely meant a selling price of at least $700,000. Building a new house on top of that would bring them right up to their limit. If they were going to spend that much, they didn’t want to do any work. “I’m not feeling this house, I have no interest,” Brand declared, and so the trio moved on.

One disgusted buyer lost a bidding war when another person added a pair of Leafs tickets to his offer

Real estate is Slutsky’s livelihood and passion: he has watched the city’s sales figures skyrocket for years. He’s a confident, head-forward bull when it comes to Toronto’s housing market, yet somehow he let his wife talk him into selling their two-bedroom condo before buying a house. Brand had her reasons: she wanted to know just how much money they had to spend, and she didn’t want to get stuck with a condo that wouldn’t sell as a new, bigger mortgage loomed. Slutsky thought this fear was unwarranted, but Brand insisted. They sold last November. When the deal closed 90 days later, they had no choice but to shove most of their possessions into storage lockers and move in with Brand’s parents in Forest Hill. Both say her family is easygoing and generous, but it still wasn’t an ideal situation. “I did not expect to be living with my in-laws,” said Slutsky, with a self-effacing smile. If they didn’t find a place by the end of the summer, the two would re-evaluate their options, perhaps rent for a while.

 

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