Low-maintenance living with a view

You might be surprised by how June Watts settled upon her choice of retirement “dream home.” One Saturday, he saw an announcement in the local newspaper for a condominium grand opening.

“Let’s go,” she suggested to her husband, Don, a 71-year-old retired carpenter.

“I don’t want to look at any more condominiums,” he said. A while back they had actually signed for a condominium apartment, and then backed out. “You go,” he said.

When she got there, the place was so crowded it was all she could do to get the attention of a sales woman. “Excuse me,” she said, “can you point out the one with two bedrooms and a den?”

There was only one left. These thoughts went racing through June’s mind: “I know the best ones go first, and I know I have 10 days to change my mind.”

She didn’t hesitate. “I’ll take it,” she said. “Put a red dot on it [to show it’s sold].”

When she got home, she admits Don “was a little upset.”

“You should have called me!” he said.

Finally – a room with a view
“We had half an hour of ups and downs,” says June. But when she explained th the Toronto waterfront building would give them the kind of view over the lake that they’d been hankering for ever since they left their seaside home in Dorset, England, 37 years ago, Don softened up.

And in February, as he and June cleared up yet another 25-centimetre dump of snow outside their split level home in the Etobicoke section of Toronto, he was as excited as her about getting the final floor plans for their unit which wouldn’t actually be ready until April 2002.

Like many couples whose children have grown up and left, the Watts feel their home is too big for them. “We don’t use it — we just have to clean and maintain it,” says June, 67.

“We never go down the basement — only when the family comes at Christmas,” says Don. And with her bad knee, says June, “there are days when I think, ‘These stairs are killing me.’ One day, I won’t be able to manage them, so we thought it was better to make a move while we still had the choice.”

“And there’s the security issue too,” she adds. “You read about these house invasions. You never know who’s there when you answer the door. Plus with a condo, it’s easier when we want to go away.”
They thought about a retirement community but, says June, “most of them are in the country, and what would happen if we couldn’t drive?”

Next page: But what about maintenance fees?

Grenadier Landing, the condo in which the Watts have bought an 11th-floor apartment for $374,000, is not a seniors building, but they have struck it lucky. Out of the blue, they received a letter from the developers announcing that, in view of the number of older purchasers, they had decided to install seniors’ packages free of charge in more than half of the building’s 200 units, including the one purchased by the Watts.

These amenities would include wider doorways for wheelchair access, barrier-free design, bathtub grab bars, lever door handles and roughed-in wiring for electric doors. Public areas will also be barrier-free, with a small consulting room for a doctor to establish a practice, plus office space for a senior care firm.

The extras aren’t so unusual these days, says Pat Baker, whose Toronto real estate firm has specialized in condos for 20 years. Developers are catering to empty-nest purchasers like the Watts.

This marketing trend applies even to subtle design issues. Older purchasers, for instance, want a space big enough for a proper dining area and insist on kitchens with windows.

Many purchasers also want to remain in their old neighborhood (the Watts, for instance, prefer to be close enough to remain with their present doctors) and/or have a downtown location where they can go for a stroll at night, go club-hopping or attend the theatre.

But what about the fees?
Worried about maintenance fees? Baker advises potential condo purchasers to add up all the maintenance costs they now pay on their homes — in that context, condo fees don’t seem out of line.

She also advises purchasers to consider joining the condominium’s board of directors — not only so they can get to know their new neighbours but to control the decision-making process and thus their investment.

The toughest decision for a middle-aged couple thinking about condos is getting rid of “stuff,” says Baker. Given that, buying pre-construction with a future one- or two-year closing gives people time to adjust and dispose of their extra furniture and belongings gradually.

For the Watts, the condo purchase has given them a new impetus. “It means a completely different lifestyle for us,” says June. “We’re getting rid of a lot of stuff and we’ll be shopping around for furniture more suitable for our new home in the sky.”

“We’ll miss the garden but we’ll have two balconies. And there are flower beds out front at the new place that we don’t have to dig.” They won’t miss their backyard pool – Don doesn’t swim and it was rarely used in later years. And they’re just as glad there’s no pool in the building because, they feel, it would just add to maintenance costs. Instead, there’s parkland, “and trails that go for miles,” says June.

She admits selling the house “will be an emotional day.” However, she adds, “Life changes, and you change with it.”