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The Philadelphia (real estate) story

Real estate is a local business. And this weekend in Philadelphia really reminded me of that.

Here’s what I mean.

The real estate story in Toronto is condos. We’re buildings lots and lots of condos. When my friend from Chicago recently visited Toronto for the first time, he told me that it feels very similar to Chicago, except that we have modern glass condo towers going up everywhere and they don’t. That’s our story right now.

Low-rise housing in Toronto is becoming increasingly unaffordable (the average price of a detached home is well north of $1M) and so high-rise condos are now what many people can afford. When young people in Toronto talk about buying their first place, that now usually means a condo.

But that’s not the story in Philadelphia.

In Philadelphia, you can buy a 1,600 square foot, 2 storey, 2 bedroom rowhouse in a respectable neighborhood for sub US$400,000. And in speaking with my friends in Philly this weekend, that’s what young people are buying.

This doesn’t mean that Philadelphia isn’t building new high-rise condos and apartments. It is. Obviously nowhere near as many as Toronto. But it is building. Far more than when I lived there before the Great Recession.

However, the condo market is typically more upmarket. The target market isn’t so much first time buyers and the mass market; it’s more people who want full floor apartments in Rittenhouse Square. (I’m exaggerating only slightly.)

Philadelphia is also building more rental towers than condo towers. (Rental has only recently become fashionable again in Toronto.)

I’m guessing that a lot of this has to do with the fact that Philadelphia draws in a lot of transient students and academics each year. In fact, the most noticeably changed area from when I lived in Philly was University City. That’s the area that houses the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University.

So there seems to be strong demand for new rental housing in the city. I’m told vacancies are very low. But when it comes time to buy, young people don’t look to condos like they do in Toronto. They are looking mostly to rowhouses.

This is interesting to me because it’s the exact opposite of Toronto. In Toronto, low-rise is expensive and so lots more people are buying high-rise. In Philadelphia, high-rise is expensive and so people are buying low-rise.

I guess that’s why they say real estate is a local business. What works in one city may not work in another.

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