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Pre-sales, shear walls, and condos, oh my

Work In Progress 2 by bryan simpson on

Pre-sales are a big part of many condominium markets. The way it typically works is that developers sell suites in their building before construction has even started and then uses those purchaser deposits (which are held in trust) to obtain a construction loan to actually build the building. Part of the reason this is done is that it, in theory, reduces speculative overbuilding.

Nobody really knows the exact number, but here in Toronto many suites within a new building often end up getting sold to investors. And in some locations and some buildings, it could be most suites.

On the one hand this is a good thing. Because in a way they provide the short-term money that gets new projects off the ground. And if they end up holding onto their suites, they also become landlords for new rental housing. Here in Toronto condos have been almost the only new rental stock built in this city for decades. (Purpose-built rental is now starting to come back though.)

But one of the potential negatives is that buildings could be getting designed more around investor needs as opposed to end user needs. And that is happening because many end users – particularly when it comes to larger suites – find it difficult to make such a big life decision 3-5 years out. Doing that means saying to yourself: Okay, I’m going to buy this 3 bedroom condo today because 4.5 years from now when it’s complete I expect to be married and have 1.5 kids. Life doesn’t always work that way.

We also have antiquated tax policies in Ontario that encourage the building of smaller suites. And I believe they should be modernized. (This topic deserves a dedicated post.)

So if we are to think of these condo suites as products, then you could say that there are two broad customer segments: the investor and the end user. There are obviously sub-segments within each, but let’s assume that those are the top of the funnel.

The challenge now facing developers creating new product is that the system we have put in place arguably privileges one customer segment over the other. And it’s a problem that is somewhat unique to the real estate industry because it takes so damn long to bring new supply to the market. (If you sell jets or yachts, maybe you have a similar problem.)

Now one way to solve this might be to create lots of flexibility in the product. That is, you could allow people to adjust and combine suites to fit their current needs. And that’s what great products do: they meet specific needs and solve problems. In this scenario, perhaps the single person could “add-on” to their suite as they enter a new life phase. And indeed, this is something people are experimenting with by way of things like “knockout panels.”

But the problems with this are twofold. 

Firstly, this requires an adjacent and suitable suite to come on the market so that you can buy it. And that may not happen 6 months before the baby comes. 

Secondly, most Toronto condominiums are built using something called shear walls. These are structural reinforced concrete walls that cannot be removed without compromising the integrity of the entire building. And most purchasers like these walls between them and their neighbors because they’re worried about noise. So combing suites isn’t always as straightforward as we might think. There are many constraints.

One way to mitigate these problems is through smaller projects. That reduces the lead time between purchase and occupancy. But I am sure there are probably other creative solutions that we could come up with to better align product and customer needs.

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