Shrinking Expectations

February 23, 2008

Ottawa Citizen

While house prices have been rising, the expectations of some first-time and retirement buyers have been shrinking.

"We could maybe have bought something a bit bigger, but we didn't want to get in over our heads," first-time home buyer Cam McCulloch says of his new 1,441-square-foot, two-bedroom townhouse. When McCulloch, 27 and his wife, Christina, 25, were looking for their home, they decided they needed something bigger than a condo. "We don't want to have to move when we decide to have a child or two," says Christina, an administrator.

Their two-level townhouse has an open-plan living and dining room, kitchen and powder room on the main floor and the two bedrooms, den, bathroom and laundry facilities upstairs. While they agree they would have bought a single-family house if possible, a smaller home with no yard upkeep appealed to them. "We have no time to look after a big yard anyway."

Smaller homes are an important component of the market for first-time buyers, says Dave Slang, co-owner of Cadillac Homes. "Although everybody initially wants a bigger house, they soon change their mind when they take out their chequebooks," Slang says. "The difference is (between) what people want and what they need."

Slang says building smaller homes -- usually on 3,300-square-foot lots, compared with a typical 7,200 square feet -- helps keep prices more affordable for first-time buyers. Another option is the townhouse, which is in the lower end of the price range because it's one of many units built on a piece of land.

For example, in Cadillac's DeVille project in Langford, where the McCullochs bought, a one-bedroom, 700- square-foot unit can sell for about $189,900.

After raising six children in a five-bedroom, 2,000-square-foot house in Winnipeg, Donna and Dave Knee, a couple in their 50s, were ready to begin a new chapter in their lives. Their new home is an 836-square-foot, one-bedroom-and-den condo in Victoria West. At first, they were looking for a two-bedroom, but high house prices meant an adjustment to their expectations.

"This was as big as we could get at the price range and area," says Donna, who works in the human resources field. "While it is much smaller than our former house, it feels larger than the 500-square-foot apartment we were renting." The smallest room in their condo is a five-foot by six-foot space advertised as a den. When Donna, at five-foot-four, stretches out her arms she can almost touch the walls. "It's small, but it suits our needs," she says.

Living small doesn't mean you have to give up on style, says Charlotte Geddes, owner of Thrive Interior Design, who helped the Knees with their interior."No one wants to feel boxed in," Geddes says. "The secret is to make sure the eye travels comfortably about a small space."

Built-in cabinets, floating shelves and wall-mounted televisions are all strategies to keep the eye in motion. While slightly smaller, apartment-sized furniture is recommended, Geddes says overuse of small-scale pieces will make a home feel like a doll house. She encourages clients to vary the size of furniture and use heirlooms to give a room relevance.

"You need to work with items that are dear to you or you will end up feeling like a stranger in your own home," Geddes says. "Character pieces give your home a meaningful, timeless look -- and not look like a swish hotel. "She encourages clients to have large art pieces and lots of light to accent them. "Lighting blows open a small space," Geddes says

People sometimes equate small spaces with high-density housing. "Density does not mean tiny units in an apartment building," says Cheeying Ho, executive director of Growth Smart B.C. "It is about the use of land creatively and more effectively." Smaller, more affordable housing units in new developments are part of what the non-profit organization encourages.

Building very small spaces isn't a new concept. In 1993, Concert Properties built downtown Vancouver's 600 Drake, a 12-storey, 192-unit apartment building with suites from 265 and to 285 square feet in size. "At the time, everybody said it was unacceptable," says David Podmore, president and CEO of Concert Properties. "But I was just responding to the market."

"For consumers with limited means, size is one way of reducing cost in housing," Podmore says. "Withescalating land values and the cost of labour and materials, one would be hard-pressed to construct a (steel and concrete) condo for less than $500 per square foot in Vancouver today."

Podmore says he found consumers willing to accept a small suite as long as it doesn't feel small. He says before he started construction, he showed mock-ups of the suites to focus groups and incorporated their input. In response to the suggestions, the apartments all include a full-size bathtub and a 24-inch fridge and stove.

"We designed it so that people could cook a dinner for four comfortably." People can adapt to living in extremely small places, says Robert Gifford, a psychology professor at the University of Victoria, who once wrote a report for the Canadian Space Agency about the perception of personal space on the International Space Station.

"We found that a person's ability to control the different aspects of the space, such as the ability to control heat, light and sound, was more important than the size of the space," Gifford says. In the space station, that sometimes meant closet-sized accommodation.

"Where one spent time in their childhood affects their perception of space as well," he says.In countries such as Japan, many generations have grown up in homes seen as small to North American eyes. But people there see it as the social norm."

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